Two New Institutional Challenge Grants to Encourage Partnerships Between Universities and Public Organizations

The William T. Grant and Spencer Foundations are delighted to announce the winners of the 2019 Institutional Challenge Grant competition. This year’s winners are the University of Toronto to work in partnership with the Puerto Rico Department of Education, and the University of Colorado Boulder to work in partnership with the Denver Public Schools.

The Institutional Challenge Grant was created to encourage research institutions to build and sustain research-practice partnerships that pursue a research agenda to reduce inequality in youth outcomes. Equally important, research institutions must shift their policies and incentives to value collaborative work and help build the capacity of the partner organization to use evidence from research in its decision making.

Adam Gamoran, president of the William T. Grant Foundation, said, “I am very excited that the Spencer Foundation has joined us for this year’s competition. We received many excellent proposals, making it exceptionally difficult to select a single applicant to receive the grant. I am delighted that we could present awards to two deserving winners.”

“We are pleased to add our support in a year with such strong applicants in education and excited about the potential these projects have to advance more equitable outcomes for students,” said Spencer President Na’ilah Suad Nasir.

The University of Toronto and the Puerto Rico Department of Education (PRDE)

Gustavo Bobonis, a professor of economics at the University of Toronto, and Maria Christian, the chief academic officer for the PRDE, will lead a partnership to advance academic achievement in Puerto Rican public schools through improved school and system-side managerial practices. The obstacles associated with improving academic outcomes in a historically under-performing school district are long-standing and deeply rooted, but the PRDE is deeply committed to overcoming them through decision making that is increasingly based on data, research, and evidence.

The PRDE and a team of local and national researchers led by the University of Toronto will:

  • support and assess the impact of a school principal training program that is expected to result in enriched school environments and instructional practices that better serve students, and
  • shed light on the effects of school closures that have taken place in the recent past, build on positive consequences, and identify policies for reducing negative ones.

With regard to institutional change, the Department of Economics at the University of Toronto has committed to creating a policy research lab that will provide the infrastructure needed to conduct partnership work. In addition, the Office of the Vice President of Research and Innovation recently initiated and will expand a small grants program to create and nurture early stage partnerships.

“We are ecstatic to have won this award,” said Gustavo Bobonis. “The University of Toronto began to engage with PRDE in 2017 because we firmly believe that partnerships are the way forward for social science research applied to policy. The grant will allow us to strengthen an existing relationship and, ultimately, to contribute toward the overall goal of finding effective policy instruments for combating youth inequality.”

University of Colorado and the Denver Public Schools (DPS)

Mimi Engel, a professor of Research and Evaluation Methodology in the School of Education at the University of Colorado Boulder, Allison Atteberry, assistant professor of research and evaluation methodology, and Sarah Almy, the executive director of talent management for the DPS, will continue to strengthen an emerging partnership that received a seed grant from the School of Education. For the Institutional Challenge Grant, the partners will work to create a more equitable landscape of student success for a district that has one of the widest achievement gaps in the country between students of color and White students. The partners aim to do this by focusing on the District’s teacher workforce.

The partnership will engage in three related activities:

  • create an integrated longitudinal data archive,
  • conduct a descriptive study of teacher retention patterns, and
  • use quasi-experimental methods to evaluate Denver Public School teacher policies that were designed to attract and retain top teachers in schools serving students from historically underserved populations.

The University of Colorado Boulder will build on efforts already underway to elevate and support partnerships between the university and community. In addition, Kathy Schultz, dean of the School of Education and a co-PI on the project, is engaged in talks with university leadership on ways to reward partnership work as a faculty research activity and to consider a new, highly selective faculty track of research-practice professorships that would receive the same pay and voting rights as research faculty.

“Winning the Institutional Challenge Grant is huge for our partnership, for Denver Public Schools, and for the University of Colorado,” Mimi Engel said. “We feel extremely fortunate to be receiving this award at this time. Our work with our DPS partners is underway and will help to inform crucial decisions in the District. The support from the William T. Grant and Spencer Foundations creates an opportunity for us to simultaneously build capacity and enact change at both institutions.”

Each partnership will receive $650,000 over three years, with the opportunity to apply for a two-year continuation grant to solidify the partnership and institutional changes.

While both of this year’s awards address inequalities in academic achievement, this is not a requirement of the Institutional Challenge Grant program. Applications are welcome from partnerships in other youth-serving areas such as justice, child welfare, mental health, immigration, and workforce development.

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