Charters and turnarounds do well in “Investing in Innovation” (i3) competition

A couple of themes run through some of the 49 successful “Investing in Innovation” (i3) grant applications announced yesterday by the U.S. Department of Education: Expanding charter schools and scaling up school-turnaround strategies.

The grant competition – which isn’t over, as applicants must still go through a couple of steps before they get the money – is meant to encourage projects with track records in “improving student achievement or student growth, closing achievement gaps, decreasing dropout rates, increasing high school graduation rates, or increasing college enrollment and completion rates.” Bearing in mind this goal, the appearance of several charter and turnaround-related projects among the winners is not necessarily surprising, especially since the Obama administration loves charter schools (high-performing ones, that is) and is in the process of sending out money to hundreds of school-turnaround projects around the country.

A relatively high number of winners — I counted at least five — fall into the turnaround category. Successful applicants ranged from the school districts in Los Angeles and Louisville, Ky. to Johns Hopkins University. The Obama administration is already investing a lot into the mission of turning around the country’s lowest-performing schools. In some ways, this remains a giant experiment. There have been some successes in turning around struggling schools, but it’s a difficult and quirky process that even many working in the turnaround business admit is hard to replicate. It will be interesting to watch how these i3 grant winners do over the next few years, and how much the models they are developing influence the turnarounds that are happening elsewhere (which is what the i3 competition is supposed to encourage).

As for the charters, the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) is a big winner – it could receive as much as $50 million – with a proposal to open more of its schools. The plan is to expand the number of KIPP schools by at least 50 percent over five years. (There are currently 82 KIPP schools nationwide.) Another winning project would expand to other states the New Orleans model of reopening struggling public schools as charters. This one might be a little more controversial, considering some of the criticism of charters in New Orleans.

IDEA Public Schools, a network of charter schools in Texas (where, bias alert, my brother happens to work) also won a grant, but this one doesn’t involve replicating itself. Instead, IDEA will help surrounding public schools by working with the district to train teachers for both charters and traditional public schools.

Early childhood advocates may not be pleased at the small number of winners in their category. Some had high hopes that more early learning projects would win, especially since the fate of the Early Learning Challenge Fund is still up in the air.

Three projects were chosen that focus on kids under the age of 5, but they weren’t big-ticket scale-up grants (the kind eligible for $50 million). One will focus on narrowing the school-readiness achievement gap by working with the parents of young children on Native American reservations. Another is a professional development project of the Erikson Institute in Illinois, which will train teachers of high-needs children from pre-k to third grade. And the third was the most highly rated application in the competition, from the AppleTree Institute, which proposed a data-driven preschool model that will be implemented in Washington, D.C.

Others have also looked for trends in the applications. The applications and winners’ scores will be posted this afternoon on the U.S. Department of Education website for those who want to dig more deeply into the details.