School & District Management

Exit Interview: Duncan’s Outgoing Chief of Staff

By Michele McNeil — June 16, 2010 12 min read
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Margot Rogers, chief of staff to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, is leaving her post on June 30 after 18 months in which she helped build the department’s leadership team and implement $100 billion worth of economic-stimulus programs.

Before joining Mr. Duncan’s staff at the start of the Obama administration, Ms. Rogers, an attorney, spent 15 years working for education-related nonprofit organizations and foundations, including the Seattle-based Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Margot Rogers

Mr. Duncan credits her with serving as a thoughtful sounding board, and for becoming a “one-man HR wrecking crew” as part of an effort to recruit education leaders to top posts in his department.

Taking her place in this key role at a time of broad transition for the department will be Joanne Weiss, who has been in charge of the Race to the Top Fund competitive grant program. Mr. Duncan described the department’s shift as one toward policy implementation and away from policy formation, since the department has already set policies around Race to the Top; the Investing in Innovation, or i3, Fund; and other grant programs.

What follows is an edited transcript of a 30-minute interview on June 14 with Ms. Rogers:

Q: Why are you leaving and where are you going?

A: I’m going to the beach with my children for the summer. I’m leaving because, as much as I love this job, and I love this job, I now have one teenager and one who’s squarely in the tween years and feel like they need more of me, and frankly, I need more of them than either they or I have gotten over the last 18 months. When I came, I told the secretary he could fire me any day of the week and I would leave and we’d be good friends, but that I would commit to him through summer of 2010. I had hoped we could make it work a little longer, but it’s time on the family front.

Q: This year and a half has been quite the whirlwind for the department. Looking back, what’s been the most challenging policy issue you faced?

A: ...When something like the [American Recovery and Reinvestment Act] happens so early in your tenure, it’s such a galvanizing opportunity on so many levels. Obviously, it’s important for the country economically, important for the culture we’ve tried to build here, where career and political people work very hard together to make a set of decisions and execute. But embedded in all of those new programs were a set of decisions about how you change the way the education community in the country operates. ... [W]e spent a lot of time talking to people around the country and getting input and then trying to be as thoughtful as we possibly could about how you link a set of decisions and priorities that take people where they are and push them as fast and hard as you can without breaking them.

Q: You’ve gotten a lot of leverage out of these discretionary funds. You’ve taken Race to the Top and you’ve run with it. What happens if Congress doesn’t keep giving you those discretionary funds, what then [if] ... you’re left with formula funds and rule-making?

A: A few things. Obviously, we hope we don’t face that first and foremost. Secondly, I think what you see now, because the vast majority of states have participated in one or the other or both rounds of Race to the Top, is that states have had really hard conversations about how to make things happen... And whether or not they get Race to the Top money, they’ve got a solid plan, and we’ve heard from a lot of states that that’s their plan.

So, what you hope you have is continued discretionary money. If you don’t, then you have formula funds which you hope will come in behind and help support people’s thinking about things in new ways. And that’s obviously true with the [Elementary and Secondary Education Act] programs, and what you have on the other side of [the law’s] reauthorization remains to be seen. But you have those pots of funds that will support the same kinds of activities that states have designed under the Race to the Top applications. So, what I hope we have is not just pots of money ... but thoughtful plans about how we change practice in education so we can get where we need to for this country.

Q: Talking about your role a bit, chiefs of staff can take on many different roles depending on the personalities involved and the political context. [Assistant Secretary for Communications and Outreach] Peter Cunningham likened you to glue. How would you describe your role?

A: Glue—I think that’s fair. ... I spend a lot of time connecting dots and making sure we’re having the right sets of conversations and the right sets of people are involved in those conversations. ... I also have focused a fair amount of time on helping Arne build our team and helping try to build a team that represents the kind of culture that he wants in an organization he’s leading. Which is one where people come in because they care first and foremost about keeping students at the center of their decision-making, where they’re willing to roll up their sleeves and check their egos at the door and debate vigorously about what the right thing to do is, but also remember at the end of the day we’re part of a team, both from the political and the career staff. Chiefs of staff spend time making sure things are working. So you dive in where you think we need to have a better process. That’s all part of the job. Maybe that’s glue.

Q: Is crisis management part of the job?

A: Sure. Knock on wood, my mom always said growing up you’re going to make mistakes because everybody does, but just don’t make the big ones, which I thought was good advice. And by and large, you have 4,200 people in a big, complicated organization doing a whole lot of work fast, and so of course you make mistakes here and there, but by and large we haven’t made the big ones. So, crisis management hasn’t had to be at the center here.

Q: Of the little crises, which one was the trickiest?

A: Hmmm.

(Press Secretary Justin Hamilton interjects: “That one we don’t talk about.”)

Q: Of the ones you do talk about...

A: Let’s see. (Pause). Justin, what’s on your list?

(Hamilton says: “Who actually won the guacamole showdown on Friday?”)

Right. There was a lot of controversy about that. You know, none of them have been all that difficult.

Q: You came from the Gates Foundation. The department has gotten some criticism for being too close to the philanthropic community, and specifically to Gates. Do you think that’s a fair criticism?

A: So, I would say what Arne’s been so great at doing ever since I’ve known him, which has been about six or seven years, is saying everyone has to be in this game. Everybody. We need parents and students and teachers and administrators. We need nonprofits and philanthropy. We need the private sector. Everybody’s got to be in this game. Foundations are clearly part of that. He’s been quite explicit that we need them to help this all work and are grateful for their support.

On Gates specifically, it’s not surprising to me that if you could interview 15 people, all of whom have worked in education for 15 or 20 years, that they would come up with the same category of things that we need to be working on as a nation. That we need to attract the best people to teaching, we need to reward them effectively and keep them in education. We need to think about more rigorous standards. So, I think part of the characterization with Gates is that some of their priorities have been some of the department’s priorities. And I would sort of proffer that they’re the field’s priorities at this point. There is more agreement than disagreement around what needs to happen in this country, which gives me great optimism.

Q: Race to the Top has gotten a lot of public attention. Has anything gotten overlooked by the public that the department is doing that’s as important, or almost as important?

A: [O]bviously, Race to the Top becomes an umbrella for a lot of different things that the department is doing right now, which is part of what makes it powerful. It’s about teachers, it’s about data, it’s about so many things. I think in terms of priorities, the shift to direct lending [for college loans] and what that means, both in terms of how we have been able to reallocate savings to invest more in students in the country, is a big deal. It got a certain amount of play, but because it happened in the middle of health care [overhaul legislation], it didn’t get as much attention. And yet for us, it’s been a big deal both in terms of how we are able to continue to meet the needs of students in this country and how we operationalize that effort.

Obviously the “i3" fund is a big priority, and what I’ll be interested in seeing from the outside is what ends up getting funded and what that looks like with Race to the Top. It’s about how you think about different pots of money, and how communities are able to leverage multiple pots of money, whether it’s TIF [Teacher Incentive Fund], or SIG [School Improvement Grants], or i3, or Race to the Top, or local funding. And what does that mean for those communities and what they’re able to do for their students? So, sometimes we don’t talk as much about those smaller pots, but they’re actually quite big.

Q: Speaking of SIG grants, those four turnaround models [required under the program] have been debated a lot. Can you talk about the internal debate around those four particular models, and the decision to mandate them?

A: [W]ith all of these decisions we’ve had lots of people involved in them. We’ve gotten lots of input from people in the field both in the brainstorming phase, when you’re allowed to talk to everybody, and then in the formal comment process for all of these programs. So none of these decisions is easy, and I think you debate them internally and you get lots of people involved and you make the best decision that you make. And there will continue to be debate, I’m sure, about that one in the field.

I can’t personally wait to see what schools around the country do with this money. My own high school is on the SIG list. I grew up in southern Virginia. I went to Prince Edward County High School, and it is on the SIG list and the headline in the Farmville Herald, because I still read my hometown paper online when I can, the headline said something like “Federal Funds Coming to Prince Edward County.” This is a community where they’re really embracing the kinds of conversations that we hope people across the country are having: what’s working, what’s not, and what do we need to change. And those are hard conversations to have, but SIG creates an opportunity for people to sit down and engage, hopefully, in meaningful conversations that will yield great things for students.

Q: ESEA [reauthorization] provides a big opportunity for the department if it ever happens.

A: I know. It’s my big regret.

Q: A lot of signs are pointing to the fact that it’s stalling. Is the department going to have to change strategy?

A: Look, I’m not going to get a crystal ball out about when this thing is going to move because it’s obviously up to lots of people on [Capitol] Hill and not to me. I will personally say I have very mixed feelings about leaving this job period. It’s hard for me professionally balancing that ... Anybody who knows me knows it’s been the biggest challenge I’ve had my whole life, which is when to push the accelerator and when to take it off. Not being here for ESEA is a big deal for me personally. But I don’t think that any timing issues necessarily mean you have to change course. And we’re obviously involved in lots of conversations with the Hill about how to move forward, and we’ll see what transpires over the next few months as a result of those conversations.

Q: So you don’t have a crystal ball but you do have the benefit of hindsight. Is there anything the department could have done to make ESEA move faster?

A: It’s a great question, and I don’t know. It’s fascinating, right? Because it’s not like we came Jan. 21 [2009] and we said, “So, the next 18 months we’re going to focus on ESEA”. We came Jan. 21 and then weeks later the Recovery Act happened and we needed to get money to the field so they could spend it because we’re in the middle of an economic crisis. And then we had to map out all of these discretionary proposals. What we didn’t want to do was have an ESEA proposal that didn’t contemplate all of those [proposals], because this is about sequencing, and this is about helping people aspire and be inspired by Race to the Top and come up with a plan that you hope ESEA will come behind and support. I think the sequencing was right. But it’s hard to know whether we could have effectively accomplished more at once. I’ve got to say people here have been working very hard. It’s hard to imagine how we could have pushed the organization any harder.

Q: One of the biggest pots of money from the stimulus that doesn’t get talked about much is the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund. The message from the department was, spend this money quickly, but also do some reform. I don’t really think that happened. The jury’s out. It was mostly used to backfill budgets. Was it unrealistic to think states could do both?

A: Look, I think it’s important to both, and the [stabilization fund] obviously was important to get out quickly so that people could avoid massive layoffs. What we do know is that, had those layoffs occurred, we could have never gotten to reform. It’s very hard for people in the middle of completely restructuring their schools and their districts to deal with diminished staff, to think proactively about getting anything different and positive accomplished. So we know that. The tension and balance between those two is continuing to be debated as we’re looking at a new jobs bill. I think what you do is you get money out, and you tell people these are the things we want you to do, and then you follow it with a series of discretionary programs that push very hard in that direction. And hopefully the whole package gets you both in a very clear way.

Q: The decision to award Race to the Top to Delaware and Tennessee—why those two and not, say, just pick one winner? Or three? Was this a case where [Secretary Duncan] went in his office and thought it over for a half-an-hour and came out and said, “This is the decision”? Or was it the [executive committee] sitting around debating it?

A: In the final analysis, he’s the kind of leader that you know owns those kinds of decisions for this department, and he’s very good at it. This decision—the data drove this decision. There was a big gap between state two and state three, and that’s where you go. The next time, you won’t have that kind of decision to make. You have a pot of money left, and you’ll fund down until you run out.

Q: Do you fund each state at the maximum grant?

A: I don’t know. I won’t be here. It will be fascinating to see.

Q: What’s going to be your successor, Joanne Weiss’, toughest challenge?

A: Joanne is so capable, and she’s going to do a great job here. They’ll be a couple of things. One is, we’ve got to get ESEA over the finish line. That is an important next step in sequencing our efforts. She’s got a great team working hard on this every single day. But day-to-day operations at the department work pretty well, and she’ll inherit an organization that works pretty well, and she’ll dive in at the margins, too. And she and I are different people, and she’ll bring a set of expertise that will make it her own, and I look forward to watching her in that role.

A version of this article appeared in the July 14, 2010 edition of Education Week


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