Opinion
Education Opinion

Everybody’s Talking About Innovation

By Sara Mead — August 13, 2010 2 min read

I predicted recently that the love for i3 was unlikely to hold up once the winners actually were announced. And, indeed, it looks like there are plenty of complaints out there.

A number of folks--including Rick Hess, Alexander Russo, and Mike Petrilli--have already complained that i3 isn’t really all that innovative. i3 is also the topic at National Journal’s Education Expert blog this week--where the response has been largely critical, with only AFT President Randi Weingarten (whose organization’s affiliated foundation won an i3 grant for teacher evaluation work) and NSVF’s Ted Mitchell (whose organization did not win an i3 grant*, but funds a number of organizations that did) sticking up for the program.

While most of the critics echo the “i3’s not really that innovative” criticism, give Diane Ravitch credit for taking a different line, arguing that “It is not innovation that we need, but an effective educational system, where teacher recruitment and preparation are highly valued, where the teaching profession is respected, where principals are known as master teachers, where the curriculum is rich and broad, where assessment eschews bubble-guessing, and where attention is paid to the quality of children’s lives.” Mass Insight’s Justin Cohen does a nice job explaining why this is a strawman argument.

And we haven’t even really gotten into a conversation about scoring yet: Ed Week’s Michele McNeil notes that it’s pretty darn near inscrutable (how did St. Vrain School District score over 116 points on a 105 point scale, again?). And NAF’s Laura Bornfreund raises some sharp points about inconsistencies in how reviewers scored the early childhood competitive priority points. Expect more attention to scoring issues in the future, once the Department releases the full applications of the validation and development winners, as well as scores of the non-winning applicants.

The whole “not innovative enough” conversation seems awfully stale to me: People who were paying attention when the regs came out this winter could have predicted how this could play out. In i3 the Department of Education faced a tough trade-off between funding “innovation” and funding projects with evidence of effectiveness. They chose to fall more on the side of evidence of effectiveness--a sound and defensible decision, given that we’re talking about significant amounts of taxpayer dollars here, but one that tips the balance away from the most groundbreaking ideas. I think that’s ok: For the foreseeable future, the lead role in seeding innovative ideas in education probably needs to come from philanthropy and the private sector, with the federal government playing a more aggressive role in identifying and helping to bridge the most effective innovations to broader adoption. Philanthropic funders have been playing a significant role in scaling the work of charter networks and TFA, but are reaching the limits of their capacity there. As the federal government moves into more of a scaling what works role, that could free up philanthropic funds to play a greater role in seeing innovation--provided some philanthropic groups are willing to buck their naturally risk averse tendencies here. At the same time, i3 illustrates why both social entrepreneurs and philanthropists in the education space are going to need to get much more serious about solid evaluation of the work they undertake or fund.

*disc: I consulted on NSVF’s i3 grant applications.

The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.