Weiss connects dots as Duncan’s deputy

Joanne Weiss looks through a wide-angle lens as Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s chief of staff.

“This job is a mile wide and inches deep, because you have to understand across the spectrum from early learning to higher education,” Weiss said.

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Her role places her as an adviser “across the whole gamut” of the department and its 4,200 employees, overseeing new hires, policy implementation and special projects.

But Weiss said the sprawling nature of the job must be balanced against another task: keeping the team focused and on point.

“For each of the different meetings that [Duncan] has with his executive team or with all of the assistant secretaries, I make sure that we’re taking up the right decisions at the right moment in time and that the decision is teed up properly and ready to be made,” Weiss said. “We don’t ever want to be a bottleneck stopping things from happening.

“[You have to know] what’s happening, what’s on our agenda, who’s in charge of what, so that you can connect the right people, involve the right people in conversations and triage effectively.”

Weiss’s résumé reflects a willingness to try new things. She earned a Princeton University biochemistry degree in 1979, became a vice president of an education technology startup and later took the reins as the first director for the Obama administration’s signature education program, Race to the Top.

“Coming in and leading Race to the Top allowed me to see a vertical slice of the organization, since we had to take a very high-profile program and take it all the way through implementation,” Weiss said.

“It allowed me to work very deeply in one area and really understand how the department does its work.”

 While Secretary Duncan and Weiss interact daily, she said they generally move in different spheres. Her focus is more on internal department operations, which means meetings galore for the secretary’s wingwoman.

“Days start early and often go late into the night,” Weiss said, talking through her 24/7 work agenda. “Across all these different topic areas, we deal with a myriad of issues. We also have standing meetings with the executive team and with all the assistant secretaries. And then we have the policy committee meetings, strategy committee meetings and specific items that are attached to the issues du jour that are happening.”

One focus of the department now is the No Child Left Behind law, which is up for reauthorization this year but is mired in congressional gridlock.

The law was intended to raise schools’ accountability and students’ test scores, but Duncan says it is “fundamentally broken” and punitive to schools.

Weiss said No Child Left Behind has led to the “dumbing of the standards” and a “narrowing of the curriculum” that forces teachers to focus only on skills that will be tested on the national exams.

“It’s the equivalent of lying to your kids about what their prospects are,” Weiss said.

The department decided in August to grant waivers for schools that are falling behind on the law’s mandates. While that action has drawn criticism from some Republicans, Duncan and President Obama have argued it is within Duncan’s rights as secretary.

“We’re not going to stand by and either give states a pass on accountability, nor are we going to hold states to a standard that makes no sense for kids,” Weiss said.

Congress needs to act now and reauthorize the law before the 2012 election, Weiss said, noting that it needs “serious, serious work.”

 “The law is way overdue for a reauthorization and way outdated in terms of its provisions.”

Another issue at the top of the department’s agenda is Race to the Top, which challenges the states to make education reforms in return for grant money.

That program,which Weiss transformed from a single page of statute into a $4.35 billion reality, has suffered some recent publicity setbacks, with reports of misused funds by districts and disagreements on new merit-based teacher evaluations.

But Weiss emphasized those reports aren’t always accurate. She added that, while meeting compliance and financial reporting expectations are important, the department is expending more energy than usual on helping the states reach their goals.

“We’re focused on helping states achieve the goals they set in their grants, and we’re letting them have flexibility with how they get there, if things they learn along the way change their path and their plan,” Weiss said.

“If someone is not implementing their plan in a way that is going to result in achieving their goals, I think we all strongly believe that that money is better returned to the taxpayers. And so there are negotiations under way, probably all the time because the complexity of this is so high.” 

Weiss also explained that while student results may be the “lagging indicator,” states are beginning to see results.

“There is very substantive work going on right now in states,” she said. “I think that Race to the Top really galvanized these conversations and drew attention to these big issues, which will, in the end, make a huge difference for the children who live in these states.”

At the end of the day, Weiss said, her No. 1 goal is starting a conversation about schools and learning.

“Honestly, I don’t care whether families sitting around their dinner table agree or disagree with our policies. I just want them talking about education,” Weiss said.

“Just getting passionate about education and caring about it is a huge benefit to our country.”