As Congress sets about rewriting the No Child Left Behind law, key Republican leaders have been clear that they want to give states much more latitude to spend federal education dollars as they see fit. To that end, leaders in both houses of Congress are seeking to do away with dozens of dedicated federal funding streams — including a signature Obama administration program called the Investing in Innovation Fund.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan visited a D.C. school Monday to press his case that Congress should maintain those competitive “i3 grants,” which are awarded to school districts and nonprofit organizations that want to expand promising programs that help close achievement gaps.
“This school is like many schools across the nation,” Duncan said, speaking at Cardozo Education Campus, a sixth-through-12th grade school in Columbia Heights where one-third of the students are learning English as a second language. The students are “here for the American dream, and the American dream is to get a great education, and a big piece of that . . . is not just doing the same thing over and over again. It’s about innovating.”
No one on Capitol Hill is against innovation; the question is what role the federal government should play in promoting innovation. Duncan said Cardozo is an example of how the federal government can use its money to help identify and replicate successful programs.
Cardozo has long struggled with poor math and reading test scores, chronic truancy and one of the city’s lowest graduation rates. Now a key partner in the effort to turn the school around is Diplomas Now, an organization that helps schools around the country develop support systems for at-risk students to improve their chances at graduation.
In 2010, Diplomas Now won a $30 million i3 grant to conduct a randomized, controlled study to evaluate whether the program can work at a large scale to address the nation’s persistent dropout problem. The first results of that study, which includes 60 schools and 40,000 students, will be reported later this year.
Robert Balfanz, a Johns Hopkins University researcher who co-founded Diplomas Now, said that only with the federal government’s investment would such a study — which could help shape the work of schools across the nation — be possible.
States and local school districts “don’t have the time or interest to show that what works for them works for someone else,” Balfanz said. “Only the feds really have an interest in that.”