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.

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“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 prior to 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 five 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.”

The School of One may look like the Hollywood version of innovation, and even i3’s critics concede that it is one of the competition’s major successes. Go to School 131 in Manhattan’s Chinatown, for example, and you’ll find the walls between some old shop rooms knocked down to create the School of One’s “Math Center.” When students arrive to class, they get individualized lesson plans called “playlists” with real-time changes announced on large television screens akin to airport flight monitors. There, in small stations marked with names like “Governor’s Island” or “Lower East Side,” they meet alone or in groups, and can learn the day’s lessons via a virtual tutor or with an old-fashioned teacher. Teachers convene daily to review individual student progress and plot strategies to improve performance.

Rose said he became frustrated when he taught at a Houston elementary school as a corps member of Teach For America, a nonprofit program designed to place promising college graduates in some of the nation’s toughest schools (and, incidentally, a winner of a $50 million i3 grant to “scale up” its successful model.) Despite his best efforts, Rose said, he felt hamstrung in his ability to reach students who learned at a different pace or perhaps needed a more unconventional approach to learning to stay motivated.

“More often than not, I found myself teaching to the middle,” he said. “At the end of the day, there were kids in my class that needed a lot more than I was able to give them.”

The $5 million grant for the School of One will allow it to expand its offerings from three to seven schools and to conduct further research on the model so that it can transfer its peculiar DNA to schools in other cities and perhaps, down the road, in other subjects. A study released in October 2010 by the New York City Department of Education found that School of One students’ math scores increased “significantly more” than their non-School of One counterparts.

But critics say the School of One stands out amid a field of winners marked by more experienced operators, such as Teach For America, and scores of professional development programs that, while potentially beneficial, are unlikely to shake up the system. Professional development-typically courses or seminars for teachers-has come under intense scrutiny from critics who say it does little to advance student achievement. And the four programs that won the largest i3 grants have been around so long that some question whether they can legitimately lay claim to being innovative. Teach For America, while highly regarded in education circles, dates back to 1990.

“Some of my colleagues have taken to calling i3 the ‘Investing in Tradition’ Fund,” said William Slotnik, executive director of the Boston-based Community Training and Assistance Center, a nonprofit consulting and research organization.

The program may have been hamstrung by legislative language that prohibits for-profit companies from acting as lead partners or receiving subgrants. Imagine a technology competition that left out Microsoft and Apple. Historically, nonprofit organizations have lacked incentives to act with speed or bring their ideas to scale. From a fiscal standpoint, school districts are even more byzantine. They are run by a revolving-door leadership of elected officials that makes it difficult to sustain a mission over time. Due to the recession, what little discretionary income they have to invest has dried up.

“The program was designed for the people who are the worst at innovation and barred the people who are the best,” said Tom Vander Ark, a managing partner of Learn Capital, an education venture capital firm.

That may explain why some i3 results seem more reminiscent of C-SPAN than the iPad. For example, due to scoring anomalies, the highest-rated i3 grant went to a largely unheralded program for at risk-students in the St. Vrain Valley School District, north of Boulder, Colo. Despite some harsh criticism from judges, St. Vrain’s proposal came out on top, with a head-scratching score of 116 out of a possible 105 points. Designed to curb achievement gaps among different groups of students, the St. Vrain plan doesn’t appear to offer any startling reform strategies. Among other things, it will extend the school day at four elementary schools and introduce math labs at two middle schools.

Shelton, the i3 program’s director, acknowledged the validity of some of the criticisms but said they largely miss the point. The education department’s deputy secretary for innovation and improvement, Shelton came from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where he served as a program director for the education division. As such, he has a rare window onto both sides of the marketplace.

The “paradigm shift” in i3, as he put it, is to place the focus in the field of education not on marketing but on evidence. The program offers greater amounts of money to projects that have greater evidence of working.

“Typically, the people who win are the people who have the sales force to actually get their stuff out in the field,” he said. “As a provider, whether you’re a for-profit or a nonprofit, your incentive is now to shift dollars from marketing to producing strong evidence of the effectiveness of your program.”

(Andrew Brownstein writes about federal education policy for Thompson Publishing Group.)

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