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 with Education Week on Jan. 31 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?
I guess I always live my life by one theme, which is you always pursue the one thing you would wonder the most about if you didn’t take it. And so knowing that I was coming to a position that could last six months or potentially longer than that didn’t really enter into my thinking about it. But 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’s 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 think I approach it as viewing all of the opportunities that are possible. ... So 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. ... The feedback that we received it was disappointing. I can’t even remember the countless hours that were put into personnel and collecting data and analyzing data and just meeting. 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. So there’s a frustration there. ...
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. ... That was really invaluable. 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. ... And there was a real power in that. So with the long nights of writing and all of the requirements, you get really frustrated by that. There were several times I reminded myself that this was not unlike the regulations I would sometimes put on local school districts.
Your umbrella now is quite large. So where are you focusing your energy?
I think [Elementary and Secondary Education Act] flexibility is a really good example of providing a great opportunity for us. We’re actually trying to change the way we interact with states. So rather than being a total compliance monitoring system, you fill in the blanks, you file certain forms correctly, we’ve now designed a system that actually crosses the department so it’s not just individuals within the Elementary and Secondary Education program office, but we’re working across it. We’re modeling what we want states to do. ... We are designing a very robust technical assistance program to support states. We are saying what do you need help with? What are the challenges? It’s connecting states. ...
I also recognize coming from the state department that there are state departments that have undertaken some budget reductions and some staffing reductions and ... so even with that they’re sometimes at a loss for how to best help local districts. We’re looking at our comprehensive centers to figure out how to do that.
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.
Are these partnerships being done in part because you don’t have the ability to hire people to implement this technical assistance?
It’s a combination of things. There’s a true recognition that the Department of Education doesn’t have all the answers. That there’s a wealth of opportunities and resources available most especially through education organizations. And we also don’t always have all of the resources that are going to address every single solution so it’s a variety of reasons.
Are you going to have to change how you work with states under [the NCLB law] who do not get a waiver? Or is it on autopilot at this point?
I don’t think it’s on autopilot. I think because we’re committed to working with states as partners in the implementation of their ESEA flexibility plans I see that it naturally rolls over into states that have not requested a flexibility plan. I think this whole way of doing business with states is changing with the culture. The kinds of questions we ask of states. The ways in which we call up states and just inform states about what’s going on, I think it’s going to be a natural outgrowth of it. I don’t know if we’re going to discriminate as to whether you have a waiver or not, it’s just how do we make an outreach to states.
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’re 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 seem 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.
Do you think the SIG models need to be tweaked?
I think it’s premature to suggest that. I think the initial round of data because it’s so new, we’re really cautious about all of the lessons that we’re learning and extracting from those in a very large way. I think what I’m really interested in is not just looking at the models in general but what are the ingredients that went into successful schools, because I’m also mindful that people adapt certain practices from each of the models.
We are learning some things that are crossing over models. We’re learning already that a leader is really important, the quality of the leader to be visionary and courageous and to have a very clear vision of what should be happening in that school. [U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan] talks about a desire to have a highly effective teacher in every classroom. And I’m suggesting we need a highly effective teacher in every classroom in schools designed for success. Because I think schools designed for success are very purposeful.
Secretary Duncan has talked about the four things he wants to focus on in a second term, and one of them is early education. But Head Start is over at Health and Human Services.
Yes, but it’s a great compliment to this administration because the secretary created a program office for early learning, which had not existed. It’s in here.
So what can you do to make early education a focus?
We have Race to the Top early learning challenge. We also work collaboratively with the Department of Health and Human Services, so it’s a really nice partnership across two federal agencies ... to think about the quality of early learning experiences and to think about how do we transition students across several developmental pathways to enter kindergarten ready to learn. So we talk about the quality of care they get, we talk about the kinds of adults that are in their lives within those care settings, what are the attributes of those? We talk about ways we can better partner the public school system with programs such as Head Start. So there are a lot of ways that we’re really informing the early learning community. And I think it’s a great model for us to work collaboratively.
A version of this article appeared in the February 27, 2013 edition of Education Week