Grant Program Aims To Nurture School Leaders

By Lynn Olson — January 10, 2001 5 min read

A New York foundation was expected to announce this week an $8.9 million initiative aimed at encouraging states to foster a new generation of school leaders and a more supportive environment for their work.

The three-year grant from the Wallace-Reader’s Digest Funds to the Washington- based Council of Chief State School Officers will support a national consortium, known as the State Action for Education Leadership Project.

The consortium represents the major state policy organizations in education: the Education Commission of the States, the National Association of State Boards of Education, the National Conference of State Legislatures, and the National Governors’ Association, in addition to the CCSSO.

Under the project, the consortium will solicit proposals from states to improve the way school leaders are recruited, prepared, licensed, and supported in their jobs. States will be eligible for planning grants of up to $50,000 each. As many as 15 states could later receive grants of up to $250,000 apiece to revamp their laws, policies, and practices for educational leadership.

State Action for Education Leadership Project

A three-year, $8.9 million grant to the Council of Chief State School Officers from the Wallace-Reader’s Digest Funds will support a national consortium of five state policymaking organizations.The consortium will award grants to individual states to help craft policies and practices that support the recruitment, training, retention, and support of strong school leaders who are focused on teaching and learning.
How the Process Will Work: All 50 states will be invited early this year to apply for planning grants of up to $50,000 each. An independent panel will review the proposals. As many as 15 states could then receive implementation grants of up to $250,000 each.
Consortium Governing Committee: Gordon M. Ambach, executive director, Council of Chief State School Officers; Julie Davis Bell, education director, National Conference of State Legislatures; Dane Linn, director, education-policy-studies- unit, National Governors’ Association; Bob Palaich, division director, pre-K-16 policy, Education Commission of the States; and Brenda Welburn, executive director, National Association of State Boards of Education. Project director: Cheryl Z. Tibbals, director, state leadership center, CCSSO.

“It’s critical that states make improving school leadership a priority,” said Gordon M. Ambach, the executive director of the state schools chiefs’ council. “There’s been a lot of energy put into improving the quality of teaching in the past few years. The states have not put nearly as much energy into improving the practice of school leaders.”

Julie Davis Bell, the education program director for the NCSL, agreed. “I feel we’re ahead of the curve on this issue,” she said. “States are just really beginning to look at [school leadership]. As a focus of state policy, I think we’re hitting this with wonderful timing.”

‘Major Review’

Mary Lee Fitzgerald, the director of education programs for the Wallace-Reader’s Digest foundation in New York City, said she hoped the initiative would result in a “major policy review” of how states attract, develop, and support school leaders.

Increasingly, she said, state legislators and governors have told her that their education improvement efforts are being stymied “because they don’t have the right people in the right places to do the implementation that’s necessary.”

The project is part of a five-year, $150 million commitment by the foundation aimed at creating a national movement to improve school leadership. State action is crucial, Ms. Fitzgerald said, because states control so many of the levers that could help attract or discourage strong educational leaders (“Reader’s Digest Grants Will Focus on School Leadership,” July 12, 2000).

“I’m not sure that a lot of legislators understand the degree to which they are defining the incentives at the district level,” she said. Those range from how school administrators are licensed and evaluated to the legal relationship between school boards and superintendents.

Last September, the foundation provided a three-year, $3.9 million grant to the New York state education department to draw up a comprehensive strategy for supporting school leaders, which the foundation hopes will become a national model.

‘Comprehensive Plan’

The new project will solicit grant proposals from all 50 states early this year. An independent panel will review the proposals and recommend which states receive planning grants and later implementation grants.

“States must be full partners with school districts if the often-difficult climate for superintendents and principals is to be improved,” said M. Christine DeVita, the president of the foundation. “Very few states have a comprehensive plan for improving district and school leadership and, sometimes, state policies may actually limit those efforts.”

States selected for grants in 2001 will be asked to concentrate their activities in six areas:

  • Changing the way they do business so that education leadership focused on teaching and learning is a priority.
  • Devising strategies to increase the pool of people interested in becoming school leaders, including women and minority candidates.
  • Improving the preservice and in-service preparation of principals and superintendents.
  • Strengthening the licensing and relicensing process for school leaders and the accreditation process for the institutions that train them. More than 30 states, for example, currently participate in the Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium, a program of the CCSSO that is working on standards, performance assessments, and portfolios that can be used to license principals.
  • Rethinking the conditions under which school leaders work, including improvements in contracting and collective bargaining procedures, salary and pension programs, methods of evaluating school leaders, and incentives for strong performance.
  • Changing the political and governance settings that affect how school leaders do their jobs, including the policies of state education departments, the relationship between administrators and local school boards, and the overall balance of power among states, districts, and schools.

“There are maybe four or five states, out of 50, working in each of these areas,” Mr. Ambach said. “There are clearly examples where states have moved, but this is not widespread. States have got to work on these things in a comprehensive way. You can’t just fix the system piecemeal.”

To help states share successful strategies, the consortium has been preparing a compendium of promising practices, which it plans to make available to states on the World Wide Web later this winter. States can use the guidebook to help them decide where to take the next steps.

Any state receiving a grant must have all of the relevant state policymakers on board. States also are expected to address the need for leadership in high-poverty schools and districts, in particular, as part of their overall strategies.

A version of this article appeared in the January 10, 2001 edition of Education Week as Grant Program Aims To Nurture School Leaders