Investing in Innovation grants spark classroom reforms

$650 million program is designed to preserve education jobs

February 17, 2011|By Andrew Brownstein, Hechinger/EWA

For the long-troubled public school system of New Orleans, the 2005 hurricane that broke the levees and displaced thousands of students also cleared the way for a nonprofit with the self-explanatory name New Schools for New Orleans. Now, that start-up organization has become both a symbol of an educational renaissance in post-Katrina New Orleans and an example of the groundbreaking change being encouraged by the federal government.

The $650 million Investing in Innovation program, better known by the shorthand "i3," is a part of the nearly $100 billion stimulus effort designed to preserve education jobs and spark dramatic classroom reforms. The i3 program underscores the Obama administration's determination to pursue those reforms by both fixing existing educational systems and encouraging experimentation with new ideas.

"We want ideas that work to actually grow faster because they were a part of this program," said Jim Shelton, who runs the i3 program for the U.S. Department of Education. "We want new ideas to enter the space that would not have gotten funded otherwise — ideas that are demonstrated to be significantly better than the status quo."

In September 2010, the i3 program awarded 49 grants to schools, universities and nonprofit organizations with track records of sparking meaningful change. In Louisiana's Crescent City, an i3 grant for $28 million went to New Schools.

Before Hurricane Katrina, the New Orleans system was hobbled by corruption and pilloried as one of the nation's worst academically. New Schools' overhaul strategy revolved around charter schools, which are publicly funded but operate with fewer restrictions on curriculum, budgeting and instruction than traditional public schools. Plagued by criticisms that they are poorly monitored and divert resources away from traditional schools, charters tend to be controversial and their footprint nationwide is small.

But in New Orleans, charter schools have helped transform the district from one in which the proportion of students attending failing schools has fallen to 17 percent, from about two-thirds before Katrina. The i3 grant will give New Orleans the resources to hire expert managers who will oversee a permanent infrastructure designed to close down schools in the bottom 5 percent of student performance and reopen them as charters. The goal is to boost charter enrollment to close to 90 percent of the city's students and provide New Schools with the means to try to replicate its turnaround model in Memphis and Nashville.

One outside reviewer who assessed New Schools' i3 application for the U.S. Department of Education called it "courageous," adding that it represented an opportunity to expand a "drastic, proven model" nationally. For Neerav Kingsland, who was still in law school when he came to the city to help out after the hurricane, the i3 grant is a validation of New Schools' unconventional approach.

"It is pretty exciting, five years in, to have gone from being one of the lowest-achieving districts in the country to being on the cutting-edge," said Kingsland, now the organization's chief strategy officer.

Despite its sexy, made-for-the-iPad-generation nickname, the i3 program has largely escaped the limelight shone on bigger grant programs like Race to the Top (RttT) and the School Improvement Grant (SIG) fund. The dollar amounts are smaller — RttT and SIG represent $4.3 billion and $3.5 billion, respectively — and, despite 1,700 applicants having vied for i3 awards, the competition had little of the drama that attended the other programs.

Yet the results bear watching, in part because they will shed light on the increasingly urgent but still awkward dance between education and entrepreneurship. Many observers say the existence of the program is a sign that the U.S. Department of Education is willing to move outside its comfort zone and shake up the status quo.

"We've had 100-plus years to see real education innovation in this country — it just hasn't happened," said Joel Rose, founder of the "School of One," another i3 winner, which began as a pilot program in the New York City Department of Education. "The fact that the federal government has gotten behind this is hugely important."

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