Investing in Innovation: an opportunity for Detroit?

[Note: This is the first in what is likely to be a long series of pieces on educational issues, federal funding for school reform and innovation, and related topics.  My interest in these issues has grown over the past four years as I have taken on new opportunities at Focus: HOPE, but I do not intend to discuss matters particular to my employer here.  Instead, I will write more broadly about education and federal funding for improvement and the implications of such for Detroit and Michigan. -RMD]

Though it has not received the same level of press attention as the $4.3 billion Race to the Top (RTTP) competition, the Investing in Innovation (i3) Fund, also in the Department of Education and funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), is a very interesting opportunity for educational reform and improvement.  According to the Department:

“The purpose of this program is to provide competitive grants to applicants with a record of improving student achievement and attainment in order to expand the implementation of, and investment in, innovative practices that are demonstrated to have an impact on improving student achievement or student growth, closing achievement gaps, decreasing dropout rates, increasing high school graduation rates, or increasing college enrollment and completion rates.”

Applications were due back in May and the data.gov site now contains applicant data for i3. There were 55 applications from Michigan, including eight from Detroit:

In addition to these, there were several other applicants of note:

A few interesting notes and my initial observations:

So who will win?  Which innovations will the Department invest in?  Decisions are not expected until September and with 1,698 applications to review, the Department and its reviewers have their work cut out for them.  The applications are actually divided into three categories (development, validation, and scale-up) with their own maximum funding levels ($5, $30, and $50 million per grant, respectively).  The maximum number of awards the Department can make across all categories is just over 200, so competition is fierce.

Personally, I am hopeful that some of the more innovative proposals from Michigan – and the Detroit area in particular – will be funded.  Michigan missed out on the first round of Race to the Top funding and is awaiting a decision on the second round, where the remainder of the funds are to be allocated.  Especially in a cash-strapped state like Michigan, it is clear that an infusion of federal funds is needed to encourage and support innovation and make meaningful change to the “status quo” of education.

I am also curious about the future of the i3 program.  Education Secretary Arne Duncan has been vocal about the need for applicants, educators, and anyone concerned about these issues to advocate for further funding for i3 and similar initiatives.  Will the most successful of these projects be developed into new funding opportunities for replication in other places?  Will another round of i3 funding use a similar application process to this one? These questions and many more remain to be answered.

Still, it is hard not to be excited about the opportunities that exist with these large federal investments in education and innovation.  It is also hard to not be a little nervous about the whole process, as it would be a horrible opportunity to blow on “more of the same.”

What do you think?  Do any of these projects sound particularly valuable or interesting to you?  If you were selecting winners, would you select any of these discussed above?

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