Submitting a Proposal for a Teaching American History Grant: An Unofficial Guide
Michael H. Ebner, November 2003
Editor's Note: The AHA has been actively supportive of the Teaching American History Grants program, one of the most important (and generously funded) history-related projects that the U.S. Congress has initiated in recent times. The following essay is published as a useful guide for the many historians, educators, and educational administrators who may be thinking of (collaboratively) applying for a grant to enhance history teaching in their communities. The author has been involved in various capacities with the program since its inception and is currently the academic director of a project that was funded in the first, pioneering round of grants.
Thinking about applying for a grant under the Teaching American History Grants Program (hereafter referred to as TAH) administered by the U.S. Department of Education? The bureaucratic prose of the relevant Federal Register notice, with its many stipulations and numerous references to "competitive preference criteria," "expected outcomes," and the like, may make the task seem daunting. But at base, it is much like applying for any grant, and involves writing a proposal that clearly describes the project and contains all the required elements. Applicants for the grants are competing, of course; a proposal must, therefore, not only meet the criteria, but must also stand out. A good way to start is to examine several funded projects. The U.S. Department of Education is obligated, by the terms of the Freedom of Information Act, to provide the public (upon written request) with copies of specific successful grant proposals. Abstracts of many successful proposals (and lists of submitted applications) can be found online at http://www.ed.gov/programs/teachinghistory/awards.html. Upon completing your reading of the entire proposal, you might even consider contacting a successful applicant to pose specific questions that have occurred to you; my hunch is that you will discover that TAH recipients generously dispense invaluable advice based upon their experiences in writing proposals and implementing their projects. You will also find much useful information on the home page for TAH at http://www.ed.gov/programs/teachinghistory/. Especially useful for prospective applicants is a link (http://www.connectlive.com/events/edgrants/) to an audiovisual webcast that provides detailed guidance on applying procedures.
One of the first things to be keenly aware of is the stipulation from the Department of Education that projects must be devoted to what is labeled—for better and for worse—"traditional American history." Do not anguish endlessly over the contentious word "traditional" (see the box on this page for the definition issued by Secretary of Education Rod Paige). Endlessly debating about what "traditional" does or does not mean will yield a most dissatisfying and pointless chase. Pursue an alternative path—carefully study the abstracts of funded TAH projects because collectively they reveal the diverse conceptions of the word "traditional."
Wherever possible, avoid reliance upon the concepts, methodologies, and rhetoric associated with social studies. The disciplines encompassed by the National Council for the Social Studies include geography, economics, history, political science, sociology, psychology, anthropology, and law-related education. A mandate of the statute sponsored by Senator Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia that created TAH in 2001 is the rescue of the discipline of history, at the prebaccalaureate level, from the multidisciplinary social studies framework. Basic to TAH, I believe, are two closely linked objectives: (1) the reorientation of teachers' goals that result in their self-definition as history teachers and (2) their willingness to rethink their pedagogical methods. If teachers have changed their practices as a consequence of TAH, Senator Byrd and Secretary Paige should consider themselves especially gratified
TAH, given its home in the U.S. Department of Education, is infused with concepts long familiar to professors of education. It should come as no surprise that the conventional wisdom emanating from this bureaucratic lodging place categorizes professors of American history as responsible for content. Education professors, in turn, supply pedagogy. But if you are intellectually amenable to doing so, abandon this well-ingrained shibboleth. Although some readers of this essay may sharply disagree, I deem the separation as artificial and counterproductive for anyone who aspires to successfully implement a grant from TAH. Both professors of education and of history, in their proposals, need to demonstrate meaningful approaches to integration. Achieving a close nexus between content and pedagogy—which I have learned the program officers at the Department of Education wholeheartedly endorse—is paramount if a funded project is to yield constructive outcomes for the American history teachers who participate in summer institutes and weekend workshops. The American history professors who have participated in our own project at Lake Forest College—each of them accomplished scholars as well as award-winning classroom instructors—have learned much as a consequence of their openness to drawing upon the pedagogical expertise of our colleagues in the department of education at the college. Since the preparation of our proposal in 2001, the professors of education and history have labored valiantly in their collaborative efforts to implement its integrative framework. As our project has unfolded the integration of content and pedagogy has unquestionably flourished, albeit with a few bumps in the path.
Only a Local Education Agency (LEA)—that is, a school district—can submit the TAH proposal to the U.S. Department of Education. I advise an LEA not to define passive or secondary roles for professors of American history. Rather, make professors central to every dimension of your proposal's design. One unsuccessful proposal I have encountered diminished my confidence by citing the professors of American history merely as speakers! Be certain at the very outset that the professors whom you rely upon possess a three-fold commitment: (1) according teachers respect as well as status as colleagues; (2) learning about the educational culture of their school district; and (3) demonstrating willingness to work hand-in-hand with teachers on a sustained basis to improve, and even change, classroom practices. Your TAH application should promote its academic historians as active elements who will provide an additional academic dimension to the proposed project. That, after all, is central to the purposes of TAH.
In organizing your partnerships and collaborations—perhaps the most critical requirement in the program—choose wisely as well as imaginatively. Make sure the fit is right between an LEA and a college or university. If these two partners are strangers, be certain that you work deliberatively at attaining a sense of common cause. In our case, the LEA and Lake Forest College have cooperated with each other for more than 25 years. As for partnerships with cultural resources, one proposal I have encountered was from a school district within 60 minutes of a metropolis that has the richest possible assortment of archives, historic sites, libraries, and museums. Alas, the applicant proposed to take only the most minimal advantage of this proximity. Another proposal was submitted by a geographically remote school district. Its authors, however, devised excellent collaborative arrangements with partners in a distant region of the nation that does enjoy an abundant mix of cultural institutions. Cultural institutions, I can assure prospective applicants, are especially anxious to participate in TAH and provision is made in the request for proposals to achieve this objective in the interest of achieving an enriched program design. Examples of existing TAH collaborations—again, consult the project abstracts for such information—include Buffalo Bill Historical Center; Chicago Historical Society (our own partner); Jimmy Carter Presidential Center; Little Rock's Central High School National Historic Park Site; Colonial Williamsburg; National Humanities Center; New-York Historical Society; Ronald Reagan Presidential Library; and USS Arizona Memorial. Think creatively and, where necessary, expansively in terms of geography.
Too often an applicant is satisfied with simply detailing need by examining the demographic composition and financial circumstances of the school district. That isn't enough, although it is instructive by way of introduction. You must then proceed to explain, as precisely as possible, the status of teaching American history in your LEA. This should incorporate the needs of students as well as their teachers. Highlight deficiencies, where appropriate, such as percentage of teachers who majored in history, percentage of teachers who achieved a master's degree in history, and in-district support for professional development. Cite also the specific instructional methodologies that you consider outmoded and itemize student performance, where appropriate, on mandated state achievement tests. A judicious application of statistics—avoiding overkill—is appropriate. In the end, of course, the analytic narrative of the data is paramount. Raw numbers never speak for themselves.
The most convincing proposals offer a detailed plan for the project's implementation. Admittedly you cannot possibly explicate, much less imagine, every last item. But you would be well advised, nonetheless, to devise time lines—think of them as akin to your course syllabus—that provide a coherent scheme of the organizational format of your project. List topics, readings, and sample assignments and projects. To each of these attach the names of a particular professor of history and/or education who will lead the session. A handful of artfully constructed tables and flowcharts are appropriate here as an effective strategies for presentation. While this specificity is a virtue, avoid deadening the sensibilities of your peer reviewers or program officers by providing too much detail! You may be wondering, of course, whether you can make some alterations for a funded project after you have devoted substantial effort to devising your format. I can assure you, emphatically, that the answer is Yes. By virtue of necessity, you and your colleagues will find it essential to revise your plans—sometimes rather dramatically—during the course of your project's life. You might even specify appropriate junctures—6 months, 12 months, or 18 months, for example—when deliberations will occur to contemplate revisions in your program design. Especially during the early and intermediate stages of implementing your project, you will be learning from experience. By explaining that you anticipate revisions, and by constructing a strategy for defining as well as implementing them, you will inspire confidence in your grant application.
I am enthralled by the possibilities offered since the mid-1990s by the development of the World Wide Web and electronic communications. They stand central to my teaching as well as my research. But I am loathe to discover grant proposals, or funded TAH projects for that matter, that place primary emphasis upon the construction of web sites that are (mistakenly) intended to unilaterally foster excellence in classroom instruction. Yes, I do believe—unabashedly—that this exciting new technology is a heaven-sent research and instructional tool; it is certainly incorporated into our own project. But I also stand convinced that teachers (as well as the undergraduates whom I teach) need to immerse themselves most of all in the fundamental analysis derived from identifying sources, reading them critically, and writing about them artfully.
A fair proportion of the proposals I have encountered rely upon what I classify as third-party contractors as a source for historical expertise that is seemingly beyond the immediate grasp of an LEA. These contractors are nonprofit, history-based organizations—I refrain from citing specific names—that proffer their own well-cultivated connections to prominent American historians and cultural institutions. Some of these arrangements can be highly productive; others yield substantially less than desired. An ideal situation is to insist, in the actual contract between the LEA and the third-party contractor, that the names of, and commitments from, specific historians be inserted into your project design before you submit your grant application. Don't accept a third-party contractor's promise to designate a generic prominent historian whose identity will be determined at some future point. Also avoid single appearances by speakers; insist that such individuals be integrated, in every instance, into the pedagogical as well as content dimensions of your program design. Another caution entails project budgets in which a third-party contractor absorbs a large proportion of precious federal dollars in recompense for its participation. Incidentally, I also have encountered proposals in which a proposed third-party contractor has only a tangential connection to American history. Third-party contractual arrangements should be negotiated with eyes wide open.
A project's administrative plan, which must be detailed in the application, is important in two ways. First, the applicant's attentiveness to its thorough preparation offers a major clue about the prospect of a project yielding its outcomes. Second, without a comprehensive (and plausible) administrative plan—agreed upon by all constituent parties at the time it is submitted—you will find yourself in a bureaucratic morass if you are awarded a grant from TAH. Nor is this all. Only occasionally have I discovered a bona fide professor of American history written into the administrative plan in some executive capacity. That is unfortunate and warrants rectification. An academically based historian, ideally someone experienced as a department chair, should participate in the day-to-day administration of your project. In our own organizational format, the project director representing the LEA is the principal of a magnet school in Waukegan whose background is in curriculum development and school leadership. The project director operates as our executive officer and budget administrator. My title—one that I wish I encountered in other projects—is that of academic director. Our assistant academic director, it is essential to clarify, is a professor in the department of education; this underscores, once again, how our project is devoted to the integration of content and pedagogy. Administratively, I am interacting regularly—occasionally multiple times in a single day, via e-mail, telephone, or fax—with the project director. I operate as the chief academic officer, responsible for hiring faculty and overseeing the design of our project's curriculum (closely collaborating with the assistant academic director). This table of organization guarantees that the academic dimensions of our project occupy its very core; it also assures that the colloquy between content and pedagogy is always in play, even when discussing administrative matters. Finally, I should underscore my conviction that our regularly scheduled weekly operational meetings—surely anathema to some readers—foster trust among all of the stakeholders, whether one's responsibility is academic, evaluative, or administrative. (E-mails, I hasten to clarify, never substitute for the benefits of face-to-face deliberations!)
Your budget and its narration, like your administrative plan, will reflect significantly on the capacity of the applicant and its collaborators to successfully implement their proposed project. Construct your budget organized into three fiscal-year cycles. Identify in your proposal the specific name of an experienced fiscal officer, in all likelihood someone who is attached to the LEA's business department. You also must attend to nettlesome matters like federally negotiated overhead rates in constructing your budget. Fix and identify appropriate levels of compensation, both for the administrative as well as academic sides. Also establish scheduled reporting, so that all stakeholders are informed about the existence of a calendar for reporting disbursements and balances. I also have learned that it is constructive to create a streamlined administrative link between the chief business officer of our LEA and the comptroller at Lake Forest College in order to regularize and monitor cash flows that frequently entail six-figure sums of money. I also found it critical to my own peace of mind to maintain a carefully tended set of records about the expenditures I was responsible for as academic director. Moreover, I have learned about the necessity of saying "No" to some proposed academic expenditures that did not conform to our budget. If all of this seems incomprehensible, find someone to guide you—possibly a recently retired school or college/university business officer—who knows the intricacies of federal grants administration!
The evaluation dimension of your TAH application is a moving target. The expectations for proposals in 2003 were considerably different from those submitted in 2001. I urge applicants to be attentive to the specifics called for when the request for proposals is published in the Federal Register sometime in the spring of 2004. Whatever the particulars of these requirements, I would recommend that a professor of American history should be given a well-articulated role in the evaluation process (quite uncommon, I have learned, from studying other projects). Indeed, I would even state emphatically that evaluation is too important to be consigned solely to professional evaluators whose methodologies, in my estimation, are overly objectified! In our project design, we organized a two-tier process. Our internal evaluator, from the department of education at Lake Forest College, periodically provides us with invaluable reports about changing teacher practices as well as our basic need to refine and reinforce the essential integration of content and pedagogy. Our external evaluators are two professors of American history from another institution who are particularly knowledgeable about designing a program that would bring together teachers of American history in different educational settings to collaborate in a mutually rewarding enterprise. In their occasional site visits and in their annual reports they enable us to sustain our focus—and where useful, to refocus—on our project's central strategies, objectives, and goals.
This list of helpful hints—derived from my own experience (and that of my colleagues at Lake Forest)—has been necessarily long. But I hope it will prove useful as you begin to prepare your own proposals for the next round of grants.
—Michael H. Ebner (http://www.lfc.edu/~ebner), A. B. Dick Professor of History at Lake Forest College, has been involved with the Teaching American History grants program since its inception in 2001. He serves as academic director of McRAH (A Model Collaboration: Rethinking American History), which was funded during the first round of grants; information about this project is available at www.lfc.edu/mcrah. During August 2003, he also chaired a peer-review panel for TAH. Comments about this article may be sent to email@example.com. Opinions expressed in this essay are solely the responsibility of the author. They do not reflect the opinions of either the U.S. Department of Education or McRAH.