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On Top of the Race, but Under the Radar

Director of Race to the Top Joanne Weiss
Joanne Weiss, chief-of-staff to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, says the Obama administration has requested $1.35 billion from Congress to continue Race to the Top.

As chief-of-staff to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and director of the Race to the Top fund, Joanne Weiss has seen the praise, criticism and speculation surrounding the Obama administration's federal high-stakes competition. The remaining $3.4 billion in Race to the Top funds was allotted to 10 states in August, with winning proposals promising improvements in teacher performance, data management, and student achievement. Despite concerns that the competition was pressuring cash-strapped states to adopt new policies with a multimillion dollar carrot, Weiss stands by the program, saying that in her 20 years in the public, private and philanthropic sectors of education, she has seen success and knows what it looks like. DA Associate Editor Marion Herbert recently spoke with the influential woman behind the scenes of Race to the Top.

DA: How has the competition positively impacted those states that lost out on the money?

Weiss: The states that competed did a few things that are pretty extraordinary and will help them as they move toward trying to develop a comprehensive education reform agenda in their states, whether they won or lost the competition. The first thing is, just putting together the proposal for Race to the Top was really creating a blueprint for reform for their state. And in most states, there wasn't a comprehensive education plan in place. Some districts had their own plans, although not all of them did. Race to the Top gave states the opportunity to work collaboratively across the business sector, the foundation-philanthropic sector, with the community, the nonprofits and all of the different parts of the school community that must work together to design plans that work. These plans are rooted in the comprehensive assets of those states and the needs of those states. I think that's a huge win for states.

The second thing is that it really gave states the opportunity to look comprehensively at their laws and legal infrastructure and see whether they were really doing the most that they could for education reform and whether or not this infrastructure was really conducive to doing education reform the right way in the state. As a result, 32 states changed their laws in ways that I think will have lasting impact in those states.

DA: Some state leaders are compromising their education doctrines for reforms they don't believe in because they need the grant money. At a time when states are struggling for public education funding, is a federal high-stakes competition the best way to demand change?

Weiss: I think that you can't use other excuses like the economy to put off doing what's right for kids. These kids have one shot at second grade. They're not going to be there again, and if we say, "Sorry, we didn't have time to pay attention to you until you were out of college," then we have done a tremendous disservice to these kids. So I think it's a false dichotomy. I absolutely think we have serious issues with the economy that we have to take care of and that there are ramifications on education budgets because of it. That doesn't mean, though, that we get a pass on doing right by kids and trying to put in place the reforms that are going to help them. I think you can hold both things in your head at the same time and manage them, and that's what we asked states to do. A tremendous amount of them did that beautifully.

DA: Since the release of the second round of Race to the Top winners, there has been some buzz as to why some states won and others did not. Can you share with us why for instance, Colorado and Louisiana did not win, given that they have been known leaders in areas such as teacher policy, data systems and charter schools?

Weiss: Yes, they have, and they've both done extraordinary work in education. The competition was, as I've said, a comprehensive look at education, and we had peer reviewers read through the applications in detail to review them, discuss them, participate in presentations with the states, ask clarifying questions, and get more information. In the end, all of the reviewers' comments and scores— which is the way the states were judged in this competition—have been posted online, and people can look at them for themselves.

DA: But is it taken into account the level of sincerity of the proposals by the states, and would renowned educational leaders' plans be more promising?

Weiss: One of the things the peer reviewers were looking at was the credibility of the reform plans and whether they felt that the state was actually going to be able to execute on the plans that they submitted. That's one of the reasons we had the presentation component, so that the people who were actually going to lead the reforms in the states could come and meet and talk to the peer reviewers about what they were planning. So yes, there were a number of ways in the competition that the credibility of the plan was taken into account.

DA: Knowing the power of the teachers unions, is it fair to place such an emphasis of the RTTT application on reforming them?

Weiss: Certainly no reforms happen in education if they're not happening all the way down at the classroom level where kids are really impacted by what happens. So the challenge of all of these reforms is really to make sure that we connect the dots all the way into the classrooms so that the improvements impact the kids. That means that teachers have to be at the core and hearts of all of these reform efforts. If they're not at the table helping to design these reforms and figuring out what will work in their states for their kids, then I think the chances of success go way down. I absolutely think teachers are a key part of the whole reform community and designing the reform agendas.

DA: With states strapped for cash, there was a lot of pressure to win these grants—so much so that the education commissioner of New Jersey was fired after a clerical error caused the state to finish in 11th place. Do you think there was too much attention to the presentation of the grants versus the big picture?

Weiss: The presentation portion of this competition is actually is not the standard way that we do these competitions. It's certainly something that has happened before in the department, but it's not the usual way it's done. Usually it's done entirely off paper. We felt that in this case that it was really important for the reviewers to ask clarifying questions, get answers, and engage in conversations with people that are going to be running these programs to make sure that they have faith that they are going to execute on them. So no, I don't think that there was too much emphasis placed on the presentation. In fact, I think in the end, that proved to be a pretty important part of the entire assessment of what was happening in those states.

The New Jersey case was unfortunate, but I think it was more than just a clerical error. There was just a lot of stuff going on in the state that led to this problem. It's unfortunate that it played out the way it did.

DA: Arne Duncan has mentioned on his recent "Courage in the Classroom" tour that the administration plans to continue the Race to the Top competition. Can you confirm this?

Weiss: Well, we've actually asked Congress for it. We put in our budget request for the fiscal 2011 year another $1.35 billion to continue the Race to the Top competition, and the budget is still pending in Congress.

DA: And will states that have already won be eligible for more funds?

Weiss: We haven't put together the plan for what that competition will look like if it is authorized by Congress, but I think it's fair to say that the states that have won have a four-year grant program ahead of them and will be executing on the current grant for the next four years and therefore probably won't be the ones we target the next grant competition at.

DA: There are now 11 states and the District of Columbia receiving federal aid through this grant competition. Are there consequences if they fail to deliver major promises made in their applications, and are there timelines in place?

Weiss: As part of the grant proposals that each state submitted to us, they have timelines, milestones and performance measures, and we will be holding them accountable on delivering those. There are absolutely consequences if they don't deliver. We will be working very closely with states to help them succeed and to hold them accountable for what they promised to deliver. If they don't, we can do everything from delaying funds to actually withholding funds if they are not acting on the plans they put forth in their proposals.

DA: How will the mid-term elections affect Race to the Top if—hypothetically—10 new governors are elected with radically different views on education?

Weiss: There are a bunch of governors up for re-election in the Race to the Top winning states, so we'll have to see. But it's really the same answer I just mentioned: If for some reason a state decides to go in a different direction than what its Race to the Top application promised, then there will be consequences for that.

DA: How did your role as partner and chief operating officer at NewSchools Venture Fund, a venture philanthropy firm supporting public education, prepare you and influence your role at the Department of Education?

Weiss: I think it prepared me in a number of ways. The first thing is that NewSchools looked for entrepreneurial organizations that were doing high impact and innovative things in education that were going to lead to dramatically increased student outcomes. I sat on the boards of a number of organizations that were doing incredible work in education with schools and nonprofits across the country. I got a lot of first-hand experience about what works out there, what it takes to make things work, what it takes to build these organizations that can make a difference in outcomes for kids so that on-the-ground perspective has been enormously helpful. It's also been incredibly helpful that I've seen success. I know what it looks like; I have a vision of what successful systems do.