Ed Department to Review Its Competitive Grant Programs

By Sean Cavanagh — November 23, 2010 4 min read
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After managing a number of high-profile state and local competitions for federal cash—most notably Race to the Top—the U.S. Department of Education is conducting a far-reaching review of all its competitive grant programs, to see how the rules that govern them can be refined and improved.

The department’s choices of winners in the recent Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation (i3) contests were cause for celebration in some quarters. But those choices also came in for a lot of second-guessing and criticism from state officials and advocacy groups, some of whom labeled the final judgments as unfair and the process opaque.

Department officials say the goal of the review, which they expect to finish early next year, is not meant to answer their detractors but improve a process that they regard as sucessful—and which they plan to use again, for different programs.

The review will cover a lot of territory.

Department officials told Education Week that the review will focus not just on Race to the Top and i3, but also on popular and well-funded competitive grant programs the agency administers, such as the Teacher Incentive Fund, Teacher Quality Partnership Grants, and Promise Neighborhoods. In addition, it will cover “hybrid” grant programs, administered by the department with some level of coordination and decision-making from the states, such as School Improvement Grants, a major effort to turn around low-performing schools.

One of the main goals is to see what lessons other competitive grant programs overseen by the department—agency officials say they manage dozens of competitions each year—could learn from the Race to the Top process and i3.

The “lessons learned” review, as the agency describes it, will examine many of the tangled issues that the department encountered during Race to the Top, such as how to improve and standardize the scoring process; how to train reviewers, and retain them; how to create an overall design for the competition; and how to set specific scoring criteria, and, to the greatest extent possible, make sure the public and applicants understand the rules.

Race to the Top appears to have sparked major activity at the state level, spurring elected officials to approve new laws and policies on merit pay, teacher evaluation, charter schools, and others areas. The program’s detractors say the Obama administration has simply urged states to pour money into strategies that are unproven, while backers credit the law, funded through the federal stimulus package, with fueling innovation.

Joanne Weiss, chief of staff to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, said in an interview that while department officials believe that program and i3 succeeded “beyond our imagination,” they’ve also concluded that “there’s always room for improvement. Said Weiss: “We want to learn from what we did the first time around, we want to improve upon it, both for these programs...[and to share that] learning across the entire department.”

The review appears to come at an important time for those programs. The Obama administration is asking Congress to provide more federal funding for Race to the Top and i3. Some members of Congress have voiced skepticism about pouring more money into them out of budgetary concerns or worries about federal outreach.

In addition, Nov. 22 was deadline day for round-two winners of Race to the Top—they included nine states plus the District of Columbia—to submit plans to the department describing how they will execute their winning models, with local-buy in from districts. (The two round one winners faced an earlier deadline.) Some individual school districts in one winning state, Ohio, have reportedly asked out of their state plan. In another winning state, Florida, local school participation appears to have held strong, according to information the state provided EdWeek today. But U.S. Department of Ed officials could face tough decisions about whether states’ plans conform to the initial promises that put them in the winners’ circle. Department officials declined to comment in detail on how they will weigh the winning states’ plans, saying they would wait until they’ve had a chance to review them.

In the meantime, they’re arguing that their new review of competitions-for-cash will increase confidence in the overall process. The department’s review will consider the competitive grant process used at other federal offices and agencies, including the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Energy, officials said. The department also expects to look at the processes used by one of the offices it oversees, the Institute of Education Sciences, the research arm of the Department of Education.

“This is a response to the secretary’s desire to do better,” said James H. Shelton, the department’s assistant deputy secretary for innovation and improvement. “But we remain open to hearing and learning from the suggestions and criticism of others.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.