July 15, 2011

Supporting and Scaling Change: Lessons from the First Round of the Investing in Innovation (i3) Program

By By Kim Smith and Julie Petersen

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As countless innovation researchers have described, the crucial element of an effective innovation is not just the spark of “new” or even the “better” of the initial results, but the way in which it leads to a continuous learning and improvement cycle within the ecosystem that allows ideas to feed off each other, improve one another and multiply. As former U.S. Department of Education official John Bailey pointed out when the first round of Investing in Innovation (i3) grantees was announced, “Innovation investments, while needed, are insufficient by themselves. More attention needs to be paid to creating the conditions in which innovation can occur.” Given the need to improve public schooling across the U.S. and the critical role of its surrounding ecosystem in that effort, the federal Department of Education has a unique and important role to play in creating and sustaining a cycle of innovation and learning for public education.

In this paper, education entrepreneur Kim Smith and innovation writer Julie Petersen assess the initial effect of the first round of the U.S. Department of Education’s Investing in Innovation (i3) initiative on specific elements of the innovation ecosystem in education, including innovators, philanthropic donors, and the federal education agency itself. First established as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (otherwise known as the “stimulus” legislation), and now continued as a regular Department program in the fiscal 2012 year, i3 was intended to shift the innovation ecosystem toward greater quantity, rigor and diffusion of innovation, to thread innovation into the way the Department itself works (including the use of a “field scan” mechanism) and to align funding for the “supply” of innovation with the “demand” the U.S. Department of Education had created through other federal programs. Finally, as a public-private partnership, the i3 program explicitly sought to create greater alignment among innovation investments in the public, private and philanthropic sectors, and to improve the quality and sustainability of these efforts.

To what degree did the initial i3 program make progress toward those goals, and what can we learn from that experience to continue advancing innovation in public education for the benefit of the millions of students who rely on the public school system every day? While it’s too soon to assess the ultimate impact of i3 (whether student achievement will rise as a result of more and better innovation), it’s not too soon to consider its early lessons, especially as the program’s second round kicks into gear. To do so, we began soon after the first round of i3 was complete with a survey of more than 300 people, including i3 applicants and philanthropists, interviewed nearly 50 stakeholders, and also reviewed the extensive set of documents made publicly available by the Department about the process, as well as the relatively limited amount of i3 analysis to date from the education reform community and in the media. (NOTE: Because all surveys, research and interviews were completed before the second round of i3 was announced in June 2011, our analysis focuses exclusively on the first round of applications and grantees.)

This analysis of the design and initial effects of i3 showed areas of real progress and real challenge.

Progress included:
• Focus of national attention on the need for innovation in education;
• Emphasis on scaling up what works to address the country’s significant educational problems;
• Introduction of a graduated evidence framework that tied federal investments to impact and allocation of greater resources toward those who met the most rigorous evidence bar for impact on student outcomes; and
• Steering and accelerating resources toward a specific set of investment priorities aligned with important emerging demand in the field—and doing so in a more transparent, collaborative and evidence-based way than is typical of the federal government.

However, challenges and areas for improvement included:
• Narrow eligibility requirements that shut out new or very early-stage organizations and nearly all for-profit providers (and their investors);
• A limited definition of acceptable evidence that skewed and constrained the potential applicant pool in significant ways;
• An over-simplified process inadequate to the complicated task of selecting emerging, promising and proven innovations; and
• A timeline that left little room for meaningful diligence.

At its heart, the i3 program had two important goals that were fundamentally in tension: “innovation,” which implies new ways of doing things; and “scale,” in which things that have been demonstrated to work are replicated and disseminated. To create real change, both innovation and scale are required, but implementing them well requires different decision-making and support systems, as well as different people and matching processes. The paper’s conclusion offers recommendations for how the Department could better structure its future investments in seeding and spreading innovation (including greater differentiation of support across types and stages) and optimize its engagement with the private and philanthropic sector, and explain how grantmakers can foster a greater quantity and quality of educational innovation.

Click here to download the full report as a PDF.


This paper is the second publication from the Innovation for the Public Good: A Case Study of US Education project, supported by the Rockefeller Foundation. Innovation in the public sector happens at the nexus of policy, research, capital, and practice. This project analyzes some of the key aspects of an emerging ecosystem for innovation in public education in the US, including the flow of investment capital for such efforts, the uptake of innovations by buyers and users, federal efforts to stimulate and scale innovation, and ways that technology could facilitate innovation investment and practice. Drawing on surveys, interviews, and working groups, the project highlights recent efforts to fuel and steer more innovation, and frames the remaining challenges that lie ahead for the public, private, and philanthropic sectors. For more on this project and its publications, visit innovation-public-good-case-study-us-education-2011

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