November 14, 2018
Dear Spencer Community,
My colleague Roey Ahram and I are writing to share updates on our visioning process at the Spencer Foundation. Last March we announced our intentions to engage with educational scholars around the country in an information-gathering mission to better understand the needs, interests, and critical issues for education researchers. Toward this end, the program staff and leadership at Spencer visited over 40 Schools of Education in universities nationally as well as several Special Interest Groups at AERA, and held 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 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. In addition to the focus group conversations during the university visits, we also conducted a survey, which provided an opportunity to hear from scholars with whom we didn’t have the chance to talk in person. We received almost 1100 responses to our survey, from scholars across the world. We spent the summer analyzing both the focus group and the survey data, with the support of a small team of graduate student interns from the University of Illinois at Chicago, and we are excited to share what we heard!
What We Heard
- You want your research to matter and help improve the world. The overarching theme we heard from education scholars across the nation and, indeed, the globe was an aspiration for research to really matter. We heard a heartfelt desire that the work we do individually as scholars and collectively as a field make a concrete difference in the lives of students, teachers, families, and communities; that it contribute to positive changes in policy and in educational practice in PK-12 and higher education contexts; that it address the most pressing problems of education; and that it make the world more just and enrich children’s lives. There was an urgency to these conversations, and a sense of purpose, which was inspiring and which calls us all to more ambitious action.
- You are worried about the disconnect between research, policy, and practice, and about the increasingly negative and reductive public discourse around education. Scholars are skeptical that the connections between research and policy and research and practice are happening in ways that foster the uptake of scholarship into important policy and practice realms. Many are concerned that our work is at best underutilized and at worst simply not making a difference at all in the world.
- You are troubled by increasing educational and social inequality. The recurring theme we heard in all of our discussions was a deep and abiding desire to address the extreme social and racial inequality in our society, our education systems, and our classrooms. Scholars expressed concerns about the plight of immigrant and undocumented students; the implications of rising economic and social inequality for families and children in poverty; stagnant teacher pay alongside exponential rises in housing costs in major American cities where teachers live and work; and the global under-education and exploitation of girls, among others. The multiple ways that inequality negatively impacts the lives of children, families, and communities is top of mind for our field.
- You are particularly passionate about several key research topics right now. While we heard from scholars across many fields and about topics in philosophy, history, sociology, psychology, research methods, science and math education, learning sciences, teacher training, international education, etc., there were a few topics and themes that continuously emerged in our conversations and survey data: You want to think about development and learning from a whole-child, context-rich, asset-based perspective; you want to broaden the ways we assess learning and achievement nationally; you are excited by new forms of big data and want to make sure education has the technological and quantitative tools to utilize it fully; and you want to improve the development of teacher and educational leader pathways in PK-12 and in higher education.
- Your time is squeezed, especially in non-R1 institutions. We heard that between maintaining a research agenda, teaching, and high levels of university and field service, scholars are overwhelmed with demands on their time and the sense that this demand is ever-increasing. As university budgets (particularly in public universities) tighten, more and more demands are placed upon faculty. It’s exhausting, and many felt like it was taking a toll on their ability to balance family life and work life, and to practice sufficient self-care. These concerns were exacerbated in less well-resourced institutions, where faculty have even heavier teaching loads and fewer resources to offset the demands placed upon them.
- You want more time to think together and work collaboratively with other scholars across disciplines and areas of specialty. One of the consequences of being so busy is that scholars felt like the time they had to think with colleagues about new ideas, research findings, and topics across fields and subfields, and to learn about work outside of their areas, was limited. Many scholars feel obligated to maintain a stream of grant funding to support doctoral students, creating a sense of continual churn without much chance to reflect. Our field is hungry for thinking time together—to ponder, to be generative, to be collaborative.
- You want more feedback from us. You shared in no uncertain terms (!) that if you take the time to write a proposal and communicate your ideas in a request for funding, the Foundation should take the time to provide written feedback on why your proposal was or was not funded. Scholars saw this not just as the right thing to do, but as a much-needed form of professional development in which the Spencer Foundation could play an important role.
- A lot of what we are doing is working well. Not to toot our own horn, but we heard that our programs make important contributions to supporting the intellectual life of scholars. The dissertation and postdoctoral fellowship programs provide key resources to scholars at pivotal points in their careers and expose them to networks of senior scholars at the NAEd retreats that are invaluable for career development; and our field-initiated research programs provide opportunities for scholars who study the full range of topics in education to further their research. For many, these programs have been career-defining.
We have taken your feedback to heart and are making concrete plans for how best to support the needs and interests that you articulated. We are considering the implications of what we heard for new grant-making programs, as well as for other aspects of our work such as our review processes; the scaffolding and support we provide for scholars who are seeking grant funding; and the opportunities we provide to scholars after the grants are made. We hope to share these plans with you in the first half of 2019.
We are so very grateful that you took the time to talk with us, and we look forward to staying in deeper engagement with you through regular outreach to universities, additional opportunities to engage with our program staff at AERA, and other avenues. We look forward to working together to create the kind of educational scholarship that we all envision.
Na’ilah Nasir Roey Ahram
President Associate Program Officer