Education Funding

Reader’s Digest Grants Will Focus on School Leadership

By Catherine Gewertz — July 12, 2000 5 min read
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In an attempt to inform and expand the nation’s search for better school leadership, the Wallace-Reader’s Digest Funds has announced a $150 million initiative designed to forge a better understanding of what it takes to foster and retain outstanding educational leaders.

Leaders Count, the biggest single commitment in the history of the New York City-based philanthropy, will unfold with a series of grants over the next five to 10 years. The foundation’s president, M. Christine DeVita, likened the effort to “building a big tent” under which great minds from the worlds of research, philanthropy, school administration, and other fields can brainstorm about how to improve the future of school leadership.

The foundation is also supporting work on improving teacher quality, she noted, and improving and ensuring leadership quality is inextricably linked to that effort. “The next piece of the puzzle is quality leadership,” Ms. DeVita said at a breakfast meeting held here to unveil the program late last month.

Leadership Grant Recipients
The first nine grantees in the Wallace-Reader’s Digest Funds’ Leaders Count initiative are:
The Institute for Learning, University of Pittsburgh; Lauren B. Resnick, director: $3.9 million over three years to develop the instructional expertise of principals, intermediary supervisors, and superintendents.
Center on Reinventing Public Education, University of Washington, Seattle; Paul T. Hill, research professor: $2.3 million over three years to examine the causes of leadership shortages and to propose ways to increase quality and quantity of superintendents and principals.
The Big Picture Co., the Aspiring Principals Program, Providence, R.I.; Dennis Littky, founding director: $1.3 million over three years to develop and test an innovative program for recruiting and preparing principals.
Rand Corp., Santa Monica, Calif.; Dominick Brewer, director of RAND Education: $1.03 million over three years to synthesize and analyze existing data about leadership preparation and career progression among principals and superintendents.
Southern Regional Education Board, Atlanta; James E. Bottoms, senior vice president: $383,000 over one year to design a leadership- preparation program to be used by universities in preparing leaders to improve education in low-performing schools and districts.
Council of Chief State School Officers, Washington; Gordon M. Ambach, executive director: $370,000 over nine months to establish a national consortium of five state policy organizations to explore legal and policy issues affecting leadership in high-poverty schools and districts.
American Association of School Administrators, Arlington, Va.; Paul D. Houston, executive director: $168,000 over six months to plan a program to recruit and prepare candidates to lead urban districts.
Teachers College, Columbia University, New York City; Arthur E. Levine, president: $98,000 over six months to draw up a plan for creating and sustaining a National Center on Education Leadership.
Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, Teachers College, Columbia University; Gene I. Maeroff, director: $90,000 to conduct a three-day seminar in the winter of 2001 for journalists on education leadership.

Mary Lee Fitzgerald, the director of education programs for the foundation, said that many factors have contributed to a crisis in school leadership: a looming job-vacancy problem because so many administrators are near retirement age, reluctance by educators to enter administration because of increasing pressure to produce academic results, insufficient pay and respect, and little preparation for the complex financial and political challenges of running a school or a school district.

Key objectives of the Leaders Count initiative are: creating a larger pool of administrator-candidates, helping principals and superintendents improve learning, and creating conditions that support the leadership of successful schools. Pivotal to reaching those goals, Ms. Fitzgerald said, are raising awareness of the problem, supporting promising research, and sharing the results of that research.

Nine Grants Awarded

Ms. Fitzgerald bemoaned the relative scarcity of research on educational leadership, calling it “a field that doesn’t exist,” and said the time was right to invest in expanding the base of knowledge about what makes successful school leaders.

The issue has become a focal point of discussion among policymakers, philanthropists, researchers, and others as superintendents and principals resign or retire in startling numbers, and fewer candidates than ever are willing to take on those increasingly difficult jobs. As attention to the issue has grown, other foundations have committed money to aspects of the leadership issue, but the amount pledged by the Wallace-Reader’s Digest Funds represents one of the largest commitments to date.

The first round of grants totals $9.7 million. The grants were approved this spring after foundation officials held meetings in six cities with more than 400 educators, policymakers, and community members. The nine grantees are an eclectic mix of traditional education players, such as Teachers College, Columbia University, and those known for out-of-the-box thinking on the issues, such as Dennis Littky, the founder of a nontraditional principal-preparation program based in Providence, R.I. (See box, above.)

The entities that won grants to design leader-preparation programs depart from the usual university- based approach by emphasizing field-based training—real-life experience working in schools rather than learning in a classroom—with the idea that the best training is embedded in the job itself, Ms. Fitzgerald said. Michael D. Usdan, the president of the Washington-based Institute for Educational Leadership, which has received funding from the Department of Education and the Ford Foundation to serve as a focal point of discussion on the issue, called the Leaders Count initiative an important step.

He noted that one grant is going to the Council of Chief State School Officers to examine state-level obstacles to achievement in poor neighborhoods.

“The state-leadership issue has tended to be ignored and bypassed at a time of devolution, when states are being given more responsibility for standards and goals,” Mr. Usdan said. “It’s good to ask what is the capacity of the state education department to handle these responsibilities.”

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A version of this article appeared in the July 12, 2000 edition of Education Week as Reader’s Digest Grants Will Focus on School Leadership

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