How Evidence-Based Grant-Making Helped Improve Learning for 50,000 More Students

By Kate Tromble

Jennifer Gonzalez, Third Grade, KIPP Austin

Over the last few months, as schools closed their doors and shifted to remote learning, parents across the country have confronted a hard truth: educating children is difficult, painstaking work. Educators have long known this, but the current pandemic has led to an even deeper appreciation among parents, policymakers, and the public of the power of high-quality schools to help our children succeed.

At a time when education policymakers at every level are grappling with many challenges related to COVID-19, it is critical for us to spotlight successful examples of education leaders who used an evidence-based approach to improve outcomes, even for their students who face the greatest challenges. A new Results for America case study shows how prioritizing evidence of effectiveness in grantmaking by the U.S. Department of Education helped one results-driven organization offer its evidence-based intervention to tens of thousands more students.

In 2010, KIPP, a national nonprofit charter school organization, got great news. They received $50 million from the U.S. Department of Education (ED)’s innovation fund, known today as the Education Innovation and Research (EIR) program. Getting a grant is not unusual, but this one was innovative. It conditioned the amount of money received on the evidence KIPP could show that their approach was effective for students. As a result of KIPP’s strong evidence, the department awarded a grant to help KIPP double the number of students it served in just five years.

The pressing question for KIPP and ED at the time: would it be possible to continue improving education outcomes for an increasing number of students at such speed?

The answer is an emphatic yes. Not only did KIPP improve student achievement while more than doubling its student population from 28,000 to over 80,000 in five years, it doubled its student capacity yet again to over 100,000 in the subsequent five years. And since 2010, numerous studies, including three randomized controlled trials, have found that KIPP schools produce sizable, significant effects on students’ reading and math achievement.

Josué Coronado, an alumnus of KIPP Houston, went on to Georgetown University, where he served on the board of Georgetown’s Latinx Leadership Forum, tutored students at the university’s Writing Center, and helped found La Casa Latina, a new space for the Latino community on campus.

Josué Coronado was one student who was able to benefit from KIPP’s evidence-based education model. Josué attended and graduated from a KIPP high school in Houston in 2014. No one in his family had ever been to college, so he wasn’t sure it was even an option for him. KIPP’s preparation, however, helped Josué get admitted into Georgetown University, where he graduated in 2018.

KIPP was a key ingredient in Josué’s success. As he noted, “They lifted me up, making me the first in my family to attend a four-year university and I’m excited to use my life and experience to help bring the American Dream closer for all.” KIPP was able to expand and serve students like Josué because ED awarded taxpayer dollars based on evidence of positive outcomes rather than on plans and good intentions.

Through this innovative federal education program, — the Investing in Innovation (i3) fund, later called the Evidence in Innovation and Research (EIR) fund — grant applicants that presented a small amount of evidence that their approach to education worked for students received small grants to prove the merit of their approach. Those with a moderate amount of evidence received medium-sized grants to validate their approaches. And those with lots of strong evidence, like KIPP, received the largest grants to scale up their programs across the country. Although this tiered-evidence funding model may seem like common sense, it was actually a breakthrough innovation.

And KIPP made the most of this innovative approach. They used their federal grant dollars to train 1,000 additional school principals and expand from 99 schools in 20 states in 2010, to 200 schools in 25 states in 2016, doubling their reach in five years.

Today KIPP operates 242 schools that serve over 100,000 students in 28 regions across the country. And according to a subsequent independent evaluation of KIPP’s federal grant activities, academic outcomes have improved for students attending all KIPP schools.

This growth and success story illustrates the powerful, positive impact that an innovative approach to using evidence in a federal grant program can have for tens of thousands of students nationwide. Evidence-driven decision-making really does make a difference. Just ask Josué Coronado.

Kate Tromble is Vice President for Federal Policy at Results for America.

Working with decision-makers at all levels of government to harness the power of evidence and data to solve the world’s greatest challenges.