THE DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION, BILL GATES, AND "INNOVATION."

Maybe it's his pro-basketball-playing past, but Secretary of Education Arne Duncan sure does like competition. Yesterday he appeared before a group of superintendents and edu-wonks -- brought together by testing giant ACT -- to herald the launch of "i3." (Yes, it sounds like an Apple product.) Like Race to the Top, i3 is a competitive grant program intended to foster "innovation" and school reform. But while Race to the Top, at $4.3 billion, is targeted at states, i3 is intended for local districts, nonprofits, education "entrepreneurs," school "turnaround specialists," and colleges. The grants come in three categories: up to $5 million to seed "pure innovation," in Duncan's words; up to $30 million for existing programs that need to collect more data on effectiveness; and up to $50 million for scaling-up proven reforms.

When all is said and done, i3, which is funded by the federal stimulus, will dole out $650 million to support efforts to boost student achievement, close achievement gaps, and attract and retain high-quality teachers and principals. Much of this agenda -- particularly the DOE's enthusiasm for charter schools and teacher merit pay -- is borrowed from the world of education reform philanthropy, in which the single most influential player is the Gates Foundation. And indeed, i3's administrator -- Jim Shelton -- used to direct the education division of the Gates Foundation.

i3 is only marginally bigger than the Gates Foundation's latest grant program, a $500 million project to fund teacher development and merit pay in four hand-picked school districts across the country. (Eduflack has more on that.) It's fascinating to watch the extent to which the DOE's agenda, under Duncan, dovetails with Bill Gates' personal philosophy of education reform -- whether you support Gates' vision or believe, as I do, that his foundation's work is well-intentioned and crucial, yet ultimately far too focused on specific, market-driven fixes, such as test-score-based merit pay.

What's even more remarkable is that under Duncan's leadership, the DOE is moving the federal government into the business of providing financial support for unproven "innovations," when traditionally, the role of government has been to scale-up, at the national level, the most successful local and state-level programs. That's what the Obama administration is doing, for example, with its commitment to Promise Neighborhoods, which are based on the already-proven Harlem Children's Zone model. By "seeding" innovation, Duncan is sending a powerful message to educators across the country that he expects experimentation and aggressive improvement. But Ducan is also promulgating a very specific vision of what reform is likely to look like -- one heavily borrowed from Gates.

--Dana Goldstein

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