Professional Learning

Obama Spends on Education Innovation

The U.S. Department of Education will give priority to programs with a successful track record.

March 2, 2009

Education innovation is getting special attention in the federal economic-stimulus package, with $650 million earmarked for replicating success. The money is part of the $5 billion incentive fund within the $53 billion that states will get to help restore education-budget cuts. The pool gives the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) the daunting task of deciding which ideas deserve backing and then allocating the appropriate resources to each.

"Everyone who thinks they're qualified is going to be this seeking this money," says Jocelyn Pickford, education director with the Hope Street Group, a public-policy think tank.

Obama's proposed budget for the 2010 fiscal year, released February 26, also includes $2.5 billion for a new five-year program designed to help boost the achievement of low-income students. The money will be available to states with the goal of getting more kids to college.

The budget proposal also seeks to build on the investments that will be made with the $650 million innovation fund in the stimulus package. The purpose of this money is to help good programs expand so they might serve as models for others, thereby creating education incubators. In this way, the DOE can uncover model programs and best practices, document their success, and eventually help them expand from one school district to another.

So, what kinds of programs might qualify? The DOE hasn't publicly targeted a specific program, but the types of programs that are high on the list are those that already have documented success. One example might be Early College High Schools, public schools that partner with a college and give students college credit and experience while they're in high school.

Robert Smith, superintendent of the Arlington Public Schools, in Arlington, Virginia, wants to expand several programs, including one that uses peer and teacher support to encourage minority students to take more advanced classes. It's a program that's working, Smith says, as the body of students making up the district's Advanced Placement classes is becoming increasingly diverse.

Who Will Be the Winners?

With so many hands reaching out for a piece of the $650 million pie, it's unlikely that untested programs will get funding. Instead, people expect that programs already under way will get money to enhance their efforts, thereby maximizing the benefits and allowing officials to study the programs, says Jennifer Cohen of the New America Foundation, a public-policy institute. That means the short-term impact of the innovation money will be "on a kid-by-kid, school-by-school basis," Cohen says.

That's not to say those programs won't make their way into other schools once DOE officials have studied them, but that can be a dicey proposition. According to Cohen, trying to replicate great programs from one district or school in another can be problematic. It often happens that innovation succeeds because all the right elements at one school came together. That's not certain to be the case in another school. Figuring out how to overcome that obstacle will be one of the DOE's challenges, she notes.

The department hasn't released details about the grant-application process, but some guidelines are included in the new law. Grants will be available for individual districts, public-private partnerships between schools and nonprofit organizations, and consortia of schools working together.

But just because a program is working doesn't mean it will automatically get funding. School districts must first show they have made improvements in areas such as graduation rates and the placement of high-quality teachers, have closed achievement gaps between groups of students, and have established partnerships with private groups, such as universities or nonprofit organizations. If private groups are involved, they also must provide matching funds.

By the end of this week, the DOE will release more information on when and how it will issue all the education money in the stimulus package. Until then, stay tuned, and hold on to your wish lists.

Alexandra R. Moses is a freelance writer in the Washington, DC, area who specializes in education.

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