Spencer was a twenty-seven-year-old graduate student in sociology at the University of Chicago when he founded SRA, the educational publishing firm that provided the basis of his wealth and ultimately made possible the creation of the Spencer Foundation. 1961: SRA became publicly owned.
Lyle Spencer's Presentation to House Subcommittee on Education - March 3, 1962.
"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."
Spencer Foundation Articles of Incorporation - April 27, 1962.
Spencer Foundation's first Board Meeting - October 24, 1962.
Prior to his death, Spencer sketched 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."
Upon Lyle Spencer's death he bequeathed the bulk of his estate to the Foundation, enabling it to begin its major work. Board members Charles Dollard and Ralph Tyler began preparations for the Foundation to be created. Charles Dollard served as the President of record from 1968 until 1970. He also served as Board Chair 1968-1975. H. Thomas James was hired as the 1st President in 1970 and served until 1985.
By 1973 the bulk of the estate had been received and totalled $79 million; by 1982 when the final distributions were completed the endowment from Lyle Spencer totalled just over $82 million.
The first two grants of the Foundation were awarded January 1971 and were to support junior researchers:
The first for $163,500 over three years, was awarded to the National Academy of Education to select, supervise, and support Academy Associates and Fellows; and the second, $450,000 over three years, to five universities to be selected by the President for "young scholars working on problems related to education."
H. Thomas James' comments about the Foundation's focus in the 1971 Annual Report…
"Critical inquiry into the processes of learning and into educational practices is badly needed in our time. [Consequently], the Foundation will seek out and fund those efforts that seem to offer the greatest promise of increasing our understanding of the learning process and of developing pedagogical theory that can guide the efforts of educators at all levels."
Frank Bixby elected Chair in April 1975 and served in that role until January 1990.
Frank L. Bixby was a lawyer in the Chicago office of Sidley Austin Brown & Wood with a concentration in estate planning, foundations, and estate administration. Frank served as counsel to Lyle Spencer and subsequently as a Director of the Spencer Foundation for thirty-three years.
The Good Neighbor program provided a line of funding for action-oriented projects in the Chicago area that were not limited to scholarly research but remained closely related to the Foundation's mission. The foundation's second president, Lawrence Cremin, described the program this way, "What would be special about Good Neighbor projects was not any lessening of academic or professional quality but rather a broadening of the definition of what might be seen as quality within program. 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…".
Lawrence A. Cremin joined the Board of Directors in 1973 and served as the Foundation’s 2nd President from April 1985 until his death in September 1990. He was a teacher and a scholar. In addition to serving as President, he was the Frederick A.P. Barnard Professor of Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, where he had served on its faculty for forty-two years, and as its President for ten years. During his time at Spencer he expanded the Foundation’s program by bringing his view of education as occurring not only in schools but also in families, in museums and other cultural institutions, in the work place, in civic organizations, and through electronic as well as printed media. He encouraged scholars in many disciplines of the social sciences to look to the Foundation for support of their research on education and learning. He established the Foundation’s predoctoral and postdoctoral fellowship programs to encourage young scholars to pursue their interests in education research, thereby renewing the ed research community.
Small Research Grants Program formally established.
The Small Grants program was 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.
Establishment of the Dissertation Fellowship Program
On behalf of Spencer, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation administered a dissertation-level fellowship award program to provide graduate students with financial support in order to complete their dissertations. The program was administered by Woodrow Wilson Foundation until 1992 at which time the administration of the program was brought in-house.
The Program is intended to assist twenty-five to thirty young scholars per year in the completion of the doctoral dissertation, helping to ensure the continued growth of able researchers in the field.
An invitational award created to support the work of a small number of eminent educational researchers who were judged to be at the "peak of their career." This program gave proven scholars time to reflect, integrate, break new ground, and contribute to the learnings of significant research careers.
Patricia Albjerg Graham was elected a director in 1983 and served as President of the Foundation from 1991-2000. She is a leading historian of American education. She began her teaching career in Deep Creek, Virginia, and later taught in Norfolk, Virginia, and New York City. She has also served as a high-school guidance counselor. From 1965 to 1974, while director of Barnard College's Education Program, she worked closely with teachers and administrators in New York City to assist beginning teachers in their schools. She has been a lecturer and assistant professor at Indiana University, a visiting professor at Northern Michigan University, and a professor of history and education at Teachers College, Columbia University. In 1972-73 she was awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship. She has served as dean of the Radcliffe Institute and as vice president of Radcliffe College. She joined the HGSE faculty in 1974 and served as dean from 1982 to 1991. She was also appointed by the President of the United States as the director of the National Institute of Education, then the federal government's educational research agency, where she served from 1977 to 1979.
Administration of the Spencer Dissertation Fellowship Program was brought in-house.
Internal administration of the program provided an opportunity to complement the monetary award by adding professional development opportunities for the fellows. Each cohort was brought together three times during the fellowship year to exchange across academic and intellectual boundaries and to build a strong community of young scholars committed to education.
Patricia Albjerg Graham's 1993 Annual Report comments lead to the creation of several new programs with a focus on improving practice.
"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." Professional Development Research and Documentation Program: a research grant program jointly supported by the MacArthur Foundation that supported research projects illuminating a particularly important area in the practice of education, professional development programs, and policies for adults working in schools.
The Foundation introduced three new initiatives to support graduate students pursuing careers in educational research:
1. The Research Training Grant (RTG) Initiative: Provided institutional block grants for students financial aid to schools/departments of education to support the doctoral training of education researchers.
2. The Spencer Mentor Network Initiative: designed to provide grants to individual faculty members who were strong educational researchers and active mentors of graduate students.
3. The AERA/Spencer Doctoral Research Fellowship and Travel Grant Program: Provided support for graduate students interested in education research that were finishing their coursework and beginning their dissertations in a broad range of institutions.
Research on School Reform: An initiative to bridge the gap between research and practice by supporting multidisciplinary and collaborative research conducted by university and school-based researchers interested in studying school reforms being implemented in particular locales. Southern Initiative: A targeted effort to increase the pool of southern education researchers participating in both of the Foundation's research grant and fellowship programs. Conference Grant Program: established a formalized grant program to expand and sustain the education research community by providing opportunities to scholars to meet together to discuss new ideas, review important research findings and develop research agendas.
Advanced Studies Institute/Seminar Awards: created to support workshops, seminars or conferences designed by early-career scholars. Advanced Studies Research Group Fellowships: Awards to support postdoctoral fellowship programs for cohorts of early career scholars.
Joint chair in organizational studies at Stanford University.
Ellen Condliffe Lagemann was elected as the Foundation's 4th President and served until 2002.
The Foundation endowed a joint chair in organizational studies at Stanford University in the Schools of Education and Business. Later renamed in honor of James G. March.
Discipline-Based Scholarship in Education: created as an extension of the RTG Program and intended to enhance research preparation based in disciplinary departments, as well as cross school and departmental lines, and enable faculty with interests related to education to work in common support of future scholars.
Russian Training & Fellowships Initiative: a program comprised of fellowship support to doctoral students and to postdoctoral researchers working in the social studies of education and educational change, research conferences, and a summer institute.
Derek Bok elected as Chair and served until January 2012.
Michael S. McPherson served as the 5th President of the Spencer Foundation from 2003-2017. Prior to joining the Foundation in 2003 he served as President of Macalester College I St. Paul, Minnesota for seven years. He is a nationally known economist whose expertise 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 in Williamstown, Massachusetts.
The conference is in response to developing a new area of inquiry - Purposes and Values on Education. The conference papers lead to the 2015 publication The Aims of Higher Education: Problems of Morality and Justice in Higher Education which brings together essays on the changing role of higher education in America today.
The Foundation develops an explicit strategy to enrich the public discourse on issues related to education through support of education journalism. This strategy included the establishment of the Spencer Education Journalism Fellowship Program at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.
Initiative on Philosophy in Educational Policy and Practice (IPEPP) began small grant awards: the Foundation established a separate small program of small grants targeted on philosophical issues in educational policy and practice.
The New Civics Initiative launched: Launched to fund research that asks important questions about how education can support civic and political development among students.
The Columbia School of Journalism awards 1st recipients of Spencer Education Fellowship: the fellowships are intended to support longform journalism reporting that deepens and enhances public understanding of education in America and beyond.
The Data Use and Educational Improvement Initiative was created: this initiative was created to support scholarship examining processes, contexts, and other factors that affect how educational organizations use data for improvement.
A targeted RFP under the Data Use Initiative sought proposals for research projects examining how student performance data is used by educators, from kindergarten through the 8th grade, to inform classroom practices, and how organizational contexts influence this use.
The Lyle Spencer Research Awards was created as the successor the Foundation's long-standing Major Research Grant Program: the program awards intellectually ambitious research oriented to improving the practice of education, independent of any particular reform agendas or methodological strictures. The Midcareer Grant Program was launched: this targeted program was launched to enrich the work of academic midcareer scholars who are seven to twenty years post doctorate. It was intended to provide support for those who were interested in advancing their understanding of a compelling problem of education by acquiring new skills, substantive knowledge, theoretical perspectives or methodological tools. Civics Measures RFP announced: This targeted RFP under the Civics Initiative was to develop ways to measure the nature and quality of civic and political discussions taking place amongst youth, whether face to face, in writing, or online.
Research Practice-Partnership Program awards first round of projects: in 2015, the Spencer Foundation created a Research-Practice Partnership (RPP) grant program with the aim of supporting existing mutualistic and long-term partnerships to help them build capacity for current and future work together.
The first Lyle Spencer Research Awards announced. Midcareer Grant Program awards 1st round of projects.
Relaunch of the Conference Grant Program: launched in late 2015 to bring a more focused call to support conferences in a particular area of interest. The Foundation rotates the area of focus periodically to generate fresh ideas and perspectives on pressing educational challenges.
New leadership: Na'ilah Nasir named 6th President of Spencer.
Pamela Grossman serves as Board Chair, June 2017 - present.
Na'ilah Suad Nasir named 6th President, 2017-present.
Na'ilah Suad Nasir is the sixth President of the Spencer Foundation. She was a faculty member at the University of California, Berkeley from 2008-2017 where she served as Vice-Chancellor of Equity and Inclusion at UC Berkeley from November 2015. Nasir earned her PhD in Educational Psychology at UCLA in 2000 and was a member of the faculty in the School of Education at Stanford University from 2000 – 2008. Her work focuses on issues of race, culture, learning, and identity. She is the author of Racialized Identities: Race and Achievement for African-American Youth and has published numerous scholarly articles. Nasir is a member of the National Academy of Education and a fellow of the American Educational Research Association (AERA). In 2016 she was the recipient of the AERA Division G Mentoring Award.
Spencer program staff engage in a 'listening tour', visiting over 40 Schools of Education in universities nationally as well as several Special Interest Groups at AERA, and holding one-on-one conversations with scholars, making sure to include a range of geographical areas, types of institutions, and scholars across many sub-fields in education.
These interactions were intended to provide opportunities for foundation staff to engage with educational scholars around the country to better understand the needs, interests, and critical issues for education researchers.