Lyle Spencer Research Awards
The Invited Essay: An explanation of the second phase of the proposal process

We recognize that the requirement to submit a substantial essay as a component of the proposal review process is unusual, and we want to explain our rationale briefly. Many project proposals are written in response to Requests for Proposals that define with considerable precision the topic to be addressed and sometimes the methods to be employed. When a grant program is delimited in that way, the rationale for undertaking a particular project is likely to be easy to state. This sort of sharply defined RFP is a great way to direct focused attention on a particular problem; it is an approach we at Spencer have used in the past and are likely to use again in the future.

The Lyle Spencer Research Awards program is very different. We seek proposals across a wide range of topics and methods, including some (we hope) that we have not anticipated at all. Ultimately, with the help of a highly capable and thoughtful Review Panel, we will select a small number of proposals for funding – proposals that in our view hold exceptional promise for helping to advance the aim of improved understanding of educational practice.

We believe that the research teams themselves are in the best position to explain clearly and persuasively how their work has the prospect of leading (directly or indirectly) to this improved understanding that we regard as essential for lasting improvement in the practice of education. And we think a well-reasoned essay, unencumbered by detailed description of the methodological approach of the proposal, an exhaustive literature review, and the like, provides the research team with an excellent opportunity to make its argument. We underscore that we will need to see, and to review, the more technical matters that are not part of the essay at a later stage in the review process.

We also emphasize, however, that applicants should not interpret the instruction to forgo detailed explanation of technical matters at this stage as an instruction to avoid subtlety and nuance. Effective essays will convey the richness, complexity, and importance of the ideas driving the proposed research, and they will do so in a way that is accessible and persuasive to a well-informed but nonexpert reader. We expect the essay to be focused on the work to be undertaken, to explain why and how the work to be undertaken matters, why it has good prospects for leading the way to further valuable work, and why this team has an excellent chance of undertaking the work successfully. Descriptors like well-reasoned, clear-headed, straightforward, and persuasive are good to keep in mind.

We are looking for a document that will be ten to twelve double-spaced pages in length. Again, because of the broad range of this program, it is important that it be written for well-informed readers who are not specialized to the team’s particular methods and topic. (Peer review will play a role later in the process, but not at the essay stage. After the essay stage, advancing applicants will be invited to submit full proposals that will be reviewed by external peer reviewers, as well as by members of the Review Panel and Spencer Program Staff.)