Erika Weathers headshot in gray jacket and white shirt
Published on: June 25, 2021

SSRI cofunded faculty member Ericka Weathers, assistant professor of education (educational theory and policy), and Matthew Gardner Kelly, assistant professor of education (educational leadership) in Penn State’s College of Education have been selected as 2021 National Academy of Education (NAEd)/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellows.

In addition, Dara Walker, assistant professor of African American studies; women’s, gender and sexuality studies; and history, in the College of the Liberal Arts, received a fellowship. Penn State is the only institution that received more than one of the 25 fellowships this year.

The NAEd/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship provides $70,000 and professional development to early career researchers whose projects address critical issues in the history, theory or practice of formal or informal education, at the national and international levels. This year, the 25 postdoctoral fellows were selected from a pool of 249 applicants.

According to NAEd President Gloria Ladson-Billings, “The NAEd/Spencer Fellowship Programs cultivate the next generation of education scholars by funding their research projects and providing resources to strengthen their research and research training, including mentorship from NAEd members. We consider these fellows to be among the best in their respective fields, and I look forward to working with them in the coming year.”

Weathers uses quasi-experimental methodologies to study the effects of K-12 education policies. She is specifically interested in the unintended consequences of policy and the ways in which K-12 education policy may reduce or exacerbate racial and socioeconomic inequality. Her current areas of focus include school segregation, finance, discipline and academic achievement.

Kelly’s research examines the social and political contexts of educational finance policies, past and present. He is principally interested in the history of resource disparities in education, the political dimensions of contemporary funding policies, and the interplay between geography, school finance and inequality.

According to Kevin Kinser, professor and senior scientist of education and head of the Department of Education Policy Studies (EPS) and Greg Kelly, senior associate dean for research and distinguished professor of education, the selection of Weathers and Matthew Gardner Kelly as NAEd fellows represents the success of the College of Education and EPS in recruiting top-tier early-career academics.

In an email, Kinser and Kelly wrote, “Weathers’ research will inform the policy debates around racial disparities in special education. Kelly’s research uses a historical lens to focus on the origins of disparities in the funding of public education, a topic that right now is being debated in Harrisburg (Pennsylvania’s capital) and statehouses around the country. For a department of policy studies, having faculty doing such policy-relevant work is squarely at the heart of our mission."

Weathers said that over the course of the next year, the fellowship will allow her to focus on “actionable research.”

“I refer to this research as ‘actionable’ because the school district I am partnering with is interested in this research as a way to understand racial disparities in special education for Black students in their district,” she said. “This research will help the school district determine if there are specific aspects of the special education decision process (i.e., referral, assessment, eligibility and placement) they should focus on to ensure that all students are justly identified for special education.” 

In addition to the financial contribution, Weathers said, the fellowship is beneficial to her research because it affords her the time to conduct research with fewer professional time commitments (i.e., no teaching for the academic year and a reduced service load).

“This focused time allows me to assist the school district in their quest for more information while also contributing to an important and timely scholarly discussion about racial disparities in special education," said Weathers.

Kelly said that the NAEd/Spencer fellowship will help him complete his current book project that provides a history of school funding disparities in the United States.

“Specifically, it traces the decision by American lawmakers to make school funding a function of local wealth,” he said. “The claim that district property taxation is deeply rooted in the past is often repeated by courts, social scientists and popular commentators to justify this decision to fund schools so unequally. My project pushes back against the misleading historical narrative that forms the basis for this claim about district property taxation.

“The fellowship includes fantastic professional development experiences and the opportunity to connect with other fellows and mentors,” Kelly added.  The Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship will give me the time to do the difficult work of synthesizing archival materials and developing the manuscript. “