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Why Some i3 Rural Projects Weren't Funded

The two areas where rural-focused groups lost the most points on their federal Investing in Innovation program applications were: research evidence supporting the validity of their proposed innovation, and quality of the evaluation plan for the project.

Those are two of the key findings from the Rural School and Community Trust, which is analyzing the applicants that claimed they wanted to serve rural areas and scored well but weren't among the final winners of the first-round of competition for $650 million.

The rural advocacy group criticized the federal competition earlier this year for awarding funds to rural projects that weren't authentically rural in origin, scope or proposed work. They've been more supportive of new guidelines launched as part of the second round of competition for $148.2 million

The Rural Trust wanted to know why some rural proposals weren't funded, and that meant taking a closer look at the five reviewers' score sheets to see where first-round applicants lost the most points. They focused on "Tier 2" groups, or those that scored high but not as high as those in "Tier 1" that received funding.

The federal Department of Education withheld reviews for 17 of the 76 proposals because "the applicants claimed that public disclosure would violate a proprietary secret contained in the proposal and discussed by the reviewers," according to the Rural Trust.

The rural group still is analyzing the 59 applications they received, but they reported some of their preliminary findings in their October issue of Rural Policy matters.

For rural groups that fell into the mid-sized validation category—these projects were considered growing programs with emerging evidence of success and could earn up to $15 million in federal funds—the two areas where they were docked the most points (research evidence and evaluation plans) accounted for 40 percent of their lost points.

For applicants in the smallest development category, or those with new and high-potential practices that could earn up to $3 million, the two criteria cost them 69 percent of all points lost.

The Rural Trust also found the effects of standardized scoring were mixed but had limited effect on the final grant-making decisions. The scoring system was supposed to adjust the final points earned by a proposal based on how easy or difficult the reviewers scored other proposals.

Sixteen projects in the validation category were downgraded by standardization, while 22 were upgraded. The Rural Trust says the biggest loss was 12.3 points, "probably enough to take EdVisions from success to failure in the funding competition. This is the clearest case of an impact of standardizing scores."

For proposals in the development category, eight were downgraded by standardization and 13 were upgraded. The changes weren't enough to affect who was funded, according to the Rural Trust.

In a separate article, the Rural Trust says the new i3 guidelines are having an impact on the second round of competition.

"Of 488 applications submitted for the approximately 22 grants expected to be awarded, 99 claim to focus on the new 'absolute priority' for proposed projects that hope to boost learning, graduation rates, and college enrollment rates in rural school districts," according to the Rural Trust.

Rural is defined as districts eligible for federal Rural Education Achievement Program funds, which generally go to small or low-income rural districts. The Rural Trust seems to think "any sham rural projects should get filtered out" if the feds enforce their guidelines.

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