School & District Management

Fellowships Aim to Nurture Research Talent

By Debra Viadero — July 28, 2008 8 min read
Kirsten Kainz, a statistician and research faculty member at the University of North Carolina, is using her fellowship to study the impact of different classroom contexts on children’s learning.
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For Kirsten Kainz, a researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, $35,000 buys a lot of time.

Time, that is, to pursue her own research passions, to hone methodological skills, and to learn from and collaborate with mentors or other scholars doing similar work.

Ms. Kainz is among hundreds of education researchers across the country getting the gift of time through fellowships aimed at nurturing young talent in the field. Since 2000, at least half a dozen such programs have sprung up, from the pre- to the postdoctoral level.

The programs are increasingly seen as an important lever for improving the quality and quantity of studies in education.

Without the added financial support, many developing scholars such as Ms. Kainz, who is 40, find that their time gets quickly eaten up by teaching duties, if they are university-based, or lower-level assignments on projects run by more senior scholars, if they work in think tanks or research centers.

Such jobs, junior scholars say, put off the day when they can make their own, much-needed contributions to the field’s knowledge base.

“The fact that I get to buy a section of my time over the next two years to focus on my research is invaluable,” said Ms. Kainz, a statistician at UNC’s Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center and a research faculty member at its school of education. With her two-year, $35,000 grant, she sets aside 15 percent of her workweek to study the impact of different classroom contexts on children’s learning.

Whether the small explosion of fellowship programs at both the doctoral and postdoctoral levels in education is a fleeting phenomenon or a steady source for upgrading and expanding the field’s research capacity remains to be seen. While new and existing programs are feeding hundreds of bright researchers into the pipeline now, some of those programs are winding down or have ended.

“There’s a difference between a long-standing program and some of the new programs that you hear about, that last for two or three years and then the funding dries up,” said Gregory White, the executive director of the National Academy of Education, a Washington-based, invitation-only group of the field’s most distinguished scholars. “Short-term programs have less of an impact.”

Programs in Flux

The 204-member NAE runs what is arguably the best-known fellowship program in the field for budding researchers. Since 1986, more than 600 scholars have received one of the academy’s Spencer fellowships, which include a grant of up to $55,000 for one year and opportunities to be mentored and attend conferences with academy scholars. Several of the recipients have themselves gone on to join the academy’s elite ranks.

The program is financed by the Chicago-based Spencer Foundation, which also underwrites coverage of education research in Education Week.

But at the American Educational Research Association, the Washington-based group that has nurtured Ms. Kainz’s professional growth since graduate school, a federally financed grant program that began in 2001 is set to end this summer as its last cohort of postdoctoral researchers cycles through.

Over a four-year run, the AERA program awarded grants to 42 postdoctoral researchers and 30 graduate students so they could complete their dissertations free of distractions. Like the NAE program, the AERA postdoctoral program pairs young scholars with mentors and pays for them to attend academic conferences.

To try to make up for the loss of federal money, the AERA has forged partnerships with the American Institutes for Research, a Washington think tank, and the Educational Testing Service, of Princeton, N.J. , to host four young scholars as resident fellows.

Prepping for Research

Several national organizations and government agencies offer fellowships for young scholars aiming to pursue careers in educational research.

Two primary interdisciplinary programs for pre- and postdoctoral fellows
Starting year: 2004
Number trained: 253
Program emphasis: Preparing scholars from a variety of disciplines to do rigorous research on education topics

With support over the years from the IES, the National Science Foundation, and various think tanks, the AERA runs a variety of pre- and postdoctoral grant programs for junior education researchers.
Starting years: 1990 for its large-scale-database and minority-fellowship programs, 2000 for its just-ended, IES-financed program. In 2005 and 2006, the association also created two small residential programs with the American Institutes for Research and the Educational Testing Service.
Number trained: 393 since 1990
Program emphasis: Varies

Ran a predoctoral program for education researchers through its 16 Centers for Learning and Teaching.
Starting year: 2000, with the last award made in 2004
Number trained: More than 600
Program emphasis: Expanding capacity for research on science, technology, and mathematics education in K-12 schools

With support from the Spencer Foundation, the academy runs the nation’s best-known, longest-running postdoctoral fellowship program in education.
Starting year: 1986
Number trained: 640
Program emphasis: None

SOURCE: Education Week

The 26,000-member research group also continues to operate its other long-running fellowship and grants programs and is on the lookout for new ways to expand its grant programs for early-career researchers, said Felice J. Levine, the AERA’s executive director.

At the National Science Foundation, a program that enabled more than 600 graduate students and early-career researchers to deepen their understanding of educational problems in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics is also winding down, according to John “Spud” Bradley, a program director in the foundation’s division of research on learning. A federally funded postdoctoral fellowship program at the Washington-based American Psychological Association also folded recently.

The APA and AERA programs ended, though, because their major benefactor, the Institute of Education Sciences, decided to launch its own, larger initiatives for grooming the next generation of researchers.

In 2004, the IES, which is the primary research arm of the U.S. Department of Education, began providing grants to universities and research centers to create interdisciplinary fellowships focused on developing the methodological skills researchers would need to fulfill new federal mandates calling for more “scientifically based” research in education.

So far, 233 scholars at 10 universities or research centers have qualified for the fellowships, which include a stipend of up to $50,000 a year for postdoctoral scholars and up to $30,000, plus partial tuition, for predoctoral students, among other benefits.

“Historically, at least over the last 30 years, many colleges of education have really gone more toward descriptive work and qualitative methodologies, which are limited in answering causal questions,” said Lynn Okagaki, the commissioner of the federal institute’s National Center for Education Research. “That makes it difficult to ramp up and do different types of research, and we’re asking researchers in particular to do impact evaluations.

“Consequently, we have to get other types of researchers who’ve been doing this type of research to help train other researchers,” she said.

‘Necessary But Insufficient’

Keeping and expanding the stream of grants and fellowships for education researchers is important, experts say, because so few opportunities exist in the social sciences to nurture new research talent—especially in comparison with those available to young scholars in the physical and natural sciences.

A 2005 federal survey of new recipients of research doctorates found, for example, that 60 percent of those scholars in education, and more than 30 percent of newly minted academics in the social sciences, had largely used their own resources to pay for their doctoral education.

In the so-called “hard sciences,” the comparable proportions are less than 10 percent for engineering, less than 12 percent in the life sciences, and just under 25 percent in the physical sciences.

“Basically, you’re paying your own way if you’re in a college of education,” said Shayne B. Piasta, who won an IES predoctoral fellowship to pursue reading research at Florida State University. Her dissertation, an experiment testing methods of teaching preschoolers alphabet names and sounds, won a national award this year.

“These programs are necessary but insufficient,” said Arthur E. Levine, who published a study last year criticizing the job the nation’s education schools were doing in training new scholars. “We won’t get very able students to think about careers in education research unless we can support them in the same ways that other schools and universities can support their research talent.”

National statistics appear to support his point. From 2004 to 2005, according to the federal Survey of Earned Doctorates, the number of research doctorates awarded in education actually declined by 6 percent, while the number in engineering and physical sciences grew by more than 10 percent.

Mr. Levine also noted that the quality of researchers who emerge from fellowship programs depends on the quality of the training they receive and of the senior scholars with whom they work.

“There’s nothing in and of itself about a fellowship that guarantees the quality of education research or of education researchers,” said Mr. Levine, who is the president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, in Princeton, N.J., and a former president of Teachers College, Columbia University.

Gains Seen

Still, some studies suggest that such programs can make an important contribution. An unpublished evaluation of the NAE-Spencer program, for instance, found that fellows who graduated from that program seemed to be more productive than colleagues who applied for the grants but just missed getting them.

Compared with the semifinalists, the fellows produced 30 percent more scholarly publications, received 49 percent more citations for their work, and got 129 percent more research grants.

Likewise, an evaluation of the National Science Foundation program found it helped draw practicing teachers into research, thus expanding the pipeline and perhaps grounding future research in real-world experience. Forty percent of the doctoral students supported by the NSF program were former practitioners, according to that study.

“Many of the teachers thought, ‘OK, I’ll get a doctorate and then go back and teach in high school,’ ” said Mr. Bradley. “They weren’t aware that what they were looking at was a career change.”

Similarly, all 13 of the young psychologists who took part in the short-lived APA postdoctoral fellowships continued to pursue research in education after their stints ended, said Rena F. Subotnik, the director of the APA’s Center for Schools and Education.

And the AERA has calculated that the 219 grants it has awarded through various programs since 2000 have resulted in 350 publications in peer-reviewed journals.

“Should there be more programs like these?” Ms. Levine of the AERA said. “You know how everyone says if you put more money into early education, you’ll reap the benefits later on? This is no different.”

Coverage of research is supported in part by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the July 30, 2008 edition of Education Week as Fellowships Aim to Nurture Research Talent


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