Lyle Spencer Research Awards

The Spencer Foundation

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Grant amount: US $100,000 - US $1,000,000

Deadline: Feb 27, 2020 10:00am PST (Letter of inquiry)

Applicant type: Postdoctoral Researcher Faculty Research Scientist

Funding uses: Research

Location of project: Anywhere in the world

Location of residency: Preferred: United States Other eligible locations: Anywhere in the world

Degree requirements: Applicants must have a completed PhD

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About this funder:



In the Spring of 2014, the Spencer Foundation introduced an ambitious new grant program, The Lyle Spencer Research Awards: Advancing Understanding of Education Practice and Its Improvement. This program is the successor to our long-standing field-initiated major grant program.

With this program, we aim to reinforce our commitment to intellectually ambitious research, oriented ultimately to improving the practice of education, and independent of any particular reform agendas or methodological strictures. This is not at base a change of direction for a foundation that has always aimed to foster creative and open-minded scholarship; it is however an emphatic assertion of our determination to search for and support the most challenging, original, and constructive scholarship and research we can find. We intend through this endeavor to press our colleagues in the research community to raise their level of intellectual ambition, to encourage work that is more thoughtful, more critical of prevailing assumptions, more self-critical about their own work and its limitations, and more relevant to the aim of building knowledge for improved educational practice.

We aim to give excellent work undertaken in this spirit more visibility and greater opportunity for support. We have noted that the more open-ended type of investigation we seek has been under something of a shadow in recent years, as foundations devoted to “strategic philanthropy” have increasingly used research instrumentally, to help pursue their pre-determined goals. This is certainly a legitimate way for a foundation to operate, but when it becomes widespread, it tends to curtail the range of questions and possibilities that get explored. We have also taken note that the popularity of doing research to learn “what works” has a tendency to squeeze out deeper questions of how, when, for whom, and why an intervention works. The current climate is often also not welcoming of work that explores systematically whether some set of predefined purposes or those outcomes measured in a “what works” experiment are the right ones to focus on. Questions of what and how to measure, and what and how to value the things we do measure, need more attention than they get.

To clarify this point about connecting to practice – connecting the dots, as it were – we suggest that a significant share of the successful proposals we will fund under this initiative will fall into one of three broad categories.

  • Studies that focus more or less directly on teaching and learning processes themselves, at the classroom level (or in instructional settings outside classrooms).
  • Studies that pay attention to the larger policy and institutional environments within which educational transactions take place. Key to our interest here is attention to the conceptual and empirical links between elements of the infrastructure and the actual character of educational practice. Studies that aim at better understanding how different ways of defining, measuring, and rewarding teacher performance affect teachers’ professional goals, time use, and understanding of success would fall into this category.
  • Studies that help develop research tools that can support advancing the kinds of research we have identified here. The development of improved measurement tools, stronger theoretical frameworks and analytical methods, and the development of new databases and the archiving of data bases we have – none of these will make educational practice better today, but we regard advances on these fronts as essential to that lasting improvement in education that we seek.

You can learn more about this opportunity by visiting the funder's website.


  • Principal Investigators (PIs) and Co-PIs applying for a Lyle Spencer Research Award must have an earned doctorate in an academic discipline or professional field, or appropriate experience in an education research-related profession.
  • The PI must be affiliated with a college, university, school district, non-profit research facility, or non-profit cultural institution that is willing to serve as the administering organization if the grant is awarded.
  • Proposals are accepted from the U.S. and internationally, however all proposals must be submitted in English and budgets must be proposed in U.S. Dollars.


  • We believe that in fact the kind of searching inquiry that we aim to promote and support is not only quite demanding but also deeply relevant, indeed essential, to the “lasting improvement in education” that our founder Lyle Spencer challenged his foundation to promote.


  • PIs and Co-PIs may only hold one active research grant from the Spencer Foundation at a time. Simultaneous submissions to the Foundation from PIs and Co-PIs are discouraged due to this policy.
  • Foundation’s focus on research, there are some types of projects that we typically do not consider for funding. These include
    • requests for time to write a book in which the bulk of the research has been completed;
    • curriculum development projects in which conducting research is not the primary aim; and
    • evaluation projects in which the primary goal is to determine whether or not a given program achieved its desired outcomes, rather than to contribute to understanding broader theoretical or empirical questions, such as the mechanisms and conditions that may have enabled (or hindered) the program’s success.