The Small Research Grants program is intended to support education research projects with budgets of $50,000 or less. In keeping with the Spencer Foundation’s mission, this program aims to fund academic work that will contribute to the improvement of education, broadly conceived.
Historically, the work we have funded through these grants has spanned, a range of topics and disciplines, including education, psychology, sociology, economics, history, and anthropology, and they employ a wide range of research methods. The following examples of recently funded small grants illustrate the diversity of what we support:
- an experimental study of how college students use visual representations in solving math problems
- a study exploring the process of racial and rural identity formation among African American high-school students who attend de facto segregated schools in the rural South
- a mixed-methods study focusing on the different types of knowledge novice and experienced teachers draw on in teaching for reading comprehension
The majority of small grant proposals that are funded by the Foundation are “field-initiated” in the sense that they are not submitted in response to a Request for Proposal (RFP). In the past, we have requested that proposals within the Small Grants program be submitted within one of the areas of inquiry listed below. The Foundation does not use this information in the review process, but captures it in the application to better understand the variety of research that is proposed. The areas are broadly organized as follows:
Field-Initiated: Proposals in this area are those that fall under the Spencer Foundation's general mission of funding research on education, but don't appear to fit in one of the areas mentioned below. Although the areas below are broad, there are many projects that don't have a strong focus in any of them; those should be tagged with Field-Initiated as the research area in the online application.
The Relation between Education and Social Opportunity: This area would include projects that seek to shed light on the role education can play in reducing economic and social inequalities -- as well as, sometimes, reinforcing them -- and to find ways to more fully realize education's potential to promote more equal opportunity. Proposals where the primary aim is to examine the ways in which differences in social and educational experiences (such as quality and character of schooling or the number of years in school) translate into differences including employment, earnings, and civic and academic outcomes would be included in this area.
Teaching, Learning, and Instructional Resources: Studies in this area would be those that will lead to better understanding and improvements in the intellectual, material, and organizational resources that contribute to successful teaching and learning. They may investigate questions that are grounded directly in teaching practice, as well as research about important aspects of child and adult learning processes and contexts that hold promise for guiding informed policymaking.
The New Civics: This area represents the broader Foundation belief that cultivating knowledge and new ideas about civic education will ultimately improve students’ lives and enrich society. The designation “new” refers to an expanded understanding of civic education and its relationship to civic action. Thus, proposals with this focus would deepen our understanding of influences on civic action, attend to social inequalities in civic education, and have the potential to shape future research and practice in these fields.
Organizational Learning in Schools, School Systems, and Higher Education Systems: Research in this area would contribute to strengthening the capacity of schools and education systems to operate as learning organizations. Because the capacity and motivation for organizational learning depend as well on the larger institutional structures within which schools and systems operate, research on, 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 would fall under this area.
Purposes and Values of Education: Proposals in this area would be interested in advancing analytical, historical, and empirical work that probes effectively and creatively into deeply challenging and permanently important issues which can contribute toward social decision-making that moves education along constructive paths.
The review process for small grant proposals is thorough and careful. After an initial staff review, the strongest proposals are sent to successful established external reviewers. Based on their ratings and staff recommendations, a limited number of proposals are funded. We currently receive over 800 proposals per year, and have been able to fund roughly 10% of them.
Common reasons for declining proposals prior to external review include the following:
- The project has a limited or inadequate conceptual or theoretical framework. Because the Foundation’s goal in supporting research is to advance understanding of education as a means of improvement, it is essential that proposals make clear the ways in which the proposed research will contribute to or challenge current understandings of education, and the possible connections of findings to educational improvement.
- The project has a limited or inadequate discussion of research design and methods. The kinds of details needed in a proposal depend on the type of research involved, but without sufficient information about research setting, data collection, sample size and characteristics, and analytic methods, reviewers cannot judge the probability that a study will yield valuable findings. It is important to provide a clear and strong connection between the research design, the study's conceptual framework and research questions.
- The primary purpose of the proposed project is not research. Because the Foundation’s mission is to support educational research, we do not fund projects that do not have research as their central purpose. This means that we do not fund, among other types of projects, projects that primarily involve writing a book based on data-gathering and analysis that would be largely completed at the start of the grant or projects that are primarily devoted to developing and/or implementing a particular educational program or curriculum.
- The proposed research is an evaluation study with the primary aim of assessing whether or not a given program worked. Successful program evaluation projects at Spencer are those designed to explore the processes, mechanisms, and conditions that lead to particular outcomes, so that researchers not primarily interested in the given program could still benefit from the study’s findings.
External reviews weigh heavily in our decision to fund or not fund a given proposal. However, given large numbers of proposals in each application cycle, we often have to make choices, based on the expected quality and contribution of proposed studies, within a pool of promising submissions. Reviewers are expected to comment on the following:
- significance of research questions
- appropriateness of research design
- adequacy of budget and time-line
- potential of the principal investigator(s) to conduct a study of high quality
- overall recommendation