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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Federal Opinion

i3 Winners: Long on Talent, Execution, & “Best Practices"--Not Transformation

By Rick Hess — August 06, 2010 2 min read
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I see I wasn’t the only observer disappointed by how the administration’s overhyped i3 program played out. When winners were leaked Wednesday, savvy analysts including Alexander Russo and Mike Petrilli remarked upon what they saw as the disappointing and “been there, done that” nature of so many “innovative” winners.

While I have enormous regard for a number of the winners, the reality is that most (with a few exceptions, such as NYC’s “School of One”) are built more on elbow grease and aggressive recruiting of talent than on new technologies or obviously scalable innovations. That’s fantastic when it comes to execution and delivery, but I’m not sure it’s a good investment if you’re looking for the kind of “moonshot” transformation that I thought i3 was intended to promote. After all, as much as I love TFA and KIPP, their models have an enormous appetite for hard-working, talented, passionate youth--the problem is, there’s only so much of that to go around. This tends to create natural limits to their rates of growth. (I talk about these issues much more extensively in the final chapter of Education Unbound).

Unfortunately, by penning the i3 competition rules the way they did, ED pretty much ensured that tough-to-grow-fast outfits--along with banal “best practice” district collaborations that seem just as unlikely to travel well as earlier generations of such efforts--would make up the bulk of the winners. Part of that, of course, is the Duncan team’s surprising but seemingly deep-rooted hostility to for-profits. That bias pretty much dealt all of the outfits working on scalable technologies and tools right out of the game.

By defining for-profits as ineligible for i3, ED also managed the neat trick of making it appear that none of the nation’s 49 leading educational innovators are for-profit operations. As beat reporters and feature writers use the i3 awardees list as a shortcut when seeking to write “innovation” stories, we can rest safe knowing that the administration has done what it can to minimize the chance that Tutor.com, Wireless Generation, National Heritage Academies, Schoolnet, Rosetta Stone, Edison Learning, Mosaica, or other dynamic ventures will be mistakenly regarded as innovative.

Final thought on this. I happened to spend yesterday up in Boston for a three-day symposium on “Personalized Learning” that the Software & Information Industry Association hosted in conjunction with ASCD and the Council of Chief State School Officers. In terms of i3, what surprised me was how little attention it received during panels and in the hallways--at an assembly of policymakers, practitioners, and toolmakers focused on personalization and technology. That can be interpreted in various ways, but it certainly suggests to me that ED missed a huge opportunity to engage or encourage the people in the midst of the most promising “innovative” efforts.

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