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Despite an effort by the U.S. Department of Education to encourage applicants for its Investing in Innovation grants to focus on rural communities, only three winning proposals in the $650 million 13 competition are “authentically rural,” according to a report released last week by the Rural School and Community Trust.
What’s more, most of the 19 winners who claimed their innovations would reach into rural America designed projects that were urbancentric, the report said, with “little more than enough rural participation to justify making the claim.”
“What we found is, if you want to use competition to spur innovation, it isn’t going to reach rural areas,” said Marty Strange, the policy director for the Arlington, Va.-based rural advocacy organization.”
Last summer, 49 school districts and nonprofits won grants in the i3 competition, funded by the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and designed to scale-up promising, innovative practices in school districts.
The victors with a clear rural focus included the Tennessee-based Niswonger Foundation, which plans to work with 15 local school districts in Appalachia to improve college- and career-readiness, and the Missouri-based Parents as Teachers National Center, which will work to improve access to social services for 24 Bureau of Indian Education schools. The other rural-focused winner was the University of Missouri, which plans to examine the effect of a professional development program on high-need rural Missouri middle school students.
Applicants could garner up to two additional points on a 100-point grading scale for focusing on the “unique challenges of high-need students in [rural schools].” Judges awarded zero, one, or two points based on the strength of an applicant’s rural claim, and the judges’ scores were averaged.
Of the 49 winners, 19 went after those two bonus points, but about half of the proposals did not address either the adaptability or the sustainability of the innovation to rural schools, the report says. And only nine winners listed one or more rural school districts as official partners in the project. Yet all but one of the 19 received at least some points by making a rural claim.
“For many of the projects making the rural claim, the rural participation is marginal or unclear at best,” the report says. “For some, the rural effort was probably an afterthought designed to collect some scoring points ...”
In essence, Mr. Strange said, many applicants pitched innovations focused on urban school districts, then sought a rural school district—sometimes not even in the same state—as a partner in an effort to qualify for the two bonus points. “It was pathetic,” he said.
James H. Shelton, the U.S. Department of Education’s assistant deputy secretary for innovation and improvement, said he was pleased that the competition and the rural emphasis sparked so much interest among grant applicants. But he also acknowledged the shortcomings and added that making the rural preference more clear and improving training of the competition’s judges would improve the contest.
Although the future of the i3 contest is unclear because the funding has run out, Mr. Shelton said that any future competitions would allow the department to better focus on areas of public education that need more attention, such as rural education.
“We will look at how we balance the portfolio, and expecting us in any given year, especially the first year, to perfectly get that balance right ... we didn’t fully expect that,” he said.
Weighing Rural Benefits
The report does not take issue with the merits of the proposals; it seeks to evaluate whether the proposals will actually benefit rural schools, and whether the contest’s judges did a good job sorting out those claims.
The report also points out the extreme variation in how judges justified the rural component in the scores they gave applicants, and how much due diligence the judges gave in reviewing applicants’ claims.
As an example of the big differences among reviewers, consider George Mason University’s winning project, called “Virginia Initiative for Science Teaching and Achievement,” designed to provide intensive science teacher professional development.
One reviewer, in judging the rural claim, awarded the full two points and said, “All parts of the proposal substantively address this competitive preference.”
Another reviewer, in awarding zero points, said: “The applicant did not address this competitive priority.”
Donna Sterling, a professor of science education at George Mason and the leader of the Virginia Initiative for Science Teaching and Achievement, said rural education is woven throughout the project. In fact, a quarter of the teachers who will benefit are in rural Virginia, she said. From the distance learning components to the teaching coaches who will visit rural schools, “our program is definitely set up for rural Virginia,” she said.
Another example is the School of One, in New York City’s school district, a program that uses technology and real-time student achievement data to provide personalized classroom instruction to students. The program successfully pitched a proposal to support instruction in middle school math in four new schools beginning in 2011.
“Our view is that, while School of One would not be implemented in a rural school during the term of the grant, the model would have great applicability to rural schools,” said Joel Rose, the chief executive officer of School of One. He added that school leaders are exploring opening up a School of One summer program in a rural location this year.
One judge awarded zero points for the rural component and said, “The project does not serve rural schools. That fact that it could in the future do so is not a factor in this proposal.”
But another judge awarded two points and simply said, “Criteria met.”
The report suggests several changes, should there be a second round of i3 grants, which the Obama administration is seeking through the federal budget process. Among them: a higher threshold for bonus points to be awarded, better training for the judges to weed through claims, and even a separate pot of money dedicated to rural-school innovations.
“The rural competitive preference ... was ambitiously stated but poorly defined and implemented,” the report said. “The vagueness of the criteria and the extra value assigned ... encouraged many applicants with limited rural education experience to attach a small rural effort onto an otherwise urban program.”
Coverage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is supported in part by grants from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, at www.hewlett.org, and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, at www.mott.org.
A version of this article appeared in the February 02, 2011 edition of Education Week as Few ‘i3' Winners Truly Rural, Report Asserts