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Exit Interview: Joanne Weiss, Chief-of-Staff to Arne Duncan

By Michele McNeil — July 10, 2013 4 min read
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In Joanne Weiss’ four years at the U.S. Department of Education, she is perhaps best known for helping to shape and then run the Obama administration’s signature education-improvement effort: the Race to the Top program. In the last three years, however, she’s assumed a less-in-the-limelight role as chief of staff to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan as the department rolled out other important initiatives, such as No Child Left Behind Act waivers.

Weiss, who had leadership positions in many entrepreneurial education organizations before joining the department, is leaving this month for the next step in her career, which she hasn’t determined. She has picked her next destination, however: Rome. She’s taking a month off and traveling with her husband. Today, we sat down for a 30-minute retrospective on her time at the department. Here are snippets of our conversation:

Why are you leaving?

“You get very insulated here, and it’s very important to get back into the real world. I’m not sure yet what I’m going to do, and that’s both liberating and scary. But it will be something in education. That’s where my passion is.”

I think of a chief of staff as a gatekeeper. Is that how you see your role?

“I don’t. I see my job is to really enable state chiefs, district superintendents, other folks to help them work through what they need to do their jobs.”

With the benefit of hindsight, would you design the Race to the Top competition any differently?

“I don’t think there are a lot of things I would have done differently, other than maybe put the budget caps on earlier, which meant Delaware and Tennessee got more money than maybe one would have liked to have seen. That’s a small thing though. I think we need to see it play out further to see what worked and what didn’t.”

Did the right states win?

“It’s also hard to tell that. Some of the states that won haven’t used that leverage to the full advantage. Others that didn’t win really used the competition to move the needle on reform. I do think what it did was get us unstuck from the status quo.”

Will Race to the Top be Duncan’s, and the department’s, biggest legacy under Obama?

“I hope it’s part of a bigger story, that the department can help be a force for reform. ... That it advanced the idea that smart government can do politically smart things. The waivers are a 50-state play, and are also transformative. Government is designed for one-size-fits-all, but that’s not right. It’s about how can we, in a way that’s fair, enable and empower? How can we be not one-size-fits-all? I hope this notion that you can do it within the federal government is also part of the story. Also, the federal government had really been disempowering state education agencies, and we’re working to empower them.”

But why is the department seriously considering district waivers then, specifically the California CORE waiver?

“If there are millions of kids and we could make a difference, then that’s something we have to look at. We’re doing it in tandem with the state.”

It’s easier to manage one-size-fits-all projects. Does the department have the capacity to monitor implementation of all of these tailored initiatives?

“One of the challenges of the second term is we have to do business differently. But it’s the right thing to do. Compliance is the floor. We consider as our customers 53 states (including territories); it’s not a crazy number to manage. Race to the Top is a prototype. We have shown the IG [Inspector General] and GAO [Government Accountability Office] that we can do this in a way that’s transparent and fair. Now we have to scale it internally. That’s one of Jim’s [Acting Deputy Secretary Jim Shelton’s] big projects.”

What is the department’s strategy now on getting ESEA reauthorized?

“With the waivers, our job is to evaluate and understand what’s not working and what is, and produce documents using all of those lessons learned. I think [Duncan] desperately wants to get it reauthorized, or at least he wants to document the lessons of the waivers and hand it off to the next administration.”

In light of all of the common core controversy, would you change the number of points Race to the Top awarded for common-core adoption?

“We did have a big hand in creating incentives to adopt the common core, but those are pretty ideal roles for the federal government—to support early adopters. What we care most about is the high bar.”

In watching waiver implementation play out, what worries the department the most?

“The data our team will be looking at will be good and tell us what’s working and what’s not—and some of it won’t work. But what the department is really looking at are the state education agencies. Most states have hundreds and hundreds of customers, or districts. They have designed some pretty smart interventions but executing down to the school level is hard work. Building a continuous improvement system is really hard work.”

What was your worst day at the department?

“Newtown. It was clear that since this was happening at a school, the Department of Education would have to respond. We were in crisis response in a way that we don’t deal with everyday. It was life and death. And it was also using muscles we don’t exercise very often.”

And your best day?

“After Newtown. I was at a meeting where we were planning for what kind of policies and proposals we should take a look at with multiple agencies—HHS, Justice, Homeland Security—and the president and vice president. I thought it was so cool because it was a completely normal meeting. There were only about 10 folks in the room. Everybody was heads down, doing work, scribbling notes, crossing things off, and then you look up at the folks in the room and how this looks like a normal meeting, except it’s not, because you’re in the vice president’s office and the president was there. It was a good meeting.”

Photo by Peter Bohler