Last April—less than seven months before President Barack Obama’s re-election—former Ohio schools chief Deborah S. Delisle was confirmed as the top point person on K-12 policy within the U.S. Department of Education.
As the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, Ms. Delisle is in charge of about 60 programs—including Title I, the precollegiate flagship focused on disadvantaged students—and more than $20 billion in federal grants. Perhaps her most important task is overseeing the implementation of waivers under the No Child Left Behind Act, the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
Ms. Delisle sat down recently with Education Week for a wide-ranging interview. What follows is an edited transcript.
Education Week: You took a job without knowing if you would still have it a few months later, given that President Obama’s re-election was not guaranteed. Why?
Deborah Delisle: I think it was to have the opportunity to work with an administration who I felt had really placed a very strong emphasis on education, particularly in the pre-K-through-12th-grade space, which is where my background lies. I’d always wonder about it if I didn’t take it. I took the plunge.
You were a local superintendent and then became a state chief.
So this is my 37th year in education. And I pretty much have played all the roles in education. Teacher, principal, central-office administrator, school district superintendent, and then the state chief in Ohio for three years. And I think that one of the values of coming to the department is to bring that voice, not just the pre-K-through-12th-grade space, but all of those roles.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently spoke to the National School Boards Association. And a lot of those boards take issue with some of his policies, perceived as a top-down approach. Given your background as a local and state official, how has that shaped what you do now that you are part of this federal bureaucracy?
I was still a state chief during this administration, and when there was a lot of work being done around transforming schools, I always would think about it from what is the endgame, what is the goal? It was not unlike when I was a superintendent receiving guidance or regulations from Columbus, from the [Ohio] state department. I guess I viewed it in the same kind of way: So how can we make this work in our particular context or our group of kids?
You were a state chief when Mr. Duncan came into office. What was a policy that you particularly welcomed as a state chief, and what was one that you were particularly frustrated with?
I really welcomed the opportunity to think about transforming schools through the Race to the Top. And I will say that it frustrated me as well. ... Trying to pull together a grouping of people and having everybody think really boldly about what education could be like for the students in the state of Ohio, ... it’s a pretty overwhelming task. ... And when we were not successful [in the first round of competition], you just get this big lump in your stomach and you feel defeated.
The feedback we received was really, really critical. And so [in the successful second round] we brought together over 100 people with the help of the nonprofit in our state, and it represented over 70 organizations. ... I think that there were a lot of lessons learned about partnerships and collaboration and creating a strength about a vision for Ohio that could last and sustain itself beyond a person—beyond me as a state chief or beyond the governor or beyond the chancellor of higher education. ... There were several times I reminded myself that this was not unlike the regulations I would sometimes put on local school districts. ... So it was sort of a great humbling experience to know you don’t have all of the answers.
Your umbrella now is quite large. So where are you focusing your energy?
We’re modeling what we want states to do. ... We are designing a very robust technical-assistance program to support states. It’s connecting states. ... So if there are two states that are having some great success with interventions with lowest-performing schools, ... we can be the conveners of those states coming together to share best practices. ... We currently are reaching out to education organizations. We’re reaching out to teachers’ unions to figure out what every organization is doing, and how can we support them in their work, and then how can we connect them with their work.
One of the greatest things for the department in the first term was that Congress handed you billions of dollars in additional money. You don’t have that now. How can you get done what you want to get done without any extra money? And maybe less money?
We are committed to helping states do the work they’ve already started. So whether it’s Race to the Top, whether it’s flexibility, whether it’s School Improvement Grants, we’re out there helping people think about sustainability and scalability.
You know I’ve been out to a lot of schools that have received School Improvement Grants—there’s $4 billion invested in the lowest-performing schools across the country; it’s a huge catalyst for people. But I’ve also seen schools in those communities who don’t have SIG money adopting practices those SIG schools are doing.
And I think that’s one of the real powers that this administration has created. If in the next four years this administration can lift up those lessons from all of the various programs that have been funded and see how they can be implemented in other ways, I think that would be a great asset.
A version of this article appeared in the February 27, 2013 edition of Education Week as Q&A: Ed. Dept.'s K-12 Chief Shares Policy Outlook