State grant-making may be one of the most under-recognized levers for education improvement. When used strategically, grants to school districts and other K-12 providers can spur innovation and direct dollars toward approaches with a strong track record of effectiveness. Just as important, they can spur the building of rigorous evidence about the effectiveness of new or less-studied approaches.
Grant-making offices may seem like a sleepy corner of state education agencies, but billions of dollars from the federal government flow through them. For example, the federal 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, funded at over $1 billion annually, distributes resources to states by formula, and states re-grant these dollars competitively to districts and other providers. Moreover, over $16 billion is spent annually on the two largest title programs under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. Title I focuses on school improvement, while Title II addresses teacher recruitment, preparation and support.
Those big dollars mean big opportunities for states to drive systematic learning agendas about the implementation, effectiveness and cost of various approaches. As knowledge accumulates about what is most feasible, effective and budget-friendly, states can also incentivize or require grantees to use approaches backed by rigorous research. In this way, grants become a test bed for innovation, while traditional compliance-focused grant reporting becomes an opportunity to contribute to the knowledge base.
A small but growing number of states have recognized the quiet power of evidence-based grant-making and have taken action. This year, for example, Nevada conditioned all of its school-improvement grants to districts and schools on the basis of their use of evidence-based interventions, up from just 15 percent going to such approaches last year. The state also set aside resources to evaluate the impact of those approaches on school and student outcomes. Massachusetts now competitively allocates its school-improvement dollars based in part on districts’ use of evidence-based strategies, and 12 other states have committed to doing the same.
How exactly can states integrate evidence into grant-making? There are two main levers. The first is using evidence: creating incentives (such as through competitive preference points in grant competitions) or requirements for grant applicants to choose activities or interventions that are supported by evidence of their effectiveness. The second is building evidence: encouraging or requiring grantees to use some of their grant dollars to undertake rigorous evaluation of a program’s effectiveness for improving student outcomes.
Which lever is the right one to use? It depends. If the evidence base is thin, then building evidence is most important. On the other hand, if there are already credible studies about what works, states should offer incentives to implement those evidence-based practices while still making room to test new approaches. And for grants awarded by formula rather than through a competition, a first step might be to consider adding bonuses for adopting evidence-based approaches or changing some of them to competitive grants.
So why aren’t more states harnessing the power of evidence-based grant-making? Staffing at state education agencies is one consideration: evidence-based grant-making can take more staff time and a different set of skills than traditional grant-making. A tip to make the work easier is to focus on areas with the most accessible evidence — say, those with recent literature reviews like this one on school leadership or this one on social and emotional learning. Even a small team of researchers, however, can have an outsized impact on a state’s ability to use and generate evidence through grants. It’s why a growing number of state education agencies are expanding the number of staff with research and evaluation backgrounds.
Staff time and capacity in less-resourced communities is another concern. School districts, especially small and/or rural ones, and nonprofit organizations serving low-income or disadvantaged students may lack research staff to respond to evidence-related grant requirements. The same strategies that make it easier for states to do evidence-based grant-making, such as focusing grants on evidence-rich areas, should also help these districts. To build evidence, states can also arrange for evaluation support for these districts by, for example, tapping expertise at state universities.
Another concern may be that spending money on program evaluations means fewer dollars for direct services for students. While that is true in the short term, rigorous program evaluation holds the promise of better use of public dollars by identifying approaches that are most impactful and cost-effective.
Grant-making’s under-the-radar nature is what makes it such an exciting, largely untapped catalyst for change. By making better use of their grant-making authority, state school leaders can drive dollars toward effective approaches for schools and kids.