The Power of 3: Reflections on the 2013 i3 Annual Project Directors Meeting

The number 3 dominated the thinking and actions of the more than 400 participants of the annual meeting of the Investing in Innovation (i3) grantees on May 20-21, in Arlington, Va. Let’s start with three examples:

  • They represented three years of funding (2010-2012) for this Office of Innovation and Improvement (OII) program that supports the development and scaling of ambitious, effective practices that improve student achievement.
  • The 92 projects represented spanned three levels of federal support for i3 — 59 Development, 28 Validation, and five Scale-up projects.
  • Each project came to the meeting with three objectives: share best practices they have developed as well as challenges they face; learn about evaluation methods and receive technical assistance to improve their evaluations; and explore strategies for sustaining their projects’ impacts through private-sector support.

Almost as if to build on the theme of 3, Acting Deputy Secretary Jim Shelton, who led OII’s efforts to create and support i3 as the assistant deputy secretary for innovation and improvement since 2009, encouraged the meeting attendees to share their stories and learn three new ones to take home with them.

The story and best-practice sharing took the form of more than 10 breakout sessions for project directors and staff who manage the i3 grants, as well as sessions for the projects’ evaluators and funders (each i3 grant is matched with private-sector funds). Project personnel selected sessions that covered a wide range of interests, such as bolstering early literacy through use of digital media that the Success For All Foundation, an i3 Scale-up grantee, is using in preschool and kindergarten classrooms; implementing expanded learning time in middle schools based on a successful effort in the Boston Public Schools; and understanding the critical role that school principals play in shaping projects’ implementation and outcomes.

Abt Associates, an i3 evaluation technical assistance provider, worked with the independent evaluators of i3 projects to design a comprehensive set of small-group sessions that addressed a wide range of data collection and analysis needs. Evidence, derived from rigorous qualitative and quantitative evaluations, is the sine qua non of i3 projects, and the content of the more than 11 concurrent sessions addressed topics ranging from “the good, bad, and ugly” of logic models to the challenges of gathering and analyzing such extant data as student test scores, enrollment information, and attendance and disciplinary indicators. The grantees and their independent project evaluators also learned how the individual project evaluations will fit into a National Evaluation of the i3 program that will be built on an analysis of the findings of the i3 project evaluations.

The attendees heard stories from two i3 projects and two private-sector funders in a plenary session facilitated by Suzanne Immerman, the Department’s director of strategic partnerships, who was joined by representatives of Intel and Kellogg. i3 grantees from the St. Vrain Valley School District in Colorado and LEED Sacramento shared their strategies for not only securing their i3 private-sector matches, but also leveraging partnerships resulting from the i3 match requirement. While the i3 private-sector-match requirement calls for grantees to secure and expend the matching funds during their grant period, the hope is that the partnerships built as a result of the private-sector match will last long after the end of the grant period.

Multi-year grants inherently contain the possibility that changes in policy will present unexpected challenges for projects. Such is the case with the implementation of the Common Core State Standards in mathematics and English language arts and the Next Generation Science Standards. In a closing plenary session, the Niswonger Foundation, an i3 Validation grantee in Tennessee, shared a scalable professional development effort that helped nearly 2,000 high school teachers collaborate on implementing the new standards and integrating them with core academic areas such as social studies. Helping to present the effort were representatives of the Northeast Tennessee College & Career Ready Consortium as well as the National Association of Secondary School Principals and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

As the conference came to a close, OII Acting Assistant Deputy Secretary Nadya Dabby commented on the exciting point in time that many the i3 grantees are at: “You’re far enough along to know what has worked well and what hasn’t, and how to adjust appropriately,” she observed. “But you’re also far enough away from the end to see the work there is left to do and know how to better accomplish it. That is a great place to be, and we look forward to continuing to learn from your results in the coming years.”

Holly Clark, an i3 program officer in OII, authored this blog.