The Continuing Relevance of Lyle Spencer's Vision


 Lyle Spencer endowed this Foundation not only with financial resources but with a purpose and a strategic vision. That purpose was, and remains, the improvement of education - "broadly conceived, wherever learning occurs." The strategic vision is to approach that purpose through cultivating new knowledge about education. In the notes Spencer left about his hopes for the Foundation, he constantly stressed the "multiplier" effect of investments in knowledge. He wrote, in a lovely phrase reflecting his dual identity as social scientist and entrepreneur, of aiming for "the greatest return in effective ideas per dollar" and argued that "the most valuable ideas are the most germinal ideas - those with the greatest power to generate new ideas, projects, and fields of study." 

Lyle Spencer's basic purpose and strategic vision continue to animate our work and leave us in the new century as the only Foundation whose central purpose is advancing knowledge about education with the aim of educational improvement. A big challenge for us is to try to make sure that we keep our purpose and our strategies properly aligned: the name of the game, our basic purpose, is to make education better; our support of the education research enterprise is in service of that purpose. I think it helps us in thinking this through to focus on two large questions. First, who does the Foundation aim to serve - who are our "clients"? And, second, what do we mean by "making education better" - how do we understand educational improvement? In the following pages I offer some reflections on these large questions, and draw some implications for the Foundation's work. 

That hard-working musician Bob Dylan said in a song lyric some years ago that "You're gonna have to serve somebody." So whom do we serve? The ready answer, and in some respects an accurate one, is "the education research community". After all, the bulk of our funding goes to advance the scholarly work and the scholarly preparation of members of that community. Our largest annual event is a reception at the American Education Research Association annual meeting for several hundred members of that community. And, throughout our history, the President, the professional staff and the majority of members of our board of directors have been people engaged in education research. 

There is no question that the Spencer Foundation depends utterly on the active cooperation and partnership of education researchers and of the institutions, mostly universities, where they reside. In my first year as President, I have relished the opportunity to extend my acquaintance with research colleagues, and I have been impressed and moved by the value they attach to their relationship with the Foundation, by their concern and commitment to the Foundation's success, and most of all by their strong commitment to the aim of making education better. 

Yet I think we risk misleading ourselves and selling short our relationship to researchers if we think of them as our "clients" and define our interest and aim as serving their needs. It was Lyle Spencer's conviction that new knowledge was the key to better education that explains the Foundation's emphasis on research. The purpose of the Foundation has thus never been to invest in educational research "for its own sake" but rather for the sake of making education better. From that perspective, it's not quite right to say that members of the research community are our "clients". It is, I think, more illuminating to think of our colleagues in research as our partners and our allies in the great enterprise of educational improvement. 

So, at base, it is those who will benefit from educational improvements who are our clients. The most direct beneficiaries, of course, are students - present-day students and future generations of students. We aim to contribute to discoveries that will help make their education better. We further believe that the benefits of improved education do not end with their direct recipients. When the quality and extent of a community's education improves, the benefits redound not only to the better educated individuals but to the community as a whole, with results that may include, among others, greater economic prosperity and more effective political and civic life. 

Our aim is to serve society through helping improve education. No matter how insightful, how rigorous, how intellectually coherent is the research we help to advance, we have failed in our mission if, in the end, it doesn't succeed in making education better. This doesn't mean that the research we support has to be narrowly instrumental -- improvement needn't happen overnight, nor must we be able to draw a demonstrable line linking this particular investment in research with that particular improvement in education. The linkage from scholarship to educational improvement is sometimes subtle and indirect. One could imagine for example historical studies that lead us to question received wisdom in a way that opens new paths. Or, in a very different vein, imagine basic work in statistical theory that improves our ability to test the causal relationships between variables. We would hope, indeed, to be involved in advancing a portfolio of projects at any one time -- some whose "practical" payoff is relatively distant and uncertain, but are essential to stimulating inquiry, and some that are much more closely tied to potential near term improvements. Still, in light of the Foundation's purpose, educational improvement is our "bottom line." 

A major implication of the commitment to achieving educational improvements through research is that we must think of our circle of partners and allies as being broader than the research community alone. There is, alas, no magic by which research findings translate into improved educational practice. A picture of the world in which educators are simply consumers or passive recipients of knowledge provided by researchers is not just inadequate but deeply wrongheaded. We have to find ways to engage actively and productively with those who "do" education as well as with those who study it. We also know that there are other actors -- foundations, government agencies, private entities like publishers and consulting firms, and others -- whose work brings them much more into direct engagement with educational interventions and reforms. Here too we want to be active partners in the effort to learn from these interventions and build toward deeper understandings. 

Let me now turn attention to the purpose itself of educational improvement. This is what we aim at, so it is worthwhile to ask what we mean by "better" education and why it is important. Just how does better education improve the lives of those who experience it? 

Some elements of improvement are easily identified and relatively non-controversial. Helping more people attain basic literacy and numeracy would count as an improvement in anybody's book and there is a fair degree of agreement on what those terms mean (although the so-called "literacy wars" and "math wars" include disagreements about the ends as well as the best means for basic education). Remaining at a relatively basic level, standardized tests identify gaps in educational achievement between different social groups at the beginning of schooling and trace the widening of those gaps thereafter. Even though these tests measure only a limited portion of what we care about in schooling, there is a high level of agreement that reducing achievement gaps between students of different races and economic backgrounds would be a major educational improvement (provided that it was accomplished by raising the performance of the less advantaged). 

It is worth spelling out just why these improvements are important. Thus Amartya Sen, the Nobel economist and philosopher, in writing about the value of basic education, has contrasted " distinct but related areas of investigation in understanding the processes of economic and social development: the accumulation of 'human capital' and the expansion of 'human capability'." The former refers to the expansion of human production possibilities, while the latter "focuses on the ability of human beings to lead lives they have reason to value and to enhance the substantive choices they have". Sen argues that the process of development in poor countries (and not only there) should be seen "as the expansion of human capability to lead freer and more worthwhile lives". He notes that literacy and numeracy, while obviously valuable forms of human capital in the workplace, are extremely important also in enabling people to invoke their legal rights, to exercise their political opportunities, and to care for their health -- all areas in which, as Sen notes, women are often especially vulnerable. Following the same line of reasoning, reducing achievement gaps in a society like that of the United States is important not only for promoting economic opportunity but also for strengthening the political and civic capabilities of members of disadvantaged groups, equipping them to defend their rights, and more broadly enriching their participation in social intercourse. 

Once we move beyond the basics, questions about what educational improvement means, let alone how to measure it, become more challenging. How should we understand, and how and why should we value, the more complex cognitive achievements captured in phrases like "higher order reasoning", "critical thinking" or "learning how to learn"? These phrases are easily mouthed (especially by a former college president like myself) but exactly what we mean by them, how to promote them and how to measure our success in achieving them are elusive questions. On another front, should the quality of an educational system be judged in part by its contributions (going beyond those provided by basic literacy and numeracy) toward more intelligent and sustained civic and political engagement? How would we expect improved education to influence the character of people's personal lives and the quality of the interactions that make up a society? 

It's instructive, I think, to ask ourselves what the world would look like if we and others who aimed at improving education were wildly successful. Suppose that, through some combination of breakthroughs in cognitive science, improvements in understanding the organization of schools, and other perhaps currently unimagined achievements, we succeeded in creating a society where education worked really well for most people. Picture a time when future generations of Americans -- or of people around the world -- could enjoy a truly enriching education, well adapted for each person to his or her particular educational needs and capacities. 

The most obvious benefits of increasing the educational accomplishments of a larger number of people would, perhaps, be scientific, technological and economic. Particularly in this "information age", expanding people's capacity both to contribute to and to take advantage of new developments in science and technology would obviously yield substantial economic rewards. Moreover, "wild success" in improving education should surely be taken to include lowering the barriers that produce such wide disparities in the educational attainments of people from different social and economic backgrounds. To the degree that this latter holds true, and to the degree that the supply of human capital expands as we learn more about effective education, we should expect major educational improvement to lead to a reduction in material inequality all around. 

It is reasonable to expect that the benefits of markedly improved education would be qualitative as well as quantitative. Substantial and widespread improvements in people's developed reasoning abilities, in their skills at critical thinking, and in their capacity to respond with intelligence and discernment to a broad range of cultural experiences and perspective -- all these reflecting dimensions of what Martha Nussbaum describes as "cultivating our humanity" -- would be likely to lead to significant and, we would expect, largely positive changes in social and political life. There is no need to be Panglossian -- evidence abounds that excellent education is compatible with, and in some spheres of life perhaps even conducive to, socially destructive conduct. Still, particularly when educational improvement is widely shared, it is highly likely to yield not only important economic benefits but significant improvements in people's civic and personal lives as well. 

This effort to stretch our thinking beyond the quite properly urgent matters of basic education and improved test scores for the disadvantaged reminds us that the very notion of educational improvement is hardly "value free". What we aim for in education is tied up with judgments about human needs and human capabilities that are bound to be contested, and that call for clarification and for critical reflection in their own right. That said, particularly as we think about the longer term prospects for improvement in education, there is every reason to keep our hope and aspirations high. 

Keeping before us the underlying purposes and larger aims of educational improvement can be helpful to us even as we tackle more immediate problems. First, such attention will help ensure that we make progress toward our real goals, rather than simply chasing after metrics that may turn out to be empty. There are, for example, all too many ways in which a school might improve test scores without affecting real learning. Second, we should be alive to the possibility that some kinds of short run improvements may in fact impede progress toward longer run goals. "Drill and kill" techniques, for example, may advance performance in basic literacy and numeracy to some degree, but at the expense of stimulating curiosity and opening students to the kind of higher-order learning we also value. And finally, we should remember that even students who are educational "success stories" in the current system may have seriously defective educations, when judged from such standpoints as critical thinking or civic capability. 

The Spencer Foundation's distinctive role in the enterprise of improving education is to find ways to align the search for new knowledge with the practical challenges of effecting positive change. For our work to succeed, we need partners not only in the world of scholarship but also in the worlds of educational policy and practice. We need not only to find the "greatest return in ideas per dollar" but also to help ensure that those ideas really do "germinate", leading not only to more ideas but to real changes in education that matter in people's lives. 

The Spencer Foundation thus "lives" at the interface between research about education and the improvement of education, a notion that has been present, sometimes more and sometimes less explicitly, throughout its existence. It's not in some ways an easy place to live. The notion that the search for new knowledge can be leveraged to provide a multiplier effect on educational improvement continues to seem exactly right, yet the question of how to make the relationship between academic research, on the one hand, and educational practice and policy, on the other, a productive and mutually supportive one is clearly quite difficult. 

Tom James addressed this challenge head on in his second Annual Report essay as Spencer's first full-time president. He criticized the "linear model" in which research makes discoveries which are transmitted to practitioners who apply them. Among the defects James pointed out is that this linear model makes the practitioner a "consumer [who] is excluded from active participation in the development of new solutions to fundamental problems". James thought that this and other problems could be helped by the development of intermediary "brokerage" institutions that "encourage interaction between practitioners and scholars". And indeed many such intermediary institutions, including, as James noted, "the independent research firms, the consulting firms and ... the research and development centers", among others, have grown up into increasingly important roles. These are indeed interesting institutions, which deserve our attention, although certainly (as their leaders would no doubt agree) they have by no means resolved the problems of linking research and practice successfully. The same set of concerns recurs frequently in Pat Graham's essays as President. She remarked in 1999 that "we continue to struggle with the problems of understanding and improving educational practice", in the face of challenges "both analytical and political". And of course the emphasis my immediate predecessor Ellen Lagemann put on "usable knowledge" points to the same challenge. 

I will conclude by identifying four key points we need to keep in mind as we continue to negotiate this tricky interface. First and foremost, we must remember that our ultimate aim of achieving improvement in education in no way warrants any reduction in our commitment to the highest academic quality in the work that we fund. Clear standards of argument and evidence, accurate reporting and analysis of data, and honesty and clarity in reporting and interpreting findings are, if anything, even more important in contexts where research is envisioned as having a real (even if indirect) influence on people's lives. Moreover, imagination and creativity, as well as a strong critical faculty, will continue to be needed in a search for those "effective ideas" Lyle Spencer talked about. 

My second point is that we need to recognize that this problem of how research becomes effective in practice is itself a social science question of considerable depth and complexity that deserves study in its own right. The paths by which research knowledge finds its way into the daily life of educational organizations, the paths by which practitioner knowledge is brought to bear and made to count in the research process, and the paths by which researchers become interested in problems of genuine importance to practice are complex and hard to understand and warrant systematic analysis and reflection. 

Third, it will help if both we ourselves and those whose work we support strive to be more focused and explicit about the kinds of educational improvements we aim at and about how we expect our projects to improve the prospects for those improvements. Again, this does not mean that practical results need be either immediate or assured, and indeed the pathways toward improvement may sometimes be highly indirect. A major reason for being as explicit as we reasonably can be is that this will help us to learn: the more we can say up front about where we are trying to go, the better we can judge the effectiveness of our efforts. There is nothing at all wrong with taking risks and making mistakes - provided that we learn from them. 

Finally, we need to be willing to declare our interest in particular lines of inquiry, to stay with them long enough to gauge their promise, and to make well-judged investments that will help move approaches that show real promise into practical use. There is indeed a slippery slope here. We don't want to lose sight of the multiplier effect of new ideas and discoveries, and with our limited resources, we could easily become consumed in funding interventions, and lose track of our unique and valuable role in advancing research. Nonetheless, if the last thirty years have taught us anything, it is that there is no comfort in assuming that good research ideas will find their way automatically into the improved education which is our ultimate aim. 

H. G. Wells wrote in his Outline of History that "human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe". Although this sobering statement needs to be balanced with a reminder of the tremendous positive potentials inherent in educational improvement, it provides a stark reminder of the importance and the urgency of our work. We look forward to working with our partners in the research community, in other funding organizations, in the intermediating institutions Tom James spoke of, and in the realms of practice and of policy as we continue to pursue Lyle Spencer's compelling vision.

Michael S. McPherson

September 2004

Works Cited

Patricia Albjerg Graham, "The President's Comments", Annual Report: The Spencer Foundation, 1999.

H. Thomas James, "An Interaction Model for Theory and Practice in Education" Annual Report: The Spencer Foundation, 1972.

H. Thomas James, "An Interaction Model for Theory and Practice in Education" Annual Report: The Spencer Foundation, 1972.

Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, "Usable Knowledge in Education: A Memorandum for the Spencer Foundation Board of Directors", Spencer Foundation Web Site, 2002.

Martha Nussbaum, Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education, 1997.

A. K. Sen, "The Importance of Basic Education", The Guardian, October 28, 2003.

H. G. Wells, Outline of History, 1920.