Lyle M. Spencer is born in Atlanta, Georgia on May 10, 1911.
Twenty-seven years later, while still a graduate student in sociology at the University of Chicago, he co-founds Science Research Associates (SRA), the educational publishing firm that provides the basis of his wealth and ultimately makes possible the creation of the Spencer Foundation. SRA produces the iconic SRA Reading Laboratory Kit, an early personalized learning program designed to foster independent reading skills. In 1964, IBM purchases SRA for $55 million.
Lyle Spencer’s Presentation to the House Subcommittee on Education on March 3, 1962 speaks to the values that would undergird the foundation he would formally establish the following month.
It is as a businessman rather than as an educator that I wish to speak to you today. In my judgment, hard-minded, sensible investments in education research can provide the most effective single method of strengthening our schools. Judicious expenditures for this purpose are justified not by idealism or scholarly enthusiasm in my view, but by the fact that they will pay for themselves many times over as educational investments.
- Lyle M. Spencer
On April 27, 1962, Spencer files articles of incorporation for the Spencer Foundation.
Prior to his death, Spencer sketches out his hopes for the Foundation. Among the papers found after his death was a note in which he set out in his own words his hopes and purpose for the Foundation.
"All the Spencer dough was earned, improbably, from education. It makes sense, therefore, that most of this money should be returned eventually to investigating ways in which education can be improved, around the world. Broadly conceived, wherever learning occurs."
Lyle M. Spencer dies of pancreatic cancer at the age of 57.
He bequeaths the bulk of his estate to the Foundation, enabling it to begin its major work. Board members Charles Dollard and Ralph Tyler begin preparations for the Foundation to be created. The Foundation receives an initial distribution from Spencer’s estate in 1971. By 1982 when the final distributions are completed, the endowment from Lyle Spencer totals just over $82 million.
Dollard served as acting President after Lyle Spencer’s death in 1968 until 1970. He was a director from 1962 to 1975 and served as chairman from 1968 until June 1970.
Dollard was an educational executive and former president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York and New York Life Insurance.
He also served with the information and education division of the Army Service Forces. He had been a director of SRA and of the American College Testing Program, and had held trusteeships at Roosevelt University and the Association for Aid to Crippled Children. Dollard, a close friend of Spencer’s, helped steward Lyle’s vision for the Foundation after his death.
James was the founding President of the Spencer Foundation. As a faculty member of the School of Education at Stanford University, his scholarship specialized in education finance and administration. He served as Dean of the Stanford School of Education from 1966 to 1970. James received the National Association of State Boards of Education Award for Distinguished Service to Education in 1973 and the Outstanding Service Award from the American Educational Finance Association in 1988.
As founding President, James helped set the course for the Foundation’s grantmaking, focusing in particular on attracting and cultivating young scholars from the disciplines to study education.
The Foundation issues its first two grants, which mark what would become a lasting commitment to the training and development of junior scholars. The first, for $163,500 over three years, is awarded to the National Academy of Education to select, supervise, and support Academy Associates and Fellows; the second, $450,000 over three years, goes to Harvard University, Northwestern University, Stanford University, University of Chicago, and University of Wisconsin to support “young scholars working on problems related to education.”
These efforts concentrated on persons whose academic background was typically in the behavioral or social sciences, not education, and the hope of the Foundation leadership was to lure these bright, junior scholars to study educational problems.
Cremin served as the Foundation’s second President. As a scholar, Cremin broadened the study of American educational history beyond the school-centered analysis dominant in the 1940s by advocating a more comprehensive approach: examining the other agencies and institutions that educate children, integrating the study of education with other historical subfields, and comparing education across international boundaries. He was the Frederick A.P. Barnard Professor of Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, where he served on its faculty for 42 years, and as its president for 10 years.
His book American Education won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1981. He played a leading role in many professional, governmental, and philanthropic organizations, including the National Academy of Education, the U.S. Office of Education’s Curriculum Improvement Panel, and the Carnegie Commission on the Education of Educators. Under the guidance of Cremin, Spencer enhanced its support for projects that study learning in a range of contexts, including families, museums and other cultural institutions, the workplace, and civic organizations.
The Foundation establishes its “Good Neighbor Program,” a line of funding for action-oriented projects in the Chicago area that are not limited to scholarly research but remain closely related to Spencer’s mission. The foundation’s second president, Lawrence Cremin, describes the program this way:
Good Neighbor projects are within the domain of The Foundation’s general expertise, but they include a broader array of applied research, evaluation, and information gathering than would be appropriate under our regular grant program. That breadth enables us to join other foundations in contributing to worthy causes in the city of Chicago – to pay our dues so to speak.
Under the guidance of Larry Cremin, Spencer enhances its support for projects that study learning in a range of contexts, including families, museums and other cultural institutions, the workplace, civic organizations, and through electronic as well as printed media. Scholars in many disciplines of the social sciences are encouraged to look to the Foundation for support.
This emphasis is consistent with Lyle Spencer’s original advice to support research “wherever learning occurs.”
The Small Research Grants Program is formally established to provide modest funds for researchers to explore new areas of inquiry, pursue added dimensions of larger investigations, or complete research already underway. Since its establishment, this program has grown to become a vital part of Spencer’s research grant programs.
On behalf of Spencer, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation begins to administer a dissertation-level fellowship award program to provide graduate students with financial support to complete their dissertations. The Foundation takes over the administration of the dissertation program in the early 90’s.
Over the years and through a variety of programs, Spencer consistently supports efforts to encourage young scholars to pursue their interest in education research, in keeping with the Foundation’s deep commitment to cultivating and renewing the education research community.
In 2011, the National Academy of Education takes over the administration of the fellowship program.
Graham served as third President of the Foundation. She was a faculty member at Barnard College and Columbia University until 1974, when she moved to Harvard University as professor of the history of education and Dean of the Radcliffe Institute. Her scholarship focuses on the role of public schooling in the US, and a range of higher education issues, including a focus on women in higher education.
In 1977 President Jimmy Carter named her Director of the National Institute of Education, where she served for two years before returning to Harvard, serving as Dean of the School of Education from 1982-91. She has received Guggenheim, Radcliffe Institute and Woodrow Wilson Center fellowships. She has served on three corporate boards and several non-profit boards, including chairing the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching Board. She was also a former high school teacher. She is a member of the National Academy of Education and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
At Spencer, she made lasting contributions to scholarship in the field by establishing the Foundation’s Research Training Grant Program, which improved the quality of doctoral research training in schools of education nationally, and by supporting high-quality mentoring. She also strengthened the ties between Spencer and the Chicago civic and educational community, leading efforts locally to improve Chicago schools.
The Research Training Grant (RTG) Program is established to improve the quality of doctoral research training in schools of education nationally. The RTG Program provides institutional block grants to schools/departments of education to support the doctoral training of education researchers in two ways: creating programs to deepen the quality of research training throughout the institution and providing full-time tuition and support for doctoral students to supplement university funds and allow them to focus solely on their training.
Several new programs with a focus on improving educational practice are established, including the Practitioner Research Communication and Mentoring Program, designed to enhance the research expertise of educators and support increased communication and mentoring among practitioner-researchers. The 1993 Annual Report speaks to the Foundation’s commitment to supporting the field to do this critical work.
Clearly it is not the obligation of the individual researcher both to increase knowledge by seeking and finding universal truths, and to improve educational practice simultaneously. It is, however, the duty of the field itself to attain these goals.
As part of the Good Neighbor Program, Spencer provides a $22,500 startup grant for the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, a high-profile initiative funded nationally by philanthropist Walter H. Annenberg to reform American Education. Spencer President Pat Graham serves as a founding member of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge Board, which brings together city, business, and civic leaders to form a broad public-private coalition focused on improving Chicago schools. Barack Obama, then a 33-year-old Chicago attorney, is named first chair of the board. The Chicago Challenge includes $49.2 million from Annenberg and nearly $100 million in local public and private matching funds. Spencer also provides $365,000 for a five-year study of the Chicago Annenberg initiative, designed to illuminate its strengths and weaknesses and lessons for the future.
The Foundation introduces new efforts and initiatives focused on impact, diversity, and collaboration. The Research on School Reform Initiative creates communities of scholars working closely with practitioners on important problems of practice.
The Southern Regional Research Initiative is a targeted effort to increase and diversify participation in Spencer research grant and fellowship programs. The initiative focuses on promising scholars who are “inhibited from engaging in research by the values of their institutions, by heavy teaching loads, and by other factors.”
The work is concentrated in the South, particularly at Historically Black Colleges and Universities. The Conference Grant Program establishes a formalized grant program to expand and sustain the education research community by providing opportunities to scholars to meet to discuss new ideas, review important research findings, and develop research agendas.
Lagemann served as the fourth President of the Foundation. A historian of education, she was the Charles Warren Professor of the History of American Education and Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education before becoming the Levy Institute Research Professor at Bard College and a Distinguished Fellow at the Bard Prison Initiative. Her work examines the history of education research, and she is a specialist in philanthropic foundations and their intersections with education research. She is a member of the National Academy of Education. Lagemann brought to Spencer a deep emphasis on translating education theory and research into actual tools that teachers and students could use in classrooms and other learning environments.
McPherson served as the fifth President of the Spencer Foundation. Prior to joining Spencer he served as President of Macalester College for seven years. An economist, his scholarship focuses on the interplay between education and economics. McPherson spent the 22 years prior to his Macalester presidency as professor of economics, chairman of the Economics Department, and dean of faculty at Williams College.
He has served as a trustee of the College Board, the American Council on Education, Wesleyan University, and the DentaQuest Foundation. He was a fellow of the Institute for Advanced Study and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He is a trustee of McNally Smith College of Music and president of the board of overseers of TIAA-CREF.
At Spencer, McPherson left a legacy of supporting deep intellectual work, particularly focused on areas of research that often are under-resourced. His focus on growing the Foundation’s modest journalism program reflected a deep commitment to improving the public discourse in education.
Our founder, Lyle Spencer… thought the best way to achieve long-run improvement in education was to invest in research and the creation of new knowledge. I worry that sometimes there’s a temptation in the field to skip that step and, without having built up a really strong foundation of knowledge, just go out and try something and see whether it works. And if it does, hope that it scales. But if something works and you don’t know why it worked, the odds are low that it will work somewhere else.
The Resident Fellows Program is established to provide eminent scholars space to pursue new projects and lines of inquiry; collaborate and interact with scholars across methodological and disciplinary boundaries; and work alongside policymakers and practitioners focused on similar issues of improvement.
The program exemplifies the value the Foundation places on making space for scholars to think together and along with Spencer staff.
The Foundation categorizes all applications into four new “areas of inquiry,” an effort to elevate scholarship dealing with critical moral, ethical, and political questions in education and to ensure that funding is more evenly distributed across these broad topics: The Relationship between Education and Social Opportunity; Organizational Learning; Purposes and Values of Education; and Teaching, Learning, and Instructional Resources.
To deepen this work, in 2008 the Foundation launches the Initiative on Philosophy in Educational Policy and Practice, a separate program of small grants targeted to investigate philosophical issues in educational policy and practice. In launching the initiative, President Mike McPherson quotes the Foundation’s first President, Tom James: “Philosophy can discipline us to ask the right questions and to recognize right answers when we find them.”
The Philosophy Initiative exemplifies Spencer’s support for otherwise under-funded fields and disciplines in education research.
The Foundation initiates the Education Journalism Program, a strategy to enrich the public discourse on issues related to education through support of education journalism.
A cornerstone of this strategy is the establishment of the Spencer Education Journalism Fellowship Program at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, which allows journalists to spend the academic year at Columbia University studying with scholars from a variety of disciplines and with mentors in the Journalism School. Projects by prior fellows have resulted in books, radio documentaries, and major pieces in national magazines and other outlets.
The Foundation also helps initiate American Public Media’s Educate podcast, which combines vivid storytelling with deep dives into education research. All these initiatives speak to the Foundation’s abiding concern with increasing public awareness and use of educational research.
The Lyle Spencer Research Awards are created to support intellectually ambitious research oriented to improving the practice of education, independent of any particular reform agendas or methodological strictures. The Lyle Spencer Research Awards make $1M investments in transformative research projects, including data infrastructure projects and collaborations across disciplinary and methodological lines.
In the urgent press for major improvements in the short run, there is little time or incentive for careful examination of assumptions and conceptual frameworks that shape the search for successful interventions or effective government policies.
–Michael McPherson, explaining the rationale for the Lyle Spencer Research Awards
The Spencer Foundation creates its Research-Practice Partnership (RPP) Grant Program to support education research projects that engage in collaborative and participatory partnerships. Spencer views partnerships as an important approach to knowledge generation and the improvement of education, broadly construed.
Nasir is the sixth President of the Foundation. She was the Birgeneau Chair of Educational Disparities at the University of California, Berkeley in the Graduate School of Education and the Williams Chair of African American Studies in the Department of African American Studies. At Berkeley, she also served as Vice-Chancellor of Equity and Inclusion. Her scholarly work focuses on issues of race, culture, learning, and identity.
Nasir is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Education. She is president of the American Educational Research Association (AERA) for 2021-2022. She has brought to the Foundation a deep commitment to fostering equity and belonging, supporting the collaborative development of cutting-edge, cross-disciplinary and impactful scholarship, and establishing new systems of outreach and support for the field.
Spencer program staff and leadership engage in a ‘listening tour,’ visiting over 40 schools of education in universities nationally, meeting with scholars in groups and individually, and surveying the field more broadly. Several key themes emerge: Scholars want their work to matter and to help improve the world; they are worried about the disconnect between research, policy, and practice; they are troubled by increasing educational and social inequality; they crave more time to work collaboratively; and they would appreciate more feedback from Spencer on their proposals.
These listening tours provide direction for the development of Spencer’s strategy moving forward and underscore the importance of working in collaboration with the field in the development of those strategies.
These conversations were at once informative, generative, funny, poignant, anxious, and hopeful. We were blown away by the sense of purpose and commitment in our field, by the selflessness with which scholars manage the multiple demands in their university contexts, and by the amazing research we heard about in every single conversation we had.
To commemorate its 50th anniversary, Spencer launches a Racial Equity Initiative, a critical opportunity to deepen Spencer’s commitment to and focus on scholarship dedicated to understanding and disrupting racial inequity in education. The Racial Equity Initiative involves commissioning new research, convening scholars and other stakeholders, and collaborating with other foundations on shared goals to increase impact.
Racial inequality is perhaps the greatest risk and challenge to education, and to the future of our nation, right now. It is a time that demands our collective action in the service of equity and justice; in the service of the public and social good; and in the service of systems that honor our collective humanity.