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What Should Matter in Future Federal Education-Grant Competitions?

Want to know what areas U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan & Company could be paying special attention to when they dole out increasingly scarce federal grant money? Look no further than this wonky list of 15 key areas, slated for publication in Tuesday's Federal Register.

These draft "priorities" (fed-speak for areas of interest) sound really technical. But they matter, because they could help inform the development of future federal grant competitions. (There's less and less money available for them these days, but the dollars are still highly coveted.)

And the priorities reflect changes in the Obama administration's thinking over time. The U.S. Department of Education Department put out a similar list back in 2010—and you can get a glimpse of what's no longer on top of the department's hit parade from comparing the two documents. There have been also some telling tweaks to some priorities.

So what's in? New areas of focus include:

• Promoting personalized learning, either through technology, universal design, or other methods. ("Personalized learning" has been a big emphasis of the Race to the Top for districts grants.) 

• Bolstering the development of students' non-cognitive skills (that broad category of social and emotional learning).

• Improving job training and employment outcomes.

• Improving academic outcomes for high-needs students. (The 2010 list was more specific, looking just at graduation rates among at-risk kids.)

What's out? The feds have scrapped separate priorities for:

• Turning around persistently low-achieving schools;

• Education redesign moves that help states that are putting in place beefed up standards and data systems);

• Enabling more data-based decisionmaking

•Building on evidence of effectiveness;

•Supporting programs or strategies that have a moderate amount of evidence to back them up;

•Improving "productivity" (which essentially means getting better student outcomes for less money).

Some of those areas, such as turnarounds, are incorporated into other "priorities" on the list. Others were funneled into the Education Department Grant Administrative Regulations, affectionately known as EDGAR, back in August of 2013.  

What's back? Repeaters on the list include:

• Bolstering science, engineering, math, and technology education;

• Improving early-learning outcomes;

• Supporting military families and veterans;

• Implementing internationally benchmarked college and career-ready standards (that got a slightly different title)

• Promoting diversity

• Bolstering teacher and principal effectiveness, and increasing college access and affordability.

What's been tweaked? Some areas on the list of 2010 priorities have been revised. For instance, the 2010 list combined improving teacher and principal effectiveness, but now they would be separate priorities. Similarly, improving parent, family, and community engagement used to be lumped together with improving school climate and behavorial supports, but they've also been separated out. That seems to indicate the department thinks those areas are really important and need to be considered all on their own.

"The new priorities and definitions reflect the lessons learned from implementing discretionary grant programs using the 2010 Supplemental Priorities, our current policy objectives, and emerging needs in education," the notice says.

So how do you think the department did? They want to know—you can submit your comments a month after the notice is published in the Federal Register. And remember, these are just a draft, the administration may tweak the list based on comments. 

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