Rhoda Freelon is an assistant professor in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at University of Houston. Previously she was a program officer at Spencer, where she reviewed grants across all major programs and led the Foundation’s Conference Grant Program. She also was instrumental in developing Spencer’s Research-Practice Partnerships program, which provides support to teams of researchers, school districts, and community-based educational organizations. In this interview, she reflects on how her time at Spencer enriched both her own scholarship and her understanding of the field of education research.
Q: After five years of reading and judging grant applications, what advice do you have for scholars seeking funding for their work?
A: One of the things I tell people, because they think I have some secret sauce, which I do not, is to really step back for a moment before they submit and think about whether they have made the case for the significance of their work and also the urgency surrounding their particular topic. Most people can convince you of the “so what,” they’re trained to do that. But conveying the real importance and urgency of why this particular topic must be explored right now, that’s sometimes missing in the proposals we see, I think because people are so close to the topic, they just don’t think to spell it out. Communicating the importance of my research—that’s a skill I picked up at Spencer, and I think I maybe I otherwise wouldn’t have gotten until much later in my career.
Another challenge I see is people lack detail in sharing their methods, and their proposals suffer in the review process as a result. It’s so important to communicate the very specific details of your research design to help reviewers fully assess your proposal.
Q: How else did your experiences as a Program Officer add to or enhance the skills you bring to your current academic job?
A: Definitely it helped me think about how you approach research as a scholar. We do get trained in grad school to critique and review proposals and articles, but usually only in our specific narrow domain. The beautiful thing about Spencer is that as a PO, you get exposed to a lot more variety within the field, and it opens your eyes to the broader educational research community and what people are taking up.
I also think my experiences at Spencer have really served me well as a teacher, which I wasn’t necessarily expecting. Sometimes students have questions that are outside my expertise, but I have read so much at this point, it allows me to point them to scholars who are doing great work in that particular area.
Q: Your scholarship explores educational inequality as well as family and community engagement. How did the breadth and depth of scholarship you were exposed to at Spencer help inform this work?
A: I took a more purely sociological approach to my work before I came to Spencer because that’s the lens I got trained with at graduate school. Being at Spencer helped me think more about how other disciplines might inform what I do. I study family and community engagement broadly, particularly the socio-political dimensions that affect engagement. I was skilled at the critique of district policies, of highlighting the need to tear things down. But my engagement with learning scientists, in particular, has helped me think beyond dismantling and towards rebuilding. I really appreciate the approach Learning Scientists take to Design Research, how parents and community members can be co-designers of policy along with district leaders. It’s something really important as I think about families and communities because they still have to live with that school that was closed or “turned around,” that’s still their reality after the critique is over. So that really is my focus now, helping to think about how we continue to document disparities, but also how we move forward towards solutions.
Q: Are there any trends in the field that you have observed that make you particularly excited?
A: One of the first things I got to work on at Spencer was to help colleagues John Easton and Amy Feygin formally create our Research-Practice-Partnership program. At the time, I wasn’t familiar with the term RPP. But once people described it, I got it. At its essence it was just really deep engagement with communities and schools and educators, stuff many scholars had been doing all along, but I had just never had a label for it. It was more the extra-curricular work we did, and there just weren’t many formal structures in place to support it. Also there was this sense that you should wait until you get tenure and have plenty of published academic papers before taking the time to engage in that type of work.
But I’ve been struck by the outpouring of interest in our RPP program and in the overall interest level in doing work that connects back to schools, districts, families, communities, and young people. And it’s not just tenured professors—we are seeing so much interest from early career scholars as well. And I think it speaks to the burning desire people have for their work to matter. Because most scholars didn’t get into this field just to produce high-quality publications. They also want to improve education and learning and people’s lives. And I think we are just at the beginning of a really exciting journey where we are going to learn a lot about how to link research and policy and practice while at the same time incorporating the voices of historically marginalized communities.
Q: Is there anything you would want to tell a scholar who is considering a program officer position at Spencer?
A: I do think it’s a unique experience. It’s a special place. No other foundation has this singular focus on education, but also this approach to the field that is so broad and expansive. I would not trade that for anything else I would do in the academy. When I first took this job, I worried whether I would be behind my peers in the academy who started at the same time, but it’s a different kind of education that you would have to experience to understand. You will leave Spencer with a completely expanded view of education research and of social science research generally.