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Lyle Spencer Research Awards

Advancing Understanding of Education Practice and Its Improvement

The Lyle Spencer Research Awards Program is intended to support intellectually ambitious research oriented to improving the practice of education, independent of any particular reform agendas or methodological strictures. It supports projects with budgets up to $1 million. In this program, we envision a large-minded conception of educational practice that encompasses formal and informal learning as well as the institutional, policy, and normative frameworks that influence and are influenced by learning and developmental processes. Moreover, we recognize learning occurs across settings—from the classroom to the workplace and even onto the playing field—any of which may, in the right circumstance, provide the basis for rewarding study.

The Lyle Spencer Research Awards Program is an assertion of our determination to search for and support challenging, original, and constructive scholarship and research. Through this endeavor, we hope to press our colleagues in the research community to raise their level of intellectual ambition: to do work that is thoughtful, critical of prevailing assumptions, self-critical about the work and its limitations, and relevant to the aim of building knowledge for improved educational practice.

We want scholars who seek our support to have convincing, well-reasoned answers to this question: How does the work you are undertaking contribute to making the practice of education better? We value work that fosters creative and open-minded scholarship that examines deeper questions of how, when, for whom, and why. It is vital to make clear that in seeking to support work that is less tied to particular policy agendas or particular research methods, we are not aiming to pursue knowledge for its own sake or taking the view that anything goes. We believe the kind of searching inquiry that we aim to promote and support is not only quite demanding but also deeply relevant to the “lasting improvement in education” that our founder Lyle Spencer challenged his foundation to promote.

We are open to a range of proposals exploring questions, topics, problems, and opportunities that are both interesting and important. We seek studies that look at not only what works but also how, for whom, under what conditions, why, and towards what purposes something works. Such studies might fit—but are not required to fit—within the following three areas.

  • Studies of instructional practice: studies that focus more or less directly on teaching and learning processes themselves, at the classroom level (or in learning settings outside of classrooms and even beyond schools).
  • Studies of educational infrastructure: 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 of research infrastructure: studies that help develop research tools that can support advancing the kinds of research we have identified here. This includes the development of improved measurement tools, stronger theoretical frameworks and analytical methods, and the development of new databases and the archiving of databases. While these efforts might not make educational practice better today, we regard advances on these fronts as essential to that lasting improvement in educational research, and ultimately practice, that we seek.

These areas are definitely not meant to be either exhaustive or mutually exclusive. As stated above, it is important for proposals to communicate how the specific focus of the study will contribute to educational improvement broadly conceived.

We are convinced that there are excellent opportunities for interesting, eye-opening, and rigorous work to be done by those who push at the boundaries of prevailing research and policy frameworks. As a way of pointing toward possible opportunities, we present the following thoughts.

  • Learners and learning environments are complex, and as such, there is often a diversity of experiences and outcomes among populations, within settings, and across contexts. Studying the variation of experiences may yield important information about how, why, for whom, and towards what ends educational opportunities work.
  • Topics can be explored through a range of epistemological and ontological frameworks for inquiry. We recognize the value of different research approaches, including ethnographic or other observational research, experimental study, examination of or curation of secondary data sets, archival research, and more. We additionally see value in combinations of these. We invite proposals that match methods to the questions at the center of the educational phenomenon of interest.
  • Growth in understanding often depends on clear, reliable, and insightful descriptions of phenomena. The terms we use to label phenomena can often carry unacknowledged theoretical weight. For example, talk of teacher quality invites thinking about personal characteristics; teaching quality directs attention to the work of teaching. Likewise, the practice of labeling as non-cognitive those qualities that are not captured in tests of academic learning presupposes a quite narrow conception of cognition. Therefore, we invite researchers to pay special attention to the ways their work contributes to the description, measurement, and conceptual clarification of educational phenomena.
  • There are, finally, many challenging questions that can be found in the borderlands of empirical research and normative questions of value and purpose – the why of education, one might say, along with the how and where and for whom. Problems that range from the comparative merits of different ways of defining and measuring educational inequality to the limits of parents’ authority to determine the terms of their children’s education provide rich opportunities for fruitful investigation.

We hope these thoughts convey something of the wide range of questions and approaches we are open to. But as open as we intend to be about problems and techniques, we do want to be clear that our consistent aim is to support work that has the clear potential to contribute to improved educational practice, understanding practice and the conditions of practice in the large-minded way we have described.

Hallmarks of the research we seek to fund include conceptual and empirical attention to educational practice and a determination to approach research with well-reasoned and constructive skepticism toward the unexamined assumptions that shape current beliefs, actions, and research agendas.

Submission and Review Process Overview

The submission and review process for the Lyle Spencer Research Awards Program includes three stages. The first stage in the process is to submit a Letter of Intent (LOI). A subset of LOIs will then be invited to a second stage in which they will submit an essay and full proposal. For the third stage, a further subset of PIs will be invited to respond to reviewer feedback.

We have designed the award process for grants under the Lyle Spencer Research Awards program with the aim of identifying work that offers a strong prospect of making a meaningful advance in the understanding of education practice and, through that improved understanding, ultimately making education better. We anticipate each review cycle of the program to be highly selective and we know that we will be comparing proposals that will take up a variety of problems using a range of research methods. It is our view that the selection among proposals should be driven by the power of the ideas and by the potential influence of the proposed work. “Why is this worth doing?” is the first question. “Can you really do it?” is the next, and plainly also vitally important, question. These considerations shape several distinctive features of our proposal review process.

Our selection process across very different proposals requires the exercise of judgment across a range of fields and methods. We think that balanced and well-informed judgment across these fields is best accomplished by a review panel whose members reflect a range of topical and methodological specialties, but whose strengths lie fundamentally in their respect for a broad range of powerful research approaches, as well as in their judgment about what kinds of projects may lead to work that will make a lasting difference to education.

In order to allow the panel to compare the full range of proposals for a given year, we operate a single annual application and award cycle. We here include some detail on the beginning of the application process. Further detail can be accessed through the sidebar menu. As applicants advance, they will also receive additional information.

Our proposal review process begins with a Letter of Intent (LOI). Applicants will be asked to provide a statement of up to 2,000 words about their plans, along with an estimate of their budgetary needs and background information about the research team’s past work. Our main focus in reviewing the letter of intent is on determining whether we can find in it a powerful and practicable idea for work that has an excellent chance to advance our understanding of, and prospect for improvement of, education practice. This first step helps us assess whether a proposal is likely to be successful before asking applicants to produce the lengthier materials that will be required at a later stage of the application process. LOIs will be used to identify which applicants will be invited to submit an essay (described in the next bullet) about the driving ideas behind their proposed work, along with a full proposal detailing the design of the project. Guidelines for submitting an LOI application can be found in the sidebar menu.

Because our interest is fundamentally in the power and potential influence of the ideas that drive a proposed project, and only secondarily (but also critically) in the technical quality of the proposed research project, we will ask invited research teams to prepare a well-reasoned Essay of 8-10 pages (2,500 word limit) describing the problem they propose to study as well as a Full Research Proposal (20 pages or 5,000 word limit). This essay should explain in a way that is accessible to those who are not specialists in its particular field of inquiry why the problem to be studied matters, how the proposed work will advance our understanding of it, why it is reasonable to expect that the work will be influential, and why the team undertaking the work is positioned to do the job well. Further information on the essay can be found in the sidebar menu. A full research proposal is expected to build on the essay and will be read by experts in the fields of study and methodologies articulated in each proposal.

We recognize that work that may have a lasting impact on the understanding and improvement of education practice comes in all sizes. Some work we would value greatly may be inexpensive in terms of dollars – as, for example, may be the case in areas like philosophy of education or psychometric theory – and we do not value it less for that reason. But other powerful work is intrinsically more expensive, and in recognition of that reality, we are prepared to fund proposals of up to $1 million.


  • 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. The Spencer Foundation does not award grants directly to individuals.
  • 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.


  • Lyle Spencer Research Award budgets are limited to $1,000,000, including indirect costs.
  • Budgets may include indirect costs equaling 15% of the direct costs of the proposed project.
  • 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. (This restriction does not apply to the administering organization; organizations may submit as many proposals as they like as long as they are for different projects and have different research teams.)

Review Process

The initial step in the Lyle Spencer Research Awards program is to submit a Letter of Intent (LOI), due by 4:00pm CDT, October 2, 2018. Instructions for submitting the LOI can be found in the right-hand sidebar. The review of the LOI will take approximately 3 months and the PI will be notified via email of their proposal's status by the end of December 2018.

A subset of LOIs will be invited to submit an essay and full proposal, which will be due in mid-February 2019.  Once received, the review process for the essay and full proposal will take 8 months with final funding decisions expected by October 2019.

Application date
2 Oct 2018
America United States Great Lakes
Social sciences Pedagogic & Education Research
Required post-doc experience: 
between 0 and 99 years
Award granted
Up to US$ 1.000.000