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Toward a Vibrant Research Community in Education: Investing in Early-Career Scholars

by Lauren Jones Young - 2008

Background/Context: In 1994, the Spencer Foundation embarked on an ambitious experimental initiative to support the preparation of education researchers. Over the 13-year span of the Research Training Grant (RTG) program, the foundation made multiyear awards to more than a dozen leading institutions in the United States and South Africa. This article introduces the RTG program—its history, goals, and practices—as a context for the four case studies of program implementation that follow.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: This article traces the development of the RTG program, situating it in the longstanding commitment of the Spencer Foundation to promote high-quality education research and describing the purposes and practices of the program. The primary strategy of the initiative was to provide block grants to institutions to support individual students engaged in full-time doctoral study focused on research preparation. The recipient institutions were expected to develop research training activities and models that might be institutionalized to benefit all doctoral students they served, and not just those supported directly by RTG funds. The purpose of this article is to provide a sense of the history, conversations, and contexts of the Spencer Foundation’s investments in this strategy to strengthen the educational research community through the preparation of future scholars.

This special issue studies one foundation’s intervention in graduate education—an intervention aimed at expanding the circle of quality researchers in education.1 Concerned with the conceptual and methodological formation of future researchers, the Spencer Foundation designed the Research Training Grant (RTG) program with the premise that novice researchers learn best in a milieu in which good research is done. This intervention sought to leverage that possibility for graduate students in leading schools of education in the United States and South Africa. Launched in 1994 as an experimental 3-year initiative in six exemplary institutions,2 the RTG program grew and developed through 2007, representing a historic and proactive investment by the Spencer Foundation in education institutions.

In a climate of decreasing fiscal support for educational research in general, and for training of researchers in education in particular, the Spencer Foundation had several purposes for this initiative. It hoped to address concerns about the intellectual strength of graduate training programs as they faced increasingly critical issues of educational practice and school reform by providing financial aid support for full-time study, by developing strong cohorts or communities of inquiry among graduate students and professors, and by signaling to the research community in schools of education the importance of developing well-planned training environments and rigorous communities of inquiry. Over the 13-year life of the program, grants were made to 12 institutions in the United States and to two programs in South African universities. Because Spencer support of this program ends in 2007, this is an opportune moment to invite an initial and critical look at what has transpired.

To set the context for the focus of this special issue—the Research Training Grant program—this article begins with a historical look at the Spencer Foundation’s consistent interest in how best to support and improve the educational research enterprise. A steady strategy throughout the years has been to recruit outstanding scholars to research related to education and, once recruited, to sustain their substantive involvement over the length of their careers. Here, that effort is described in the context of the arguments and plans, devised over more than three decades, of the foundation’s program development in relation to building the membership and infrastructure of a stronger community of inquiry in education. Attention then shifts to focus on the details of a program designed to support this recruitment and retention activity in the field. Consideration is given to the RTG program’s purposes and design across select universities in the United States and South Africa. This discussion serves, then, as a backdrop to the four rich case examples that are part of this special issue, each of which examines the intervention on the ground and in light of its own institutional history and context. Threaded through the discussion are endemic problems of doing research in education and the problems of schools of education in research universities, and the consequences that these both have for doctoral training in education schools. The article concludes as it began, by visiting the challenges that remain in building vibrant research communities in education in a time concerned about the scarcity of quality and funding in the education research endeavor, both in the United States and abroad. We turn now to the program’s origins.


The 1996 Spencer annual report, Twenty-Five Years of Grantmaking, highlights a central strategy in the foundation’s efforts to strengthen the field of education research—the design of fellowship programs to both attract talented scholars to the study of education with financial support and to retain them through networking and professional development opportunities. This strategy of investing in people was thought to bring significant returns in both the short and long run. Through this tack, the foundation could contribute both to the quality of the research and to the quantity of strong scholars across the disciplines researching issues related to education.

During its initial year of grant-making in 1971, President H. Thomas James and the board of directors at the Spencer Foundation faced the problem of how best to invest the relatively modest resources of a small, private foundation in a manner that would further good research related to education (James, 1977). Given the predominance of the behavioral and social sciences in the study of education, a key concern was how to attract creative and productive researchers from these domains to develop interest in investigating significant problems in teaching and learning. Looking to the type of institutional and structural contexts that best supported top researchers, the foundation decided to experiment with fellowship awards in three programs: (1) seed grants to a select group of leading research universities (and gradually to a more expansive set), asking cross-disciplinary panels within those universities to identify and support up-and-coming educational researchers in the university; (2) a grant to the fledgling National Academy of Education to provide postdoctoral financial and mentoring support to five Spencer Fellows and Academy Associates per year; and (3) support at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS) of senior scholars with a distinguished record of research related to education, development, cognition, and the social contexts of learning, thus assuring the presence of the field of education in the scholarly exchange of a distinguished cross-disciplinary community. Each program sought to encourage and sustain talent for educational research, though at different stages of the career, each encouraged interdisciplinary exchange, and each used the ability of existing institutions to identify the most able people and stimulate their research. James believed that the right people in the right settings would produce good work and that this good work would clarify for the field the type of scholarship conducive to the improvement of education.

In the mid-1980s, a new president, Lawrence Cremin, led the Spencer board’s review of these early engagements, and this review led to shifts in program and strategy. The seed grant program, with reviewers internal to a specific university, may have been advantageous for the identification and support of talent within and for these localities but did not seem the best tool for identifying and sustaining talent of national weight for the field. It was discontinued, but the problem of identifying and nurturing the next generation remained; the foundation asked itself how best to invest in growing the field.

The board had taken note of the decreasing fellowship support for young scholars in general, and doctoral students in education in particular, in the mid-1980s. The Danforth, Rockefeller, and Woodrow Wilson Foundations had abandoned their fellowship programs for academic graduate training; federal programs such as the National Defense Education Act Title IV fellowships were gone; the National Institute of Education had been eliminated; and the Mellon Foundation, which initiated programs for graduate student support, explicitly excluded students in education, as did Ford in its minority graduate student fellowships. Further, the stipend that the Spencer Foundation itself awarded to NAE/Spencer Fellows (an average of $8,800 in 1985) was judged inadequate to provide for a year’s leave of absence, the kind of time generally needed for publishing or charting new research ground. Thus, earlier initiatives needed to be reconceived and new ones proposed.

First, in 1986, the NAE/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship program expanded both the number of fellowships given to researchers within 5 years of their doctoral degree (from 5 to 25) and the amount of the stipend (to $25,000). The creation of a larger postdoctoral program not only supported individuals at a critical juncture, but it also facilitated the growth of NAE itself through a nationally competitive review process. Through this structure, NAE members became acquainted with a large number of new academics interested in education across the country. The gradual introduction of research forums provided infrastructure for the emerging scholars and an opportunity for these prestigious scholars to learn of, mentor, and ultimately promote the work of the next generation as they presented their work in the context of NAE annual meetings.

Second, in 1986, the foundation introduced a new fellowship program, the Spencer Dissertation Program for Support of Research Related to Education. Foundation archives document that President H. Thomas James and the directors of the foundation had explored a variety of ways of supporting advanced doctoral students in the early 1970s but had not acted, wanting to reach greater clarity about the best point of intervention in the doctoral “career line.” More than a decade later, President Lawrence Cremin proposed support for the dissertation write-up year, recognizing it as a very critical juncture in scholarly development, and by 1987, the Spencer Dissertation Fellowship Program was awarding 25 fellowships a year. Until 1992, this program was administered by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation. Because proposals were generally reviewed by noted disciplinarians, the basic strategy of attracting the best and the brightest from the disciplines to education by providing financial support for research related to education remained a fundamental emphasis. The dissertation fellows were urged and supported to attend the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association (AERA) and invited to the Spencer Reception, providing an opportunity for networking and visibility. Equally important was the symbolic value of fellowship money. Within the education community, receipt of Spencer Fellowships signaled faculty faith in a young scholar’s ability and potential.

Support for the other end of the career spectrum was not forgotten, however. In 1988, a third and new initiative was introduced to build on and greatly expand the foundation’s investment in more senior scholars who had made notable contributions to the field of education. In a context of declining resources for the study of education and in which support for new or potentially risky research arenas was especially hard to come by, the foundation decided to create the Spencer Scholars program, which would give proven scholars at their “peak of career” time to reflect, integrate, break new ground, and contribute anew the learnings from their significant research careers. In addition to giving time and money to individuals to mine years of experience, the Spencer Scholars program also allowed the foundation to influence the field by signaling its assessment of “quality” research in significant, often cross-disciplinary, realms.

The reconception and introduction of initiatives of the 1980s may seem to have stepped back from institutional initiatives (e.g., seed grants) in favor of investment in individuals at critical junctures within a “prototypical” discipline-based research career. Nevertheless, the stage was set for attention to the type of infrastructure required to sustain good work by the modeling of cross-generational exchange in the NAE/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship Program and in the gradual consolidation of judgment about the markings of “good” research related to education in national-level cross-disciplinary groups as they named fellows.

In came the 1990s, with its climate nationally of intensive focus on school reform following a decade of examination and experimentation in addressing the needs of America’s increasingly diverse school population subsequent to publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983. Disappointment in addressing a “rising tide of mediocrity” brought increased awareness to the complexities of improving school practice and a general discontent with the research community in addressing this complexity in useful ways. In a context centrally concerned about problems of educational practice and with a new president, Patricia Albjerg Graham, a former dean of education and one-time high school teacher, the problems of schools of education and the problems of preparing education researchers in them took center stage in deliberations at Spencer. The foundation became increasingly interested in the difficult and complex task of intervening in institutions where education research is primarily situated and where a major segment of the next generation of education researchers is prepared. The growth of endowment funds added new exigencies as the foundation was again faced with the important question of identifying best strategies for the investment of foundation resources to the end of improving education by improving research related to it.

Analysis of the foundation’s grant-giving supported an initial assessment by President Patricia Graham and the directors of the foundation that, although more seasoned researchers from schools of education were being well supported relative to their peers in the disciplines through Spencer grant and fellowship programs, the newest researchers from schools of education were somewhat at a disadvantage in the national competition for dissertation fellowship awards. In 1987, for example, 20% of applicants (n = 219) and 13% of fellows were from education departments and schools. In 1988, only 12% of applicants (n = 247) and 4% of fellows were from education.3 A first and immediately feasible point of entry, then, to growing the field might involve additional investment in growing the next generation of the field, especially those squarely interested in education and likely to sustain interest in education over careers (i.e., those in schools of education). As Pat Graham (1994) explained at the time, the foundation believed that “for educational research to flourish in the future, we need to begin priming the pump by providing support to doctoral students to undertake demanding research preparation in education” (p. 7). A decision was made to bring the Dissertation Fellowship Program in-house in 1992 and to add a strong professional development component to the program through a set of forums focused on the research of the fellows. Talented fellows from many fields could meet each other and more experienced researchers, explore common interests and different conceptual frameworks, and subsequently deepen their work. Potentially, students of education might profit by encountering the theoretical and empirical coherence inherent within the confines of a particular discipline, and students in the disciplines might profit by encountering the contextual knowledge and grounded analytics of students of education who typically know firsthand the phenomena they are studying.

A first step in addressing the perceived lack of rigor in the doctoral preparation of students in education was to attend to a central problem of limited opportunities for apprenticeship, practice, and participation in a research culture caused by part-time enrollment due to insufficient financial aid. In this context, Spencer initiated in 1993 the Graduate Fellowship Program, a design with three points of intervention: (1) schools of education in top research institutions, (2) outstanding faculty researchers and mentors, and (3) talented students attending universities outside the RTG network.

The first prong of the Graduate Fellowship Program, the RTG program, was aimed at institutions. The rationale was to fund the best institutions to fund the best students. The original idea was to fund a cohort of students for 3 years, in part to attract students to graduate schools of education rather than lose them to disciplinary departments offering full scholarships, and, more important, to assure levels of financial support that would enable students to reap fully the advantages of being in these research-rich environments. Spencer funds would provide schools of education with the resources to offer higher levels of financial support but with a string attached. Institutions were challenged to think about how doctoral students are trained and how that training might be strengthened and expanded to benefit not only the funded students but all students in the school of education. Thus, institutional grants were designed to encourage programmatic development both by learning emerging across institutions from meetings of deans and faculty and by facilitating discussions within institutions about what was being learned and developed. One element, for example, was the capacity of the doctoral program to engage cohorts of students in collaborative inquiry and exchange with faculty and experienced scholars in the process of conducting research. Spencer was looking for examples of how to thread experiences of this kind into the formal and informal fabric of institutions and to scale up good models in the group of institutions through cross-germination.

Each of the individual cases of the RTG programs that follows discusses the program’s interaction with its context—an intervention purposefully designed to link with local needs and opportunities. Although they are not the subject of these cases, two additional prongs of Spencer’s program efforts are important to understand as part of the larger foundation strategy. Conscious that able graduate students also were enrolled in universities outside the RTG network, the second point of intervention of the Graduate Fellowship Program was a program that would provide study and travel fellowships to graduate students, primarily in education, in a broad range of institutions. A request for proposals was issued to national-level organizations to propose a program providing not only predissertation fellowship support but also mentoring opportunities for fellowship recipients and national-level research training institutes, activities intended to connect students with networks of top scholars and other promising students from across the nation. In 1994, the AERA wrote a successful proposal and received its first 3-year grant for $250,000 and began awarding fellowships under the AERA/Spencer Doctoral Research Fellowship and Travel Grant Program.

The third prong of the Graduate Fellowship Program sought to direct financial aid to talented students in the disciplines as well as education by targeting their mentors. The Spencer Mentor Network Initiative provided grants of $50,000 to individual faculty members known to be strong educational researchers and active mentors of graduate students. Because the foundation wished to expand concepts of effective mentoring, Spencer Mentor Network members were given great freedom to propose a variety of creative methods to support students—from full fellowships, to small stipends for participants in research groups, to travel funds—and to probe effective experiences with each other and foundation staff through annual meetings. Over the life of the program, 61% of the awards were made to faculty located in schools/departments of education, and the remainder were awarded to faculty with joint appointments or with appointments in traditional disciplines.

In connection with this three-pronged effort to improve doctoral education through financial aid, the foundation structured a variety of opportunities to bring people together for focused discussion of the preparation of education researchers, primarily through site visits and meetings of deans, faculty, and, eventually, students of RTG institutions. Learnings from one program informed the work in the others, and adjustments or extensions were made to each as new awards were given. For example, the Discipline-Based Scholarship in Education (DBSE) program represented an extension of the RTG program. It was designed to strengthen institutional efforts that bridge work in disciplines and in education, and to increase understanding about good preparation for conducting that kind of important research. The intent is to enhance research preparation based in disciplinary departments as well as preparation that crosses school and department lines, and to enable faculty with interests related to education to work in common in support of future scholars.

All these programs aimed to address the importance of the social dimension of scholarship. The foundation became more deliberate in creating “synergies” among scholars, organizing critical conversations focused on problems of education research, on improvement of doctoral training in education, and on research that might lead to improvements in schools. Monies were invested in programs and forums that brought scholars of different backgrounds and training together with the hope that researchers might broaden their perspectives on their own intellectual work and deepen the methodologies they brought to bear. Review panels provided individual assessments of proposals, and reviewers were brought together in conversation about proposals in order to negotiate and renegotiate the standards of good research related to education. In the Dissertation Fellowship, the NAE/Spencer Postdoctoral, RTG, Mentor, AERA/Spencer, and DBSE programs, for example, forums, conferences, and meetings were intentionally designed to foster strong cohorts or communities of inquiry between early-career scholars and experienced researchers, between doctoral students and exemplary professors, and among faculty interested in doctoral training within and among universities.

An ever-present thread throughout these interventions in doctoral education was an intentional attempt by the foundation to expand the numbers of researchers of color among the ranks of noted scholars and promising newcomers to education research. William J. Wilson (1974) articulated well the importance of enlarging perspectives in a vibrant research community. Even as he cautioned that a researcher’s unique history cannot be substituted for knowledge gained through valid scientific inquiry, Wilson also observed that the experiences of a scholar of color may be heuristically important in the development of suitable hypotheses and in the interpretation of data. Enhancing doctoral preparation in education schools was seen as a reasonable strategy in this regard because, as the National Opinion Research Center reports each year, education schools prepare and graduate larger proportions of underrepresented students of color than other fields. The foundation requested that graduate institutions pay attention to extending the participation of students of color in a variety of ways, including support of senior scholars of color and others known for mentoring well students of color, and convening meetings of scholars of color to explore the types of infrastructure supportive of their advancement.


We now turn attention to the more detailed purposes and design of the RTG program. In January 1994, the Spencer Foundation awarded 3-year experimental RTGs to the schools/departments of education of six outstanding universities. The following criteria were used for their selection: quality of the program in preparing doctoral students for careers in educational research; capacity of the program to engage groups of doctoral students in collegial inquiry and collaborative exchange with each other, with faculty, and with experienced scholars in the process of research; potential impact of the Spencer grant on the research training of doctoral students—both those who would receive Spencer funds and those who would not; relationship of educational research to other components of the university; and effectiveness of previous preparation of educational researchers as evidenced by alumni careers.

By inviting proposals from such institutions for block financial aid grants to support cohorts of students oriented to careers in research so that they can study full time or nearly so, Spencer hoped to encourage creative programmatic thinking about research training where potential was already strong. Spencer’s strategy emphasized broad options and frameworks for institutions to develop specific program elements responsive to local priorities. The foundation had encouraged the ed school deans and faculty to think creatively about how to strengthen the skills of the students nearest them to contribute to building up the educational research community in general. Each of the institutions was expected to use its grant exclusively for financial aid to doctoral students interested in educational research careers. The intentions of this initiative extended beyond the focus on financial aid. The program would also signal to the research community in schools and departments of education the importance of developing well-planned training environments and rigorous communities of inquiry for the school as a whole, elevate the visibility and support of education-related doctoral work within the disciplines, and stimulate general interest in how preparation for careers in educational research should be managed and strengthened.

In the initial 3-year program, the RTG program provided institutional block grants for student financial aid ranging from $450,000 to $900,000 over 3 years. Although initial thinking leaned toward traditional multiyear fellowships to students, the six schools ultimately developed a broad variety of financial aid arrangements for students in response to local needs. By the end of the third year of the initiative (1996–1997), these programs supported more than 60 students through multiyear fellowships, and another 40 or so students with 1-year stipends for apprenticeships, field work abroad, data gathering related to the dissertation, and related expenses. In addition, all the schools attempted to implement cross-disciplinary activities to foster conversation in the larger faculty-student community about educational research in general, and research training in particular. In 3 years of operation, the initiative provided a total of more than $3.5 million in financial aid to students of education in the six institutions.

In 1997, the RTG program moved successfully from an experimental to a multiyear program with 5-year awards and with four additional institutions.4 Grants to the 11 U.S. RTG institutions totaled $11.5 million, with awards ranging in level of funding from $500,000 to $2 million, and in duration from a 3-year grant to 5-year awards. The typical grant supported financial aid and program activity over 5 years, with an average grant size of $1 million. On reauthorization of the program in 2002, grants to these 11 institutions were renewed yet again for an additional 5 years.

Like the program activity developed in the first round of RTG funding, the types of financial aid to students that developed subsequently clustered around three forms: multiyear tuition and stipend fellowships; stipends for apprenticeships; and funds to support field work abroad, data gathering related to the dissertation, travel to professional meetings, and other related expenses. Reflective of program intent, RTG funds were not only providing financial aid to a number of doctoral students, but at several institutions, these funds also were stimulating program development relevant to research training for the school as a whole. Notable in the longer funding rounds was an expanding array of program activity focused on the broader organization and research culture of the institution. Seminars and other activities formerly offered only to students who received RTG financial aid were now becoming available to more students. As will be documented in the case studies to follow, schools experimented with constructing financial aid around local concerns and endemic problems in preparing researchers. Some institutions, for example, were addressing the “third-year problem,” funding some students during the critical “middle years” of graduate study and developing programs for them with the potential to benefit the whole institution. Some were using the RTG to institutionalize best practices; they were incorporating best models of apprenticeship, mentoring, and the like in the training of funded cohorts and working to spread the use of these models by persuasion in the school at large. Some institutions were using the financial aid monies to leverage change in the overall research culture of the school. These schools had chosen particular research “sites” (new research centers or research foci) and had introduced incentives (sometimes competitive) to encourage faculty to reconceptualize innovative, cross-disciplinary research training in those sites, which would in turn host RTG-funded students. And some institutions pursued the question about the coursework, seminars, and research experiences important to preparing future researchers who would focus on “risk” populations in urban settings. Across most sites, schools implemented cross-disciplinary seminars and other activities so as to extend the reach of communities of research practice, with attention to enhancing students’ engagements with other doctoral students and with a cadre of faculty mentors rather than with a sole mentor.

Given the Spencer Foundation’s fundamental purpose in the RTG intervention—to grow quality researchers in education—the foundation did not want learnings from the local program to remain within the walls of a single institution. Each year, the foundation sponsored annual retreats and meetings of the education deans at RTG institutions to discuss emerging issues (e.g., building a research culture, engaging faculty attention to research training, strengthening the relationship between theory and practice, articulating the mission of schools of education, and developing quality control and intellectual life in schools of education). In an effort to encourage this type of cross-institutional exchange even further, the foundation periodically supported RTG-related forums and/or institutes proposed by the institutions themselves around issues related to research training. Over the life of the program, various institutions organized and hosted national meetings on such key topics as models of apprenticeships and mentoring; preparing researchers to study practice; methodology and quality; educational research training in recognition of racial, gender, and ethnic diversity; and core courses in research preparation.


It is hoped that this brief sketch of the historical context of the RTG intervention outlines the assumptions, commitments, and principles guiding the creation of infrastructure programs at Spencer over the last 35 years. The synergies of discussion through the RTG intervention around issues of the preparation of researchers bring us face to face with some of the endemic problems of doing research in education: problems of the field and problems of the place of schools of education in universities, each of which I discuss next.


Questions are being raised by every field of study as they reenvision graduate study in the 21st century. For education, however, there is an important difference. Most other fields, especially the sciences, assume the quality of research in the field and press for interdisciplinary and practical enhancements of doctoral preparation. In education, however, no such assumptions are made (Mitchell & Haro, 1999, Schoenfeld, 1999; Shulman, 1999; Shulman, Golde, Bueschel, & Garabedian, 2006), and scholars concerned with education research are pointing out qualities needed not only for doctoral preparation but also for the field in general5 the need for more rigorous methodological and theoretical integration in a field that is not itself a discipline and that lacks a common core (Heath, 1999; Kaminsky, 1999; Page, 2001; Schoenfeld, 1992; Schon, 1995); the need for epistemological, intellectual, and cross-disciplinary diversity in studying complex problems (Metz, 2001; National Research Council, 2002; Pallas, 2001; Siddle Walker, 1999; Young, 2001); the need for depth of substantive and methodological training for conducting high-quality research while also attending to breadth of disciplinary perspectives, methodological approaches, and research problems characteristic of research in education (Metz; Mitchell & Haro; Pallas); and the need to integrate theory and practice, both for those who produce research and see issues of practice as a source of research problems, and for those who hope to inform their practices through research findings (Greeno et al., 1999; Neumann, Pallas, & Peterson, 1999; Schoenfeld, 1999; Schon). As Ellen Lagemann (2000) described in her history of educational research, these tensions around theory, epistemology, method, and practice have been longtime parts of the contested terrain of educational research.


In addition to these challenges endemic to the field, there is the unique problem of schools of education in research universities. The challenges of education schools relate to their own complex and evolving place in the research university as they attempt to contribute to the research mission of the university, as well as inquire about and make available knowledge useful for public settings (Judge, 1982; Labaree, 2004; Mitchell, 1997). Consistently, groups have identified significant problems of schools of education: low stature of the school of education in the greater university; low levels of financial resources in comparison with other university units; low status of applied research and other work conducted by education researchers; breadth of the field of education, which embraces many topics, multiple perspectives, and multiple methods, with little sense of a common curricular core; isolation of education studies from scholarship and core intellectual communities in other parts of the university; press to serve a range of constituencies outside the university; and perceived failure of education schools to contribute strong leadership in improvements in education practice.

In addition, a problem of education research is connected to the sheer size of the ed school enterprise. In broad strokes, about 6,500 doctorates in education are awarded each year (Hoffer et al., 2005), and these educational doctoral recipients graduate from a wide array of institutions and from an array of programs of variable quality. In 2002, for example, 188 schools nationwide offered doctoral programs in education (U.S. News and World Report, 2001). Fewer than half of all doctorates in 2002 were awarded by the top 53 schools of education, according to U.S. News and World Report rankings and data.

These endemic problems of doing research in education and in schools of education are fully problematic in doctoral training in education. Flowing from the problems of the field and institutions that carry the burden of the field, doctoral training in education faces challenges of remarkable constancy. Analyses of RTG student focus-group transcripts reveal similar concerns, as do studies of graduate student perceptions of doctoral preparation.6Problems associated with mentoring and advising, coursework and requirements, career advice and preparation, and academic socialization more generally are, to differing degrees, common to many fields and disciplines. According to the Association of American Universities (AAU) Committee on Graduate Education (1998), for example, common criticisms of graduate education center on “overproduction of Ph.D.s; narrow training; emphasis on research over teaching; use of students to meet institutional needs at the expense of sound education; and insufficient mentoring, career advising, and job placement assistance” (p. 1).

Yet the experiences of doctoral students in education may differ in key ways from students in the disciplines. Many of the studies of doctoral training in the sciences did not question the quality and integrity of the research training being provided but recommended that attention be paid to other skills or experiences valuable in the marketplace: for example, preparation for teaching, experience with interdisciplinary thinking and collaboration, and the like. RTG doctoral student focus groups identified similar perceptions but also questioned the substantive training in their programs, including the lack of a coherent body of knowledge offered to all students in education; the need to deepen students’ theoretical understandings and analytic skills in research projects focused on education practice; lack of rigor in methodological training; uneven opportunities for research apprenticeships that provide experience with various stages of a research project; and the need to foster cross-disciplinary understandings. Prominently mentioned, too, was the lack of financial resources available to support full-time rigorous study. Further, these concerns are not just those of students. These student comments mirror many of the concerns shared in meetings of deans and faculty from ed schools in RTG universities.

From a different perspective, the problems of infrastructure in the field of education are also a source of its strengths. At their best, schools of education exemplify the messy work that many other fields are now attempting to bring into their doctoral training: experience with interdisciplinarity, mixed methods, and real-world problem solving (e.g., AAU, 1998; National Academy of Sciences, 1995; National Research Council [NRC], 1995). Faculty in schools of education engage in research on central issues facing the field and on the real and complex problems of practice. They advance the field by expanding the knowledge of learners, learning, and teaching; serving as a source of ideas, innovation, and reform in education; shaping and sharpening the public debate and public policy in education; and preparing the next generation of those most likely to pursue careers in educational research. Arguing against the outsourcing of research on school and classroom problems to other disciplines, Stephen Raudenbush (2003) explained in a presentation to the NRC Committee on Research in Education, as others have before him, why education schools are so essential: They provide an address for a problem, a location to pull things together where one aspect informs another—teaching, research, and service.


Through the Research Training Grant program, Spencer deliberately sought to intervene in the programs and discussions of the schools of education that it funded over a period of 13 years. At the close of the program, Spencer will have expended a total of about $31.5 million over 13 years on all RTG-related activities, including the block grants to institutions as well as grants in support of cross-institutional conferences and meetings in the United States and South Africa. Given the initial program guideline that institutions devote at least 90% of grant funds for financial aid to students interested in educational research careers, it is not surprising that the major portion of the grants supported cohorts of students with multiyear tuition and stipend fellowships and stipends for apprenticeships. That Spencer funding flowed almost entirely to individual students reflects an implicit aim to concentrate support on selected students likely to be among the next generation of leading educational researchers. But the foundation’s interests went beyond the development of a talented cadre of students to the much more complex and harder to measure intention of building programmatic and institutional capacity for exemplary research training in these schools of education. Schools were expected to use the grant in such a way as to promote programmatic development relevant to research training for the school as a whole. Thus, in the design of the program from its inception was a structure for prompting a beginning dialogue within and across these institutions about research preparation in education.

Over the years, the Spencer Foundation has adopted several strategies to encourage rigorous, socially important scholarly work, examination of significant educational issues from a variety of perspectives, and engagement in inter- or cross-disciplinary research. The following five strategies have operated as implicit program guidelines: (1) bet on people, (2) involve the disciplines as well as education, (3) develop a community (create opportunities for scholars to interact with one another), (4) bring a diversity of perspectives to bear on educational questions, and (5) consider the trajectory of scholarly development and take a developmental approach to the design of fellowship programs. Like other signature fellowship programs of the foundation, the RTG program also was guided by these key principles.

Looking back over the decade and more since the inception of the RTG program, it is probably fair to say that the leadership of the nation’s research-oriented schools of education, including but not limited to the RTG group, has never been stronger. The level of expectations facing those schools and their leaders also has never been higher, as the American public hungers for strong performance of its elementary and secondary schools and looks to the research community to help develop the new ideas that will allow improvement to occur. As Spencer’s commitment to the institutional support of a select group of ed schools draws to a conclusion, the foundation remains as committed as ever to nourishing the growth of the education research community and to doing its part in investing in the knowledge that will improve education. My purpose in writing this article was to provide a sense of the history, imagination, conversations, and contexts of Spencer’s involvement and investments in its attempts to strengthen and extend the education research community through support of focal institutions and individuals. That story continues to unfold in the case studies that follow, in the future contributions of doctoral students supported by the program, and in the people and programs influenced by the discussions surrounding this effort.


1 This account of the Spencer Foundation’s fellowship programs and Research Training Grant program draws on annual reports and other Spencer Foundation documents, reports submitted annually by each grantee institution, focus groups of doctoral students at RTG institutions, and notes from annual visits to RTG universities. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Spencer Foundation. I gratefully acknowledge the generous contributions and invaluable insights on this history offered by Catherine A. Lacey, who for a decade led Spencer’s fellowship programs and did so with intelligence, spirit, grace, and heart.

2 These institutions included the University of California, Los Angeles; the University of Chicago; Harvard University; the University of Michigan; Stanford University; and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

3 Typical of recent years, in 2005, about 45% of about 550 applicants and about 40% of the 30 fellows are from education departments and schools.

4 Awards were made to schools of education in five of the original six institutions; the University of Chicago had closed its Department of Education. Four institutions were added: the University of California, Berkeley; Michigan State University; University of Pennsylvania; and Teachers College (Columbia University). Northwestern University was added in 1998, followed by Emory University in 1999. Grants to the University of Cape Town and to a consortium of South African universities were made initially in 1999 and 2000, respectively, and subsequently renewed to 2007.

5 My understandings of these issues were deepened and extended by the observations and comments made by faculty and deans in their reports on the Research Training Grant program to the Spencer Foundation.

6 For example, a survey conducted for the Pew Charitable Trusts, including over 4,000 graduate students in 11 disciplines at 27 institutions, reported many of the same concerns or issues as those reported here (Golde & Dore, 2000). Among them: Only a third of the students felt that their coursework either gave them a solid background in their discipline or prepared them adequately to do research, and the majority of students surveyed (61.2%) said that they would like to collaborate on interdisciplinary research, but only 27.1% had any experiences that prepared them to do so. Nerad and Cerny (1999) reported that English PhDs report similar problems with their graduate training. Students in the PhDs Ten Years Later study were frustrated by the lack of information about job opportunities outside of academia, wanted more interdisciplinary training, and criticized the lack of training in skills that they perceived useful both inside and outside the academy—things like teamwork, collaboration, and organizational and management skills.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 110 Number 7, 2008, p. 1360-1378
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 14944, Date Accessed: 1/27/2022 9:47:14 PM

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About the Author
  • Lauren Young
    Spencer Foundation
    E-mail Author
    LAUREN JONES YOUNG is director of the Spencer Foundation's program on Teaching, Learning, and Instructional Resources. Prior to her appointment at Spencer, Young was associate professor of teacher education and educational administration at Michigan State University, where she also was a senior researcher with the National Center for Research on Teacher Education/Teacher Learning. In addition to two edited books, she has published in major education journals on relationships among school, family, and community, and on issues of race, social class, and social justice in teacher preparation and teaching practices.
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