Submitting a US Department of Education Competitive Grant Application

Trial By Jury: Submitting a US Department of Education Competitive Grant Application

Each year, the United States Department of Education (USDOE) awards multiyear, multimillion-dollar competitive grants.* Their purpose is to support implementation of the department’s targeted educational priorities. Has your school district decided to apply for one of these?

If it has, your team will devote hundreds of hours putting together a proposal. When your application is submitted, it will literally go on trial by jury. Your proposal will be judged by a jury of peer-reviewers who will scrutinize and grade your application—and like all juries, they will look at the evidence.

Peer-reviewers are current and retired educators selected by the USDOE based on their experience and expertise. The USDOE relies heavily on peer-reviewers in deciding which applications to award. I have served as a member of peer-review panels for a variety of USDOE competitive grant applications over the past six years and would like to share with you what we, the jury, look for in the review process in order to help you effectively present your case.

What we look for in a proposal can be grouped into three major components:

  1. Does it comply with the grant’s criteria?
  2. Is what you plan to do viable?
  3. What does the evidence show us?

Note that we can only consider what is actually in your proposal. We cannot make assumptions, even if it may be implied in the application. No outside factors, such as personal knowledge of past performance, perceived relative quality based on reading other applications, or subjective judgments about what an application should contain, may be considered.


1. Does It Comply?
Applications should respond to each of the selection criteria published in the Notice Inviting Applications published in the Federal Register. Reviewers will evaluate how your proposal addresses them. Specific selection criteria differ for various grants, but typically include the following:

  • Support for the project
  • Rationale behind or need for the project
  • Quality of project design
  • Quality of management plan
  • Program and project evaluation
  • Appropriate budget
  • Sustainability Plan


2. Is It Viable?
Will what you propose to do work? Will it do what you say it will and in the way you describe? Is the budget adequate or bloated? The application should be a comprehensive design for the proposed intervention and desired outcomes. We will consider the overall quality of your proposed project, but we also want to be convinced that it has what it takes to be successful.


3. Where is the Evidence?
We write comments regarding our assessment of the material you present in your application. We group our comments into strengths and weaknesses. Often, it is the evidence or lack thereof that determines under which category those comments fall. We seek details that describe strategies and activities, as well as the reasons for including them. We look for how, when, and by whom their implementation will be evaluated.

Also, a proposed plan would have to show that a district’s implementation would be a faithful adaptation of the evidence they cite to support using that intervention. For example, if you cite a study for a math program that requires one-on-one tutoring and your district plans to use it only for a whole class, that study might not be relevant.


So if you’re contemplating applying for a USDOE grant, go for it. Write that proposal. We, the jury, are rooting for you. We want to find evidence that confirms “this is a strong proposal that deserves funding.”


*e.g., Promise Neighborhoods grant competition, Teacher and School Leader Incentive Program (TSL), Magnet School Assistance Project (MSAP), Supporting Effective Educator Development Program (SEED), Investing in innovation (i3), and Full Service Community Schools (FSCS).


About the Author: Hal Portner is a former public school teacher and administrator and was a member of the Connecticut State Department of Education where, among other responsibilities, he served as Coordinator of the Connecticut Institute for Teaching and Learning and worked closely with school districts to develop and carry out professional development plans and programs. He developed and now teaches an online Master of Education course for Western New England University. Hal is a writer, trains mentors and coaches nationally, and serves as a peer reviewer of US and State Departments of Education competitive grant applications. He is a member the Editorial Board of an international peer-review education journal and the author of 10 published books and numerous articles and blogs.


Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: