Education and the quiet power of evidence-based grant-making

January 29, 2019 | Governing

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.

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