Boy, Learning, Studying

What we funded and what we learned from our call for COVID 19-related research projects


As always, we are deeply appreciative to be working in partnership with such a thoughtful and committed community of researchers, and we deeply believe that each of us has a role to play in making education more equitable.

Posted on 09.02.2020
Emily Krone Phillips

The spring of 2020 will be an unforgettable and likely pivotal moment in our history as a global pandemic forced unprecedented upheaval to lives, careers, and education systems and as another string of senseless killings of unarmed black people sparked nationwide protests against systemic racism. We, like other philanthropic organizations, institutions, and individuals around the world wanted to do something that we hoped would matter. We recognized that the scale of change to educational institutions and processes was important for us to capture and understand as a field. The level of inequality revealed in the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and systemic racism was critical for us to address in relation to education. However, we were also mindful that proposing a new study might be overly burdensome for the many scholars juggling familial responsibilities while trying to support students and teach fully online. After much deliberation, we decided there were critical and urgent research questions arising in this moment—questions that warranted our collective attention and study.

The COVID-19 Related Research Grants had the goal of supporting education research projects that would contribute to understanding the rapid shifts in education in relation to COVID-19. We were interested in studies that aimed to understand and disrupt the reproduction and deepening of educational inequality caused by the COVID-19 crisis. We also recognized that in times of great disruption and change, there are opportunities to remake and imagine new forms of equitable education. Thus, we were also interested in research projects that were working to reimagine educational opportunities – especially those that recognized that what we considered “normal” pre-COVID was steeped in deep inequality.  Perhaps most importantly we were interested in projects that reached beyond deficit assumptions of children, families, communities, and educators. As with other Spencer grant programs, this program was “field-initiated” in that research topic, discipline, design, method, and location were not predetermined.

The response was overwhelming. We received a record-breaking 1,369 submissions over the three cycles. Proposals came in from far and wide, with every region in the US represented, and quite a number of international proposals. Proposing Principle Investigators were 68% women, 30% men, and 0.07% non-binary. Fifty-five percent of PI’s were white, 14% Black, 12% API, 8% Latinx, .29% Native American. PI’s were largely university faculty, evenly split across rank, with a small set of PI’s from research organizations outside of universities.  

Proposed projects took up a wide range of important and timely topics. Not surprisingly, there were a number of proposals that sought to document the many issues, challenges, and possibilities of the transition to online teaching in schools and colleges. Many of these focused specifically on the impact of these transitions on marginalized groups of students, as well as on teachers and faculty. There was great concern with documenting potential learning loss in this format, and some that focused on the nature of online teaching and learning, and their relation to learning in the disciplines. There were also proposals that focused on the many new roles that schools, districts, and colleges were taking up around basic needs provision, and how these institutions were making complex and rapid-fire decisions under pressing circumstances. Another key issue focused on the new kinds of relations emerging between home and school--how parents were managing multiple roles as teachers, parents, and workers, and how schools could work to build deeper and stronger connections with families. Still other proposed studies focused on learning and youth development outside of schools, and the critical role that youth organizing spaces, community-based organizations, and out-of-school spaces are playing for young people. Many projects focused specifically on vulnerable student populations--homeless youth, immigrant students, and students with disabilities, exploring both their experiences of continued marginalization and possible support to improve their access and experience. And finally, many proposals took up teaching and learning issues across the age span, from studies on access and adaptation in early learning and childcare organizations to the unique impacts and adaptations happening in higher education.

We have continued to reflect on and learn from these submissions and to consider what they mean for us as a field. First, we saw first-hand the dedication, creativity, and brilliance of so many scholars in our field, and their deeply held commitment to make a difference. We learned that there is an incredible desire on the part of researchers to study equity and lean into the moment to be a part of forward movement in our field and in the world. 

We also began to recognize several important patterns and tensions across the set of proposals--tensions that we need to attend to as a field. The first was a tension between the desire to document the extent and effects of inequality, with the tendency to view students and families from a deficit lens. The second was a deep concern with the transition to online learning, but much less innovation in designs for those experiences and minimal focus on ways to assess or measure the quality or experiences of learning in an online environment. Much of what we know as a field about the role of culture, identity, or belonging in effective learning environments was missing or underdeveloped from proposals. There were also important tensions between understanding and supporting the critical, time-sensitive emergency response educational organizations were needing to make in this moment, with how we understand and lead the longer-term reimagining around the function and form of schooling that is possible right now. And finally, there was also the age-old concern for balancing the desire to conduct research that would impact real decisions and educational processes in the world, with the reality that robust and rigorous research takes time. There is more to say here, and we intend to continue to share what we are learning.

Needless to say, decisions were difficult. While our regular criteria for proposals led our decisions (i.e. rigorous, high quality, topical and methodological diversity), we developed three additional criteria to guide us. The first focused on whether the project was urgent–did it need to happen right now or could it be done later? The second asked what are the potential impacts and when are they likely to materialize? For example, could the project have an impact on policy in the coming year or is it focused on generating new foundational knowledge? The third criterion considered how the project conceptualized inequality. More specifically, we worked towards identifying projects that were anti-deficit in their orientations. Finally, we were attentive to constructing a portfolio to reflect a wide range of important topics and issues.

In the end, we funded 20 ambitious, timely, and important studies on topics varying from school-level decision-making about the provision of basic supplies to how parents and young children reorganize their activities in light of schooling from home (the full grantee list is shared at the end of this note). We are excited about the work being completed under this special call, and we plan to provide more opportunities to study this critical moment moving forward. We also welcome your COVID-related and equity scholarship in our regular grant competitions. As always, we are deeply appreciative to be working in partnership with such a thoughtful and committed community of researchers, and we deeply believe that each of us has a role to play in making education more equitable. Together we can do work that moves us towards that goal.

Na'ilah Nasir, President
Megan Bang, Senior Vice President

Awards List

“Maintaining Community in Times of Struggle: Learning from Youth and Communities in Detroit during the COVID-19 Crisis”
Riana Elyse Anderson and Vonnie C. McLoyd
University of Michigan

“Leading through crisis: Understanding school leader decision-making about basic needs provision for students in the context of social and spatial inequality”
Catharine Biddle and Maria C. Frankland
University of Maine

“Bridging School and Home: Literacy Involvement and Support for Students with Significant Disabilities During the COVID-19 Pandemic”
Elizabeth E. Biggs
Vanderbilt University

“The COVID-19 health crisis and inequalities in tertiary education in South Africa”
Nicola F. Branson and Vimal Ranchhod
University of Cape Town

“Canadian and American Youth Perspectives on Media Related to COVID-19”
Catherine Burwell, Maren Aukerman, and David Michael Scott
University of Calgary

“Between the Public Good & Racialized Animus: Public Universities’ Responses to Influenza Pandemics, 1957-2022”
Andrés Castro Samayoa and Bach Mai Dolly Nguyen
Boston College

“Whose Home for Home School?: Black “essential worker” mothers and their experiences with distance learning during COVID-19”
Thandeka K. Chapman, Jessica T. DeCuir-Gunby, and Adrienne D. Dixson
University of California, San Diego

“In the Moment: Teachers' Adaptations to Literacy Instruction for Bilingual Children during COVID-19”
Amy Crosson and Rebecca Silverman
The Pennsylvania State University

“New York City School Integration Activists during covid-19”
Mira Catherine Debs, Elise Castillo, and Molly Vollman Makris
Yale University

“Teaching for Equity in a Pandemic Hotspots: Reaching Multilingual and Low-income Students in Two Rural Schools”
Gloria A. Delany-Barmann and Carla Paciotto
Western Illinois University

“Urban Computing Education Ecosystem Study”
Megean Garvin
University System of Maryland

“COVID-19 in California Community Colleges: College Responses, College Resources, and Student Outcomes”
Cassandra Hart
University of California, Davis

“Alabama Family Child Care Providers’ Decision-Making Related to Serving Children During and After the COVID-19 Pandemic”
Alison L. Hooper
University of Alabama

“’We have a different job now’: Experienced urban mathematics teachers' learning to teach online amidst the COVID19 pandemic”
Ilana Horn
Vanderbilt University

“Black Education in the Wake of COVID: Toward a Theory of Change and Action”
Sonya Douglass Horsford, Erica Walker, and Mark Anthony Gooden
Teachers College, Columbia University

“Broadening Access to Undergraduate Research for Underserved Students in STEM amid Unprecedented Times”
Tonisha B. Lane and Ian M. Shoemaker
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

“Interview-Based Psychosocial Support/Storytelling Program for Covid-19 in Rural Navajo Nation”
Cecilia Lewis and Rex Lee Jim
Dine College

“Indigenous Knowledge Education (IKE) and the Rapid Remote Learning Pivot”
Nicole Kaui Merritt, Bradley Ashburn, Joshua Lelemia Irvine, and Lynette Maria Williamson
University of Hawaii

“Re-imagining social futures: Learning from diverse household experiences in a global pandemic”
Marjorie Faulstich Orellana
University of California, Los Angeles

“COVID-19 Amid Hurricane Recovery: A Spatial-Qualitative Study of Student Homelessness in HISD”
Alexandra Pavlakis, Meredith Richards, and Jennifer Kessa Roberts
Southern Methodist University


Susan Florio-Ruane almost 4 years

This was an initial call for COVID 19 —related education proposals. As such it was open in terms of the range of proposals invited. It was also a call that was turned around quickly. The report is not detailed, and only skimmed the deliberative processes used by Spencer and the content of funded proposals.

Interpreting the information given, it seems to me that the proposals funded are so varied that, while all worthwhile and within Spencer’s broad guidelines, they seem to be “all over the map.”

This idea of eclectic an array of Spencer-funded studies within broad thematic categories may be appropriate to seed the field or force individual flowers to bloom in ‘ordinary’ times under Spencer’s mandate. However taken together and in urgent, extraordinary times, they do not provide the necessary focus in theme, research lines to pursue, or ways to build upon or innovate in terms of theory or method needed to address in timely ways the transformative power of education’s response to COVID-19 now and long-term.

.A professor emerita, I have neither vested interests nor an axe to grind. Rather, I am thankful to Spencer and always eager to learn from the research it supports. However I am also part of the broad, multi-generational “Spencer family,” As such I suggest the organization (mustering all of its intellectual resources and power) deliberate on, debate, and frame a focused and prioritized, long-term (5-10-year) program (in terms if COVID-related timeliness, urgency, equity, social context, and cumulative inquiries) to study Education in the context of COVID-19.

And I urge a Spencer-supported effort to organize and curate the problems proposed/funded and knowledge gleaned from Spencer-funded research in both an ongoing way and in reports over longer term.

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