Tag Archives: US Department of Education

Evaluators Bring Superpowers to Your Federal Grant Application

Yesterday, my colleague Lina Bankert wrote about three new federal grant competitions that have just been posted. Those who are new to federal grant competitions may find the evaluation requirements and research-design options (explained below) overwhelming. Federal grant applications typically require:

  • An evidence-based rationale for the proposed project’s approach, such as a logic model
  • Citations of prior research that support key components of a project’s design and meet specific thresholds for rigor specified by the What Works Clearinghouse
  • Expected outcomes and how applicants will measure those with valid and reliable instruments
  • Explanation of how the proposed project will be studied to understand its impact

Proposals may be scored by two kinds of individuals: reviewers with programmatic expertise and reviewers with evaluation expertise. Sections of the grant are allocated a certain number of points, all of which total to a final score that drives which proposals receive awards. The evaluation section of these proposals can represent up to 25% of the total points awarded to applicants, so having a strong one can make or break an application. 

red letters that say "KAPOW" coming out of a blue and yellow comic-style explosion

Image by Andrew Martin from Pixabay

Writing these sections requires a sophisticated understanding of research methodology and analytical techniques in order to tie the application together with a consistent and compelling evidence base. Our evaluation team at Bellwether has partnered with a number of organizations to help them design programmatic logic models, shore up their evidence base, and write evaluation plans that have contributed to winning applications to the tune of about $60 million. This includes three recent partnerships with Chicago International Charter School, Citizens of the World Charter Schools, and Grimmway Schools — all winners in the latest round of Charter School Program (CSP) funding for replication and expansion of successful charter networks.

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Applications Open for 3 Federal Grants: Tips From Bellwether

In the past few days, three major education-related federal grants have opened their application processes.

The Supporting Effective Educator Development (SEED) Grant Program, the Teacher and School Leader (TSL) Incentive Grants, and the Education Innovation and Research (EIR) Fund collectively offer approximately $266 million in funding to eligible education entities. (All three currently list a June 2020 application deadline.)

Teachers at Skyline High School meet with community partners to plan work-based learning opportunities for students.

Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

These programs closely align with Bellwether’s mission of supporting underserved students: 

  • SEED: “Increase the number of highly effective educators by supporting […] practices that prepare, develop, or enhance the skills of educators”
  • TSL: “Develop, implement, improve, or expand comprehensive Performance-Based Compensation Systems or Human Capital Management Systems for teachers, principals, and other school leaders […] especially [those] who […] close the achievement gap between high- and low-performing students”
  • EIR: “Create, develop, implement, replicate, or take to scale entrepreneurial, evidence-based, field-initiated innovations to improve student achievement and attainment for high-need students; and rigorously evaluate such innovations”

While these grants require complex applications and can be highly competitive, Bellwether is here to help. Since 2010, we have successfully partnered with many organizations in their successful bids for federal grants. These include the following organizations, some of which have won several times with our support: Harmony Public Schools, IDEA Public Schools, Louisiana Department of Education, National Math and Science Initiative, New Schools for New Orleans, RePublic Schools, Rhode Island Department of Education, and Tennessee Department of Education.

Back in 2016, I shared a series of tips on writing a successful federal education grant application, so we’re re-upping that conversation today.

But first, a few 2020 additions to our 2016 thoughts:

First, it is worth naming that we are navigating through highly uncertain times precipitated by the COVID-19 crisis. Leaders across the sector are urgently attending to foundational needs and may see a grant application as yet another item on top of an already packed to-do list. We empathize — and also believe that now is an opportune moment for organizations to think ahead and consider how to evolve to address changing needs, either by accelerating existing work or by pursuing a bold new innovation.

Second, don’t feel like you have to go it alone. Many strong grant proposals are developed in partnership. We encourage organizations to have conversations early on with potential partners who can bring particular expertise or serve as a “test lab” for an initiative. (My colleague Allison Crean Davis will write a companion post tomorrow about the evaluation capabilities needed for a winning grant — and how we can support on that front.)

Finally, even if your application does not rise to the top, consider yourself a winner. Grant development can help you get clarity on where you’re headed and highlight gaps that you need to close before taking on a big new initiative. Going through the process of identifying strengths and opportunities can be just as valuable as actually acing the competition. Continue reading

Bellwether Recognized For Core Value of Synergy as Key Partner in $20 Million Grant

Collaborating across teams sounds simple, but it’s not easy, and it has even been described as “dangerous.” 

When organizations and individuals join forces with those outside their immediate circles, they do so to reach common goals, recognizing that their combined efforts, if synergistic, can create greater impact than their separate ones. But because human beings, and the groups with which we affiliate, bring our cultures, jargon, preferred solutions, and power dynamics to collaboration, synergy is not inevitable — or easy. It requires deliberate effort, a willingness to work outside of one’s typical patterns, and a desire to meld together the best of various disciplines to provide holistic solutions for complex problems. 

Synergy matters because education is complex: its problems are not one-dimensional, so its solutions can’t be either. 

Entering our tenth year as a nonprofit, Bellwether has long harnessed our organizational superpower of synergy — and in fact it’s one of our core values. We intentionally bring together people with different specialties, work experiences, identities, political affiliations, and approaches to advance a shared mission of dramatically changing education and life outcomes for underserved students. Some of my colleagues are former teachers who think through the lens of facilitation and skill-building when working with adults. Some, like myself, come from the background of evaluation, and reference the scientific method when we approach problems. Others have a business or consulting background and think about making organizations more effective and joyful places to work. Still others within Bellwether think about the policy contexts in which these organizations operate. 

This approach is getting some recognition. In late September, the U.S. Department of Education awarded a five-year grant worth $20 million to a collaborative partnership involving Bellwether Education Partners, Westat (the lead grantee), RMC Research, and Academic Development Institute to support a National Comprehensive Center (“National Center”) aimed at improving educational outcomes for all students, closing achievement gaps, and enhancing the quality of instruction. Through this work, we’ll get to take synergy to the next level by leveraging skill sets within our team and across these partnering organizations. 

Some context: Since 2002, regionally based comprehensive centers (RCCs) have been quietly providing capacity-building services to education agencies across all 50 states and territories. Funded by the Department of Education, RCCs are intentionally focused on the specific needs of the state and local education agencies they serve, which can vary based on local priorities, policies, and student populations. 

Until now, the benefits and lessons from this targeted support have remained largely within the states and regions being served. The Comprehensive Centers have done important work, but they have lacked the synergy superpower. Continue reading

How Will States Handle New Title I Powers with Minimal Federal Oversight?

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, photo by Michael Vadon via Flickr

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, photo by Michael Vadon via Flickr

Last week Congress threw Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) accountability regulations out the window, and all signs from the Department of Education under Secretary Betsy DeVos point to a minimal review of state ESSA plans. For example, a little known ESSA provision could change the shape of Title I spending in schools, and under new guidelines, states don’t even have to describe their plans for implementing this new power.

Title I is a $14 billion federal grant program aimed at supporting low-income students. For decades, Title I programs have been split into two categories: targeted programs, where funds exclusively support low-achieving students, and schoolwide programs, where funds can support schoolwide improvements more flexibly. Prior federal law restricted schoolwide programs to schools with more than 40 percent low-income students. Under ESSA, all states now have the power to waive the 40 percent requirement and allow schools with less concentrated poverty to implement schoolwide reforms using Title I funds. This new flexibility could make Title I programs more effective for disadvantaged students — if states step up and use their new power wisely. But, while the Obama-era regulations required states to explain how they would issue schoolwide Title I waivers, the new template issued yesterday by the Trump administration doesn’t ask states about this provision.

There are several upsides to the expansion of schoolwide programs. Schoolwide Title I programs require schools to perform a comprehensive needs assessment, while targeted programs do not. These needs assessments are designed to engage the whole school community, and use data to identify to key areas for improvement. In contrast, a common criticism of targeted Title I programs is that they encourage schools to implement small add-on programs, like tutoring, rather than addressing bigger issues that impact all students, like curriculum and teacher quality. Schoolwide programs also allow for Title I funds to be combined with other federal and state funding streams, amplifying the impact of multiple small funding streams and reducing administrative overhead.

But there are risks that come along with this flexibility. Title I’s convoluted funding formulas already give plenty of money to wealthy, large school districts, and unchecked flexibility in spending could further dilute the effects of Title I on its intended beneficiaries — low-income students. While combining multiple funding streams reduces administrative burdens, it can also remove guardrails to ensure that money is being spent responsibly and equitably. That is why state monitoring of school Title I plans and interim progress indicators are all even more important under ESSA.

In a few states, schools below 40 percent low-income students are already allowed to implement schoolwide Title I programs. Even before the passage of ESSA, the Education Flexibility Partnership Act (Ed-Flex) approved ten states for Title I flexibility beginning in 1999. More recently, several states used their No Child Left Behind Flexibility Waivers to allow for schoolwide Title I programs in their lowest performing schools.

The success of this new nationwide flexibility will depend on states taking an active role to monitor and assess schoolwide Title I programs — whether they are enacted at schools above or below the 40 percent threshold. Early drafts of ESSA state plans suggest that many states do not yet have a clear vision for this — and now they don’t even have to include details on Title I waivers in their state plans at all. Out of 15 draft ESSA state plans available online last week (all likely to be rewritten), nine states had very broad, non-specific language for how they would review requests to shift to a schoolwide Title I program.

Light oversight is no excuse for states to take it easy. States should not just rubber-stamp requests for flexibility when it comes to Title I when there is so much at stake for low-income students, and advocates should push for more specifics on how states will ensure Title I money is well-spent.

New Dept of Ed Rule Doesn’t Go Far Enough, Would Leave Large Funding Gaps Intact

The U.S. Department is in the midst of a fight to send more money to poor schools. Centered around a complicated legal provision called “supplement not supplant,” they originally proposed a strong rule that would have meant significant new resources for low-income students. But due to pushback from an odd coalition of Republican congressmen and the two national teacher unions, they’re now proposing a weaker, clunkier version that could potentially leave large funding gaps intact. With the rule now out for public comment, the Department has an opportunity to go back to its original version, better protect low-income students, and more closely reflect the actual text of the law.

Before we get into the details of this specific regulation, it’s important to acknowledge that public education in America isn’t fair. The quality of a student’s education is too often determined by his or her zip code. Growing up in a low-income community often means crumbling schools, inexperienced teachers, weak curriculum, and few extracurricular or enrichment opportunities.Uphill climb

A big part of the problem is how states and districts fund their schools. While low-income students should receive more money to help offset the harmful consequences of growing up poor, that’s not what most states and districts do. In some states, the disparities between high- and low-poverty districts amount to over $1,000 per-student. This isn’t mere “bean counting” for schools—these differences can easily reach more than $1 million each year.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Continue reading