Investing in Innovation Fund: Criteria May Be a Barrier to Some Innovators

Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

Arne Duncan, the new Secretary of Education and much-praised previous superintendent of Chicago Public Schools, is applying $650 million of his ARRA (federal stimulus) money to a new initiative: Investing in Innovation Fund (i3). At first glance, this program is bold and should bring some much-needed innovation to education, at least in part through education technology and change.

As with any such program, the details will make all the difference. The rules for the i3 program are going out for comment and have already been released in preliminary form. Their thrust is commendable. The rules require that all proposals come from LEAs (essentially school districts), non-profits affiliated with LEAs, or consortia of schools.

Arne DuncanThe program lists four “absolute” priorities. Your proposal only has to meet one of these. In short, they are teacher quality, data use, standards and assessments, and low-performing schools. The program goes on to list four more “competitive” preferences: early childhood programs, college access, disabilities and limited English proficiency, and rural schools. Addressing competitive priorities will gain evaluation points.

The program will provide grants in three categories: scale-up grants, validation grants, and development grants. The size of the grants runs from high to low across these three as does the requirement for evidence for effectiveness of the proposal, which includes research on, significance of, and magnitude of the effect.

All those interested in innovation in education in the United States should be prepared to comment on this major initiative. I see a major weakness of the program as the dependence on experimental studies for deciding which proposals to fund. Perhaps, few alternatives present themselves. Still, I have read a number of studies that purported to prove opposite conclusions. I cannot imagine the equivalent of a double-blind study in education because the instructor and students know that they’re doing something different, and change affects performance.

Then, there’s the expectations. Expecting better results generally creates better results in these studies.

Here’s one definition of “strong evidence” from the draft of the program: “one large, well-designed and well-implemented randomized controlled, multisite trial that supports the effectiveness of the practice, strategy, or program.” This definition leads to the question of who can afford to conduct such a trial?  So, are only wealthy purveyors of education innovation eligible for this sort of grant?  Will the “usual suspects” garner all or nearly all of this federal largesse?

Looking at the criteria for the three grant types yields some interesting information.

Table of criteria for i3 grants

Even if you’re ready to scale to national level, you must have “strong evidence” before doing so. What is “national level” anyway? The draft program requests estimates of costs for reaching 100,000, 250,000, and 500,000 students for validation and development grants. It requests estimates for 100,000, 500,000, and 1,000,000 students for the scale-up grants. Does that mean that national scale is just double regional scale?

As a small business operator, I find myself in a difficult position in the education marketplace, and this program simply underlines my situation. I cannot afford to conduct large studies of my effectiveness. Yet, without such expensive studies, I have trouble attracting enough business or investment to conduct such studies. So, at this time, I have to rely on anecdotal evidence including quite a few enthusiastic testimonials.

For the sake of argument, let’s say that my business has a truly transformative innovation. I can certainly say that it’s new, unique, and exciting without running studies, but let’s assume that such studies would prove the case for my service. The publicity benefits of receiving validation from the Department of Education in the form of one of these grants to a school district for the use of my service would be huge. If my assumption for the sake of argument were true, then schools across the country would reap large benefits too. Yet, I see no clear path to such a result.

I believe that my situation is not unique. Others must have excellent innovations ready to be deployed more widely and are facing numerous obstacles in doing so. Can this government program be amended to provide the opportunity for such innovations to be recognized?  If so, how?

The President’s Town Hall Meeting Could Have Been Entitled ‘No Teacher Left Behind’

bbracey80By Bonnie Bracey Sutton
Editor, Policy Issues

[Note: The following article was originally posted by Bonnie Bracey Sutton in a WWWEDU (The Web and Education Discussion Group) discussion thread on “The State of Education in the Nation. Uneven But the President is on task,” on 26 March 2009. It has been revised for ETC. -js]

One of the advantages or disadvantages that I have is that I live in Washington, DC. That means I get to go to the hill and hear what President Obama actually says as well as reports from the different groups and sources on the latest in education.

I just attended an online Town Hall Meeting at White You may want to review this presentation and or listen to the President, in his own words, share his perspective on education in the nation. I have heard the pleas from, The Convocation on the Gathering Storm, the Innovation Proclamation, and the MIT PiTAC groups. It was like going to the hill with the cheerleaders for change in education. But today, the President talked directly about teachers, early childhood education, charter schools and evaluation, and innovation.

What was so interesting to me was that he talked about the support that is needed for teachers. Unlike Michelle Rhee, he did not play the blame game. He acknowledged that he had the best of education but that education is delivered unevenly in the US. He said that teachers need professional development, first, and then we can talk about measurement and merit pay. He must have been reading the local DC papers. How refreshing to see that he gets it..

Here in Washington there is a school where students are throwing books at teachers when they turn their backs. It’s not about technology. It’s about classroom management and attitudes. The President said that not only do teachers need to know curriculum, but they also need to know how to manage the classroom.


I attended a STEM initiative yesterday that was presented by the National Center for Technological Literacy, NSTA, and NCTM. It was a briefing of the House STEM Education Caucus. I also attended two STEM workshops yesterday. One was excellent. The various groups talked about science, math, technology, and engineering, and gave references, links to websites, and resources. The participants at the STEM advocacy meeting were encouraged to network. There were plentiful materials for all, and even a handout of all of the powerpoints. This was organized by Sharon Robinson and the STEM Alliance, The House STEM Education Caucus, and Innovative STEM Teacher Preparation Programs. It was worth getting up to go to.

At the Education of Science Teachers in Pre-Service for college teachers, in a powerpoint on Science Teacher Education, the focus was on content knowledge and content courses in programs. There was mention of the pressures from NCLB and other mandates. They actually said that in many states science in elementary schools had become a nonentity because it has not been tested and relegated to 20 minutes a week, if taught at all. There was discussion of the disconnect between “Digital Natives” and “Digital Immigrants,” but the group acknowledged that there were some who were digitally disconnected and barack-obamatherefore not in either category. Discussion revolved around a holistic approach to educating pre-service teachers. This was the point made by Jon Pederson from the Association for Science Teacher Education.

Often people teach teachers how to use technology without explaining how that technology changes the classroom and the ways in which we must work.

In Mathematics Teacher Preparation, Dr. Francis Fennell discussed teacher education programs, emphasizing mathematical and pedagogical content knowledge needed for teaching math. Based on evidence from the 2009 National Mathematics Advisory Panel, he said that a substantial part of the variability in student achievement gains is due to the teacher’s ability and knowledge of math.

He discussed the critical shortage in most states of high school and middle school teachers. He talked about the various pathways into teaching and said that we must improve teacher mentoring, professional development, and retention. He was clear that the National Math Panel supported the idea of elementary math specialists. He predicted that there might be mathematics specialists at every level.

The only disconcerting thing for me was that he did not seem to know what computational math is and why it should be included in his road map to math excellence. See

There was handout from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. It stated that every student has the right to be taught mathematics by a highly qualified teacher — a teacher who knows mathematics well and who can guide students toward understanding and learning. A highly qualified teacher understands how students learn mathematics, employs a wide range of teaching strategies, and is committed to lifelong professional development.

An interesting variation and new discussion centered on the Atlas Program, Advancing the Technological Literacy and Skills of Elementary Educators, sponsored by the Museum of Science, Boston ( They shared a rationale for engineering technology in elementary grades and discussed the needs, goals and outcomes, and a plan for distribution of this program to community colleges and four years institutions. This program and its highlights are available on the web.

Then I went to the NEA building to the 21st Century STEM initiatives presentation. Chris Dede began the talk in maybe ’92, and we discussed the 21st Century Initiatives. I actually worked for the first initiative, doing outreach to teachers after I finished my work on the NIIAC, and shared resources, ideas, and philosophy on the use of technology in the US. There were many players who had ideas at that time who were collaborating with the 21st Century Initiative. Sadly, I learned yesterday that the group is stll wedded to Margaret Spellings and the original NCLB talk.

There was no mention at all of science, geography, and the innovative part of STEM that we have come to know about from The innovation seemed to come from INTEL, and there was little mention of UDL, but Ken Kay never mentioned science, engineering, and/or technology as a complete subject. Maybe they need to retool and re-educate themselves on the new direction in which the President is going. Instead they wanted states to sign up for more standards. Maybe Ken Kay has not heard the Secretary of Education’s speech at the NSTA conference.

Arnie Duncan and the President mentioned SCIENCE and Technology. The difference between what the President actually says and what others SAY he says is huge. It is significant that the President and the Secretary of Education pay particular attention to the STEM work. Governors are also on board. There are special STEM academies and Project Lead the Way. Robotics First and other initiatives are being shared, as well as the results of ITEST NSF grants as ways of working. The vocational science issues that are addressing workforce readiness and the Perkins initiative were also important additions to the discussion by the President and Duncan.

The 21st Century Initiative seems to be more a membership initiative that is looking for state buy in. If they are not really going to include real science, real math, computational math, and science and engineering, they should not call their work STEM initiatives.

Geography ( No one mentioned it.