Our founder Lyle Spencer held the convictions that lasting improvement in education can best be achieved through better understanding of education in all its dimensions, and that better understanding, in turn, depends on systematic and rigorous study and analysis. These convictions continue to animate our work, even as we recognize that the pathways between research and educational improvement must run both ways, and that cultivating a healthy, positive relationship between research and practice is itself a matter that requires systematic study and deliberate action. Indeed, the Foundation has recognized this difficult challenge from its earliest days. In his annual report for 1972, our first president Tom James said this: " A gap exists between theory and practice in education.... It is dismaying ... to note how frequently the educational practitioner insists that research is useless to him. For those of us who, like the Spencer Foundation, support research, it is important to ask why and to seek remedies."
A principal avenue through which the Foundation advances its mission is through funding both major and small research grants. The Foundation has always offered an open door to scholars who wish to propose studies and we continue to welcome unsolicited proposals. We have concluded, however, that we can accomplish our mission more effectively by identifying several major areas of inquiry within which we expect that the bulk of our grant-making activity will occur. Applicants are therefore asked, as part of the application process, to explain how their proposed research will advance understanding in one or more of the areas of inquiry identified below and to be as clear and explicit as possible either about the direct connection of their work to policy or practice in that area, or about how their work can lead to further development of that field of inquiry and eventually thereby to improvement in education. We suspect that some of the most interesting projects may explore connections that cross the borders of the areas of inquiry identified below; we welcome such proposals.
In addition to evaluating unsolicited proposals in our areas of interest, we intend over time to develop more focused programs of research falling within these broad areas of inquiry. We will work with leading researchers and practitioners in crafting these research programs, and we expect to play an active role in shaping and developing these programs over a period of years.
1. The Relation between Education and Social Opportunity
Since the time of the Enlightenment, education has been viewed as carrying the potential to lessen inequality and expand the economic and social opportunities available to citizens. Much controversy surrounds the question of the degree to which that potential has been and is today being realized.
The Spencer Foundation seeks to shed light on the role education plays in reducing economic and social inequalities -- as well as, sometimes, re-enforcing them -- and to find ways to more fully realize education's potential to promote more equal opportunity. Expanded opportunity is important not only to a society's economic well being but to the character of its civic, cultural and social life as well.
It is important to recognize that these educational investments don't occur in a vacuum. Larger social structures -- law and government, markets and property rights, practices and patterns of racial and gender inequality, and others -- provide a framework that conditions education's effects. Deep inequalities in family circumstances and social environments pose serious challenges to the attainment of equal educational opportunity. And even for persons with good educational opportunity, a variety of other factors in family and community life influence their prospects. While these observations should not be used to excuse schools from doing their utmost to improve the prospects of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, we need to understand better how larger social structures and the contexts in which schooling occurs (including family circumstances, health and nutrition, public safety, housing, transportation, libraries, and so on) influence the ability of schools to shape educational and social outcomes.
Education enriches and expands people's lives in many ways, including through their employment opportunities, their civic and political involvements and the quality of their personal lives. Our interests therefore extend to studies that examine the ways in which differences in educational experiences (including quality and character of schooling as well as number of years in school) translate into differences in employment, earnings, and civic and social outcomes. Such work can help us identify ways to change schooling investments and outcomes in the interests of a more just and prosperous society.
2. Organizational Learning in Schools, School Systems, and Higher Education Institutions
There is widespread interest in the notion that schools (including colleges and universities) and education systems should develop and use evidence to improve their effectiveness over time. The aim is that educational organizations will not only draw on scientific evidence developed from outside their walls but also strengthen their capacity to learn from their own experience about how to be increasingly effective.
Sustained improvement in educational performance requires continuous learning within and among schools, education systems, and higher education institutions. The Foundation is interested in advancing understanding of ways to strengthen the capacity of schools and education systems as learning organizations.
Organizational learning can be more or less intentional and formal, ranging from designing randomized experiments aimed at comparing effects of alternative curricula to fostering environments that promote the informal exchange of knowledge about effective practices among teachers. New developments in technology coupled with new requirements for accountability are leading educational organizations to generate increasingly massive amounts of data, which we are only beginning to understand how to use effectively to promote educational improvement.
Realizing these potentials (and avoiding negative side-effects) raises questions that include but go far beyond the technological. Issues of culture, of incentives, of authority and autonomy, of the selection and preparation of teachers and leaders are among the obvious elements at play. An essential element in promoting learning is the development of techniques that permit reliable and meaningful assessment of learning gains.
The capacity and motivation for organizational learning depend as well on the larger institutional structures within which schools and systems operate. These include, among other things, the roles of school boards, governments and unions; the role of markets and competition in the funding of schools; and the perceptions, concerns, and opportunities for voice among parents and the broader public.
Understanding the factors that promote and that impede learning by and within educational organizations is an essential element in developing realistic innovations in policy and practice that will improve education.
3. Teaching, Learning, and Instructional Resources
Concerned with advancing the learning and development of children and adults, Spencer is interested in studies that lead to better understanding and improvements in the intellectual, material, and organizational resources that contribute to successful teaching and learning. A key aim of research in this initiative is to support investigations of questions that are grounded directly in teaching practice as well as in research about important aspects of teaching and learning processes that hold promise for enriching opportunities to learn and for guiding informed policymaking.
The Foundation is particularly interested in studies of teaching and teacher development. We seek to understand what teachers need to know and do in order to enable all students to learn. What sorts of inquiry about teaching and learning are most important for professionals to be able to make, in and around their practice, in order to do good work? What will it take to enable such inquiries? What sorts of academic inquiry can best inform and improve teachers' and students' practices, including the inquiries that they undertake to improve those practices? Creating usable professional knowledge will entail drawing on and integrating across research findings and between research findings and the results of practical experiments.
New designs in curriculum and subject-matter standards as well as developments in computing and communication technologies may provide instructional resources that enrich students' learning and support teaching practice. Key developments in text and tools offer new opportunities, for example, for fashioning technology-mediated learning experiences, for advancing disciplinary understanding and sensemaking, and for formative assessment of students' progress in learning. Improved abilities to record and review classroom activities and interactions also expand opportunities for teachers themselves as well as for external researchers to study their practices systematically. A major challenge is to realize the potential of emerging technologies to make classrooms dynamic arenas of learning and growth, for teachers and students alike.
We want to stress that studies inspired by a concern with understanding and improving practices of teaching and learning need not be narrowly instrumental or immediately "practical". Indeed, such studies naturally open into deep questions both about individual psychological development and about the fundamental ways in which learning is shaped by the social and material contexts in which it is imbedded. It is our judgment that in the long run imaginative and thoughtful studies that pursue these difficult questions can point the way to important advancements in education.
4. Purposes and Values of Education
The challenges of finding ways to close "test score gaps" among groups of students and to better prepare people for work are both urgent and very real. These challenges should not, however, be permitted to push from our consciousness abiding questions about the larger purposes and social values that animate education. Indeed, a good case can be made that too single-minded an obsession with the most "practical" aspects of education may in the long run be counterproductive even for its own limited purposes.
We value education for its contributions to civic, political and community life, for its role in advancing social justice, for its capacity to open to people worlds of cultural and artistic excellence, and in the largest sense for its contributions to "human flourishing". Questions at this less immediate but ultimately deeply practical level are often posed by philosophers and social critics, the best of whom show a lively interest in and skilled use of findings from the social sciences.
One important aspect of such inquiry is the question of the relationship between public and political understandings of educational purposes and values, on the one hand, and educational policies and practices on the other. This is, of course, a problem of "theory and practice" in education at the broad social level which mirrors the issue of the relationship between educational research and practice at other points in this document.
Analytical, historical and empirical work that probes effectively and creatively into these deeply challenging and permanently important issues can contribute mightily toward social decision-making that moves education along constructive paths.
5. Field-Initiated Proposals
The Foundation is of course alive to the possibility that someone may have a terrific idea for worthwhile research that does not fit easily into even these broad categories. We are happy to entertain such proposals. We ask in such cases that you address explicitly how your proposed study aligns with the Foundation's mission of research toward educational improvement, and we ask as well that you understand that we will be asking ourselves the question whether this proposal promises to advance our purposes more effectively than research we can fund in our declared areas of interest.