For Education Scholars Facing Scant Funding, Chicago-Based Foundation Proves a 'Godsend'

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As Reba N. Page penned the final pages of her doctoral dissertation in 1984, she began looking ambivalently toward her future. After more than 10 years of high-school teaching, she had decided to give up her career as an educational practitioner for the far more unsteady life of an educational researcher. She began wondering whether she could make it in the "publish or perish" world of educational academia, with its dwindling research resources and its chronic battle for respect among skeptical colleagues in the other social sciences.

Then, she says, she received a sign: $15,000 from the Spencer Foundation to continue her work on academic tracking and curriculum differences between rich and poor schools. It was not much, Ms. Page admits, but it was vital.

"It was like an annointment," she recalls, "someone out there saying, 'We're so interested in what you're doing that we're willing to give you some of our scant resources to support you.'"

Now an assistant professor at the University of California at Riverside, Ms. Page is one of a growing galaxy of rising educational stars who have been discovered by Spencer, a foundation considered by researchers to be the life blood of their beleaguered community.

"For anyone who is looking into funding to support {his] research, Spencer is the only source to turn to," says Carl F. Kaestle, the William Vilas professor of education-policy studies and history at Ms. Page's alma mater, the University of Wisconsin. "It's a godsend."

'Womb to Tomb'

By all accounts, support for education research has become minimal. While other knowledge-based industries spend from 4 percent to 6 percent of their budgets on research and development, education research receives about one-half of 1 percent of the total $300 billion spent on U.S. educational institutions, according to a study released this summer by the National Academy of Education.

Federal support plummeted by 79 percent between 1973 and 1986, from about $110 million to less than $30 million in constant dollars, the report points out.

And private foundations have not even begun to fill the gap. Surveying 28 of the nation's largest foundations, the N.A.E. found that, of the $1.1 billion in total giving in 1989, $272 million went to education, with $36 million of that going to research.

And of that money, Spencer's $9 million is virtually alone in supporting broad-based projects not specifically tied to program application or other restrictions.

"They're a small fry doing a very big job," says Mr. Kaestle, whose prominence in the field of educational history owes much to the constant support he has received from Spencer.

Mr. Kaestle is not alone. The list of those who at some point in their career have been beholden to the Chicago-based foundation constitutes a virtual who's who of education scholarship.

The Harvard University researcher Richard J. Murnane, for example, admits that his widely regarded work on the mismatch between skills needed in the workforce and skills taught in the schools may never have seen daylight without Spencer. Those ideas are now almost taken for granted.

Philip W. Jackson, a prominent researcher at the University of Chicago, says that much of his research on teaching practices at the classroom level would have not survived had Spencer not latched onto it in its infancy and kept it going, a "womb to tomb" funding scheme, according to Lee S. Shulman, president of the National Academy of Education.

And Howard Gardner, the Harvard University psychologist, says that his graduate studies "would have been inconceivable without Spencer."

Those grants laid the groundwork for Mr. Gardner's theories of multiple intelligence that have become some of the hottest educational ideas around.

A Better Flat Tire

It is that penchant for taking risks on young scholars that has made the foundation so critical, observers say.

"That's the most important point," says Michael W. Kirst, a professor of education at Stanford University and a co-director of the national academy study. "Spencer is the only agency worried about the training and nurturing of young educational researchers.''

Other funders tend to shy away from education research, in part, because it is held in low esteem, even in schools of education, observers note. The overwhelming majority of those holding education doctorates go into administration, rather than research, Mr. Shulman notes.

"You're dealing with a field that has a depressingly low research-productivity rate given the number of doctorates awarded," he says.

Moreover, notes Mary Leonard, director of precollegiate programs at the Council on Foundations, much of the work that is done is often plagued by shoddy methodology.

"A sample is chosen wrong, there's a glitch in the design, and boom, a $100,000 research project is gone," she says. "No one wants to take that risk."

Foundations also resist funding education research because of the wide gulf separating research from practice, Ms. Leonard says. For example, standardized tests have been shown time and time again to be bad indicators of ability if used alone. Yet, educational institutions continue to rely on them. Cooperative learning, meanwhile, has been given a resounding research stamp of approval, yet its use in the classroom is still rare. "That's a real disincentive," Ms. Leonard says.

Other observers note that funders have difficulty supporting something with no immediate payoff.

Foundations are ultimately beholden to their boards of directors, just as government agencies are beholden to the taxpayers, Ms. Leonard points out. Consequently, they both must have something concrete to show for their dollars spent.

"It's hard to see education as something you think about," Ms. Page says. "It compels action, not thought."

As a result, the scant research that is funded is usually connected with program development or evaluation, says Edward J. Meade, an educational consultant to numerous foundations. It is "macrolevel" work, on system-wide reform and management issues, rather than "microlevel" studies, on the daily interaction of teachers and students, that receive the grants, Mr. Meade says.

Researchers insist such efforts rarely produce breakthroughs and fail to build a grounding body of knowledge on which to build future efforts.

"We lose our ability to learn from our mistakes," Mr. Shulman says. "We don't just reinvent the wheel. We reinvent the flat tire."

A Different Idea in Mind

Spencer, however, was created with a different idea in mind. It was rounded in 1968 at the bequest of Lyle M. Spencer, president of Science Research Associates, an educational publishing firm, "to investigate ways in which education, broadly conceived, can be improved."

"The notes that he made said the Spencer dough came out of education," recalls H. Thomas James, the rounding president. "So he wanted it to be put back in."

The foundation's assets have risen since then from $65 million to about $216.1 million now, he says.

In numerous interviews, only one other foundation was consistently mentioned for supporting broad, field-initiated research: the James S. McDonnell Foundation in St. Louis, which has committed about $2 million a year since 1987 to studies on cognitive science and educational practice.

"Something has to be done to 'detoxify' research as far as foundations go," says John T. Bruer, president of the McDonnell Foundation.

Realizing it cannot go it alone, the Spencer Foundation will hold a meeting Nov. 21 of 18 other funders to try to work out some collaborative efforts, says Patricia A. Graham, the foundation's president and the former dean of the Harvard University Graduate School of Education.

The participants will include large foundations, like Ford and Rockefeller; small, specialized givers, like the Foundation for Child Development; and corporate donors, like the Panasonic Foundation.

Ms. Graham says she hopes that, if they do not commit to funding more research, they will at least agree to collaborate on applications and experiments that may arise from the basic research underwritten by Spencer.

Such efforts could alleviate at least some of the pressure on Spencer, notes E. Alden Dunham, a retiring senior program officer at the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

But some skeptics caution that there is little reason to think that anyone will rediscover basic research. And that scares the research community, which fears for not only its own livelihood but that of the country.

"If we can pursue more creative funding, we can do our job better," says Thomas James, an associate professor of education at Brown University. "But if we create policy strategies that tie funding into the presumptions of government or the needs of foundation boards of directors, than we will atrophy, like the Soviet Union."

Vol. 11, Issue 05, Pages 6-7

Published in Print: October 2, 1991, as For Education Scholars Facing Scant Funding, Chicago-Based Foundation Proves a 'Godsend'
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