Deciphering Federal Funding Announcements: Which Grant Should I Seek?

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There’s no doubt writing a federal grant proposal is daunting. But often, the funding announcement itself is just as intimidating, prompting you to walk away without ever putting pen to paper.

  • Who’s eligible to apply?
  • What exactly does the grant fund?
  • How much matching funds are required?
  • Is there a difference between a notice of funding opportunity and a notice of funding availability?

Indeed, reading through a federal funding announcement leaves you with lots of unanswered questions. (A cheat sheet of federal acronyms comes in handy.)

Last week’s Grant Round Up included three Department of Education grants that most certainly led to confusion for some readers.

Grant 1, Grant 2 and Grant 3 have essentially the same name, but a slightly different listing number. The eligibility parameters seem the same, at least at first glance. The program description for each grant is also quite similar.

So what gives? How are there three nearly identical grant programs through the federal Department of Education, and which one should you apply for?

In this case, the difference lies in the structure and intent of the Education Innovation and Research grant program.

Education Innovation and Research Grant Program

The Education Innovation and Research (EIR) grant program is part of the larger Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), passed by Congress in 2015. The ESSA encourages educators to adopt academic programs and interventions that address persistent educational problems. Interventions must be “rigorously evaluated” based on parameters laid out in the act itself. Programs or practices are judged to be “strong,” “moderate,” or “promising.”

Where do these proven programs and practices come from? From the Education Innovation and Research Grant Program, of course! The Department of Ed funds the tiered research program to ensure a consistent stream of programs is available that meets the ESSA requirements

What is tiered research?

The five-year EIR grant program funds research at three levels: early phase, mid-phase, and expansion. Each grant requires different levels of prior evidence of effectiveness. In other words, early phase projects require little-to-no evidence that the program is effective. Mid-phase projects require some evidence while expansion programs require very rigorous evidence.

All three types of grants require third-party evaluations. However mid-phase and expansion grants require larger, randomized evaluations. Expansion grants usually require national level trials.

The number of grants made at tier differs as well.

  • There will likely be many early-phase grants at up to $3 million each.
  • There will be fewer mid-phase grants at up to $8 million each.
  • There will be the least number of expansion grants at $15 million.

What does that mean for you?

In layman’s terms, the Department of Education gives money to local education systems to design, implement and test interventions to improve student attainment. If the interventions are proven to work, the Department of Education grants money to expand programs so evaluations can be done on a larger scale.

Therefore, if you have an idea for an intervention that can be tested and replicated, you should apply for an early-phase grant. If you get the grant and initiate the program, you can apply for a mid-phase grant to support further evaluation. Then, you can apply for an expansion grant to grow take your project from the local level to a larger endeavor.

You don’t necessarily have to follow these tiers to win an EIR grant, but it certainly helps. The feds really like to see projects progress through an established system. However, if you have a promising program that’s up and running and you have some data to show its efficacy, there’s no harm applying for an early-phase or possibly mid-phase grant. The funds would allow you to continue the program while gathering more data to prove its effectiveness.

Who’s Eric?

Before you scurry off to design a program and apply for grant funding, we need to introduce you to ERIC. Most federal grant-making agencies, including the Department of Education, maintain a repository of best practices and/or model programs that have been formally evaluated. As you may have guessed, the Department of Ed’s repository is called ERIC.

It's a good idea to become familiar with the knowledge warehouse for your field. For educators, ERIC is a great place to find citations for demonstrating that your practices have been shown effective, and it's where you start a literature review if you are going to posit that your approach is novel. (Spoiler alert: It probably isn't, but that's ok. That's continuous improvement, and frankly, building a repository for knowledge sharing is the fundamental point of grant-making.)

How to apply for EIR funding

You can read the complete EIR grant package in the Federal Register. It gives detailed instructions on the application process and the grant review process. If the process intimidates you, check out our grant writing educational tools, including out on-demand video training series. With 26 hours of content, a 100-page workbook and much more, it will help you navigate the EIR grant so you can help students do more, better!

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