Evaluating Grants

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to provide some feedback on grant proposals submitted by teachers. I’m on the Ohio education advisory council for FirstEnergy, and we were going through this year’s crop of mathematics, science, and technology education grants. I was impressed by the committee, which includes thirteen education professionals from across northern Ohio. These are teachers, curriculum specialists, technology people, and administrators. They were quick to highlight the strengths of the various proposals, and not at all shy about pointing out their shortcomings.

Thanks, TW Collins on Flickr! http://www.flickr.com/photos/twcollins/751221191/For example, the grant application includes this question: “Describe your state’s educational standard(s) that this project will support.” At one point, we were looking at a seventh grade science proposal. “Those are sixth grade standards,” one teacher said. “The objectives of this project are wonderful, but the benchmark indicators cited are for sixth grade, not seventh.”

I happened to have a copy of the standards with me, and I looked it up. She was right. The benchmark was for grades 6-8, but the indicators were all for sixth grade. That means the seventh graders in this class have already learned this stuff. The applicant was undoubtedly trying to justify a proposal that doesn’t really fit well with her curriculum, and she got caught. Needless to say, that hurt her proposal’s score.

Another council member pointed out an inconsistency in a proposal. The introduction included the assertion that children learn best by “doing, thinking, and doing again based on past results.” Their evaluation plan, however, indicated that they’ll gain information on the effectiveness of inquiry-based learning. If you’re asserting that something is true and basing your project on it being true, why do you have to evaluate it?

The whole process was both simple and effective. Everyone had read all of the grants ahead of time. We knew the guidelines. We knew we’d be asked to rate each proposal on a scale of one to five. We went through them in the order in which they were received. We discussed each for about five minutes, and then everyone rated them. Ratings were not private. The applicants’ names and schools were not obscured. In some cases, people recused themselves because they were familiar with the teachers or schools. Proposals with an average score of three or higher advanced to the next level of evaluation.

I couldn’t help but contrast this with our internal teacher technology grants. In our case, we have a rubric evaluating each proposal on 25 different criteria. Applicants must score above a certain threshold in each of five different categories to advance to the next round. When the applications are received, personally identifiable information is removed, and the proposal is separately evaluated by at least four different people. The best ones are invited in to do presentations, making their cases and answering any questions. The team then makes the decisions on which proposals to fund.

In both cases, we see about the same kind of range of quality. About 10% of the proposals are outstanding. About 15-20% of the proposals show very little effort on the part of the applicant. The rest fall on a pretty even continuum in the middle. Usually you can predict where a proposal is going to fall just by skimming through it. In most cases, there’s general agreement among the review committees on the merits of each proposal. It makes me wonder whether our own evaluation system is more complicated than it needs to be.

If you are thinking about writing a grant proposal, let me offer some suggestions:

  • Apply within the scope of the grant. If they say they’re not going to pay for field trips, don’t apply for field trips. If they say they won’t buy computers for your classroom, they probably mean it.
  • Follow the directions. Answer all of the questions. Give them all of the information they ask for. Turn it in on time. When there’s a two inch stack of proposals to go through, people look for reasons to not bother reading some of them.
  • Proof read. Spell check. Writing may not be your strong suit, but I bet you know an English teacher. Try not to embarrass your profession.
  • Proposals that are based on “how can I get them to buy me stuff” are transparent. Start with the idea. What do you want to accomplish? What are the kids going to do? What are they going to learn? Then work toward what you need to accomplish it. If you start with the wish list, you’re doing it wrong.
  • Speaking of the wish list, make sure it’s clear how the items you’re asking for are needed to complete your project. If the project can be done without something item on your list, take it off the list.
  • How do I put this delicately? Don’t let your frustration with administrative mismanagement leak over into your proposal. If your school bought some cool robots for your department, but didn’t bother to get the software to control the robots or the batteries to make them run, it reflects poorly on the school’s ability to anticipate needs and challenges and work to resolve them. You don’t want to brag about that.
  • When you tie your project in to academic standards, cite the subject area, grade level, and standard. If you just write “K-2 C, 3-5 C & E, 6-8 C & D,” you’re going to annoy the people reading the grant. Don’t say “just about every technology standard can be met with this project.” Because I’m going to start making a list of the ones you don’t address. And when I get to the second one, I’m moving on to the next proposal.
  • Seriously think about how you’re going to evaluate your project. A lot of people blow this part off, and it’s consistently the weakest part of any grant application. But a good evaluation piece shows that you’ve actually thought about your proposal and planned it all out.
  • Tie everything together. Make sure your project addresses your goals. Make sure your evaluation shows whether the goals have been met. Make sure anything you’re asking for is an integral, necessary part of the project.

The bottom line is that reading proposals has been eye-opening for me. The people evaluating them are, in general, a lot sharper than the people writing them. I kept thinking, “I know we have teachers who could do a better job than this.” The money’s out there. You just have to prove that you have a worthwhile idea, that it will benefit kids, and that it’ll meet the goals of the grant program.