Headshot of John Spencer
Headshot of John Spencer

John P. Spencer

John Spencer thinks all schooling ought to be like a liberal arts education at Ursinus: thought-provoking, life-changing, and relevant to the world beyond school. He finds it troubling that so many students say their classes in school are “boring” or “pointless,” but he believes Ursinus Education graduates are helping to build a more inspired future in education, in classrooms and beyond.

Spencer’s development as an educator and scholar goes back to his own undergraduate experience in a liberal arts setting, at Brown University, where he studied history and earned teaching certification in a program led by educational reformer Theodore Sizer. Since that time—as a social studies teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area, a leader of professional development programs for educators around the country, and a member of the Ursinus faculty since 2007—he has tried to model the kind of collaborative, intellectually engaging approaches to teaching and learning that he hopes his students will foster in their own careers.

Spencer’s research is in the history of education. He is the author of In the Crossfire: Marcus Foster and the Troubled History of American School Reform (University of Pennsylvania Press), which is both a biography of an African-American school leader and a history of American school reform since the 1940s.




  • Ph.D., New York University
  • B.A., Brown University


Educational Psychology

Curriculum and Instruction

Methods Practicum

Education and Inequality

Educational Innovation and Reform

Research Interests

History of Education

School Reform

Urban Education

Scholarship of Teaching and Learning

Recent Work

In the Crossfire: Marcus Foster and the Troubled History of American School Reform (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012)

“‘Intellectual Power’ for All: Theodore Sizer and the Origins of the Coalition of Essential Schools at Phillips Academy, Andover.” In New Perspectives on the History of the Twentieth-Century American High School, edited by Kyle P. Steele, 53–80. Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2021.

“From ‘Cultural Deprivation’ to Cultural Capital: The Roots and Continuing Relevance of Compensatory Education,” Teachers College Record 114, no. 6 (2012)

“Updating ‘No Child Left Behind’: Change, or More of the Same?” Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective, May, 2010

“A ‘New Breed’ Of Principal: Marcus Foster and Urban School Reform in the United States, 1966-1969,” Journal of Educational Administration and History 41, no. 3 (2009), 285-300.

“Public Education: High Schools,” The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, 2013.