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Sharpen Your Pencils for Education Innovation

Pop quiz: You read a draft notice for a federal grant program containing the terms, “internal validity,” “quasi-experimental,” “regression discontinuity,” and “interrupted time series.” The program in question is:

a)      A CDC program to fund pre-development of the porcupine flu vaccine

b)      An FDA program to spur commercialization of an at-home test for polonium in your food

c)      A NASA program to support design of a low-cost module that will allow humans to populate Venus

d)      A Department of Education program designed to support and scale innovation in K-12 education

Answer: d). These and other Econometrics 101 terms can be found in the just-released prepublication notice for the new Investing in Innovation (I3) Fund at the Department of Education. What’s going on here? Are Secretary Arne Duncan and his deputies just showing off?

Actually, the structure they are proposing for this new $650 million fund deserves a close look. Last year, Sara Mead and Andy Rotherham called on the department to help bring successful educational entrepreneurs to scale, and to purposefully foster transformative educational innovations. It envisioned achieving these aims through two separate funds that the department would operate, but I3’s design could permit Duncan (and in particular, Assistant Deputy Secretary for Innovation and Improvement Jim Shelton) to pursue both goals.

Using the wide latitude permitted in the program’s Recovery Act authorization, the department is proposing that I3 award three types of grants, ranging from large awards (up to $50 million) for “scale-up” of highly successful models, to small awards (up to $5 million) for “development” of promising but still unproven practices, with “validation” awards (up to $30 million) for strategies somewhere in between. The grants would go to local school districts, often in partnership with non-profit organizations and other districts (promoting metropolitan collaboration, we hope).

Happily (coincidentally?), the types of entrepreneurial strategies and innovative practices highlighted in the draft notice track many of the areas in which Sara’s and Andy’s paper call for investment, including those that: increase the number of highly effective teachers and school leaders; increase the development and use of interim assessments that improve classroom practices; promote college access and success for high school students; implement whole-school reforms in low-performing schools; and improve early learning outcomes.

So where do the $5 statistical terms come in? One key characteristic that would distinguish the different levels of grant recipients from one another is the quality, consistency, and magnitude of the research findings on the effectiveness of their practices. “Scale-up” solutions would have to meet much more stringent guidelines on research findings than “development” proposals. This approach would invest in evidence-based ideas, while building additional evidence outside the research environment to inform future policymaking--an approach that OMB Director Peter Orszag can definitely get behind. One question is whether the focus on research quantity and quality will provide a sufficient firewall for some of the challenges posed by personal and political influences, which Sara and Andy acknowledged, and which the Fordham Institute’s Mike Petrilli sounded warning signals about when the report was released. (Brookings’ Russ Whitehurst expressed some concern along these lines, too.)

But there’s a lot for wonks to love here. Maybe these Department of Ed folks should run that program to move us all to Venus when the porcupine flu and polonium poisoning really kick in.