By the Company It Keeps: Joanne Weiss

I’m a big admirer of Joanne Weiss. She recently left the U.S. Department of Education after a tremendously consequential tenure. Working behind the scenes—never seeking the limelight for herself—she had a hand in the most important federal education decisions over the last five years.

Joanne joined the Obama Administration’s Department of Education early and earned great respect for her expert management of the gigantic Race to the Top competition. Such were her accomplishments that Secretary Duncan elevated her to the most important—and underappreciated—staff position in the Department: chief of staff (COS).

Nothing of import happens in a cabinet agency without involvement by the COS. I suspect that many days, Joanne was the first person in the morning and last person in the evening that Secretary Duncan spoke to.

More than that, though, the job is as brutally difficult and high-anxiety as you could imagine. You have to manage the flow of information to the boss so he isn’t overwhelmed. You have to tee up tough issues for final decisions—that means bringing not just problems but also a series of possible solutions. You have to deal with all of the internal challenges of a massive political bureaucracy. You have to work with the White House, OMB, Congress, and other agencies. And when an angry call comes in from a member of Congress, a state chief, or a governor, it gets routed to the COS.

And while all that’s going on—with colleagues in constant triage-mode, desperately trying to put out a never-ending series of fires—the COS somehow must figure out how to be strategic and ensure important, long-term initiatives are being carried out, not being sidelined by the crisis du jour.

It’s a testament to Joanne’s leadership and management skills that in the face of all of this, the Department was able to churn out a mountain of work—the RTTT suite of programs, ESEA waivers, i3, and much more.

But there’s one last thing.

Joanne has every reason to be totally unpleasant to me. She has admirably avoided that temptation. This goes beyond my personal appreciation; it speaks to an old-school and gravely endangered civility in public life. Though I’m an advocate, a big part of my job right now is to be an analyst and member of the “loyal opposition.” That means studying what’s going on, trying to explain what it means, and offering constructive thoughts for paths forward. What that occasionally amounts to is my being critical of things being done by those in power…and that has meant setting my sights on the Department once in a while. To the extent they’ve paid me any mind, I’ve been an insufferable nuisance to Joanne and her team.

Nine out of ten chiefs of staff would’ve put me on ice. I would’ve been blacklisted. My emails would’ve gone unanswered. But Joanne’s confidence, good nature, and commitment to transparency didn’t allow that to happen.

When my panicked fever about the status of the testing consortia was reaching the boiling point, I asked PARCC, SBAC, and the Department to publicly answer a set of tough questions. Ninety-nine percent of USED chiefs of staff would’ve ignored that request or simply given me a flaccid press statement. Too little upside, too much risk.

Instead, Joanne said yes, and her team produced a hugely informative set of responses.

And when the Administration’s second term was kicking off, Joanne hosted several small lunch sessions with the Secretary so they could hear different ideas as they were building their new agenda. She could’ve invited “the choir”—those who already agreed with the Administration across the board. Instead, I and a few other dissonant voices were invited.

As you’ll see from her answers below, Joanne is insightful, reflective, and jealousy-inducing smart. I can’t wait to see what she does next; and I have no doubt: Joanne will have her pick of the litter. I’m sure the line of suitors is already long and its members sharp-elbow jockeying for position.

Given her college major and early career choices, you could easily imagine a world in which some other industry captured her immense talents. Education reform is lucky that Joanne became a fellow traveler and continues to keep our company.

Ladies and gentlemen, Joanne Weiss.

What will you most miss about the U.S. Department of Education?

There are three things I’ll miss enormously. First, I’ll miss the scale of impact. There’s no place else you can talk in terms of 75 million students, 7 million teachers, 100,000 schools, and 5,000 colleges—and mean it when you say your policies will affect them. That is an enormous opportunity to serve and to support positive change, but it carries with it a huge responsibility; and I have to admit that the weight of such decisions kept me up many a night. Whether it was one transgender child’s access to a bathroom or an entire state’s accountability system, the work touched lives.

Second, I’ll miss the people. Before I took this job, I had pretty vague notions about federal employees—if I thought about them at all. But when I joined the government, I met civil servants who are doctors, astronauts, scientists, lawyers, law-enforcement agents, software engineers, and of course, educators—and I developed deep respect for the work they do. My colleagues at ED are mission-driven professionals who work long hours to make sure that states, districts, and colleges have what they need to serve their students well. We have some amazing people serving in our government. I’ll miss working with and learning from them. And, of course, I’ll miss working daily with Arne, who, in addition to being the best Secretary of Education we’ve ever had, is also a wonderful boss, colleague, partner, and friend.

Finally, I’ll miss the access to information and expertise. The awesome thing about being chief of staff to the U.S. Secretary of Education is that everyone returns your calls and is happy to share their knowledge and wisdom with you. And to ensure that our decisions were as well informed as possible, we took full advantage of that. We hosted monthly “learning sessions” with outside experts, and we held public convenings on complex issues like 21st-century assessment, developing non-cognitive skills, gun violence and school safety, using big data in education, etc. I’ll also miss having the inside scoop on what’s happening at the White House, in other agencies, and on the Hill. It’s cool when Alan Krueger, head of the Council of Economic Advisors, gives you a briefing on the economic recovery—very cool!

Your colleagues absolutely rave about your management and organizational skills—how you’re able to navigate complex institutional and project challenges. Where did you learn how to do this? Any mentors, courses, or books that you’d single out?

That’s nice! I’ve had great mentors and colleagues; I’ve had different types of opportunities; and I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my thirty years in education—and I learned from them all—good and bad, personal and vicarious. At the risk of being very incomplete, I’ll single out a few of my bigger “A-Has!”

My first boss, Dusty Heuston, taught me the importance of “history:” of knowing and building on the work that preceded yours. He also taught me how to use research to ground my work, and evaluation to improve it. At that same job, I learned how to manage large-scale, complex projects; this was my trial-by-fire experience. I failed rather grandly on my first big project; my team and I regrouped to learn from our errors; then we did it again, right(er). There’s nothing like failure to galvanize your attention!

Another big lesson for me was understanding the power of strategy. I have worked with a number of amazing strategists and visionaries; I appreciate their gifts enormously and know how to “hear” what they’re saying. But my greatest skill is turning these visions into reality—connecting the dots between the 50,000-foot view and on-the-ground execution.

Later, when I was running an organization, two great board members—John Doerr and Jim Breyer—taught me a lot about relationships as they helped me grow into a critical leadership role. As an outcomes-oriented, metrics-y person, I thought “building relationships” was a little namby-pamby. I didn’t quite understand the power of leveraging a strong professional network to improve, accelerate, or amplify results. Suffice it to say that I get it now. Arne is a master at this too; I learned a lot from him on this score as well.

As an entrepreneur, I learned early on that one should never ask, “Can I…?” Always ask, “How can I…?” This was my secret weapon when I moved from the entrepreneurial to the bureaucratic world. As we were designing novel features into Race to the Top, our meetings always started with, “Here’s what we want to accomplish…how can we do it?” The team was enlisted as co-creators from the start, and our solutions were much better for it.

But the biggest lesson I learned was from Max Bell, the great mathematics educator. I was in charge of a huge curriculum-development project, and Max was working as an expert on sabbatical from the University of Chicago. Max was in his 60s then, and I was about 25. Max came into my office, and in a shaky voice said, “I love curriculum development. I don’t know if I want to go back to the university when this job is over. I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.” I’m sure that I said absolutely nothing helpful to him—but he helped me enormously. In that one moment, I realized that it’s all about contributing in the best ways you can at any moment in time—and that you’re never too old to learn, to grow, to be open to new opportunities, and to seize them. (Max went on to author the phenomenally successful Everyday Mathematics series.)

When it comes to your leadership role in Race to the Top, what are you most proud of?

I think that Race to the Top was transformative—not just for advancing reform—but for advancing the notion that smart government can actually accomplish politically difficult things. It’s a model that could be applied across all sorts of government programs.

Through the Department’s largely compliance-focused funding over decades, we had helped “create” state agencies that shirked their education-leadership responsibilities in favor of passing money down to districts and passing reports back up to the feds. That’s not a prescription for coherence—much less for innovation or continuous improvement. Race to the Top asked states to create their own unique blueprints for education reform—and then, by publicly posting everyone’s plans and the judges’ scores, got the nation involved in a conversation about what high-quality education systems look like. Ownership was moved to governors and state chiefs, where it belonged. And a dialogue about standards and assessments, teachers and principals, data, and school turnarounds started in earnest. This put each “actor” in the ideal role, with good ideas being developed at the state and local level, and the federal government encouraging and supporting early adopters, disseminating the lessons learned, and shining a light on successes.

Do you have any misgivings about the administration’s ESEA waiver policy? For example, do you ever quietly worry that ten years from now, we’ll look back and see that some states reverted to pre-NCLB behavior and their achievement gaps widened?

I’m so glad that your questions are even-handed and reveal no biases, Andy! Here’s what I think… In this country, states (not the feds) are where the education action is. I believe that ESEA flexibility will demonstrate the differences made by different states’ policies, practices, and funding approaches. I think we’ll see in-state achievement gaps narrow in a group of smart, focused states—states that have used ESEA flexibility to design student-outcomes-focused, coherent education systems. And I think we’ll see those states pull ahead of other states.

Hopefully other states will learn from this before inter-state achievement gaps (which have always been there) widen even further. And hopefully the lessons learned from these high-performing states will inform ESEA reauthorization. Hopefully…

Prior to your tenure at the Department, you spent most of your career outside of Washington, D.C. What aspects of “inside-the-beltway” life were the most jarring or difficult to handle? Anything about the D.C. work world that you really liked?

Ah…the “rant” opportunity! Three things are on my “really?” list.

First, the dysfunction in federal budgeting still stuns me. In the best of times, when budgets are appropriated annually, it’s incredibly hard to invest in making your strategic operations more efficient and more effective—since doing so requires long-term thinking (what’s that?!). But then, in my D.C. tenure, I never saw “normal” budgeting. We had entire years without budgets at all, operating instead on “continuing resolutions.” For those unfamiliar with D.C., that’s like getting a month-to-month allowance from a Congress that can’t decide how much to give you. And when “sequestration” happened, or when shutdowns were (are!) threatened, all your work was derailed.

In 2011, when the last shutdown was threatened, it took teams of us (including the deputy secretary and me, virtually full-time) a month just to develop a legal, compliant plan for pulling down all-but-essential operations—and that’s for a small, 4,000-person agency! Imagine the person-hours and the distractions from the mission and business of the government that happen every time the government faces unpredictable budgets, debt ceilings, and shutdowns. It’s a complete waste of time and taxpayer dollars…and it prevents people from getting important work done.

Second, before coming to D.C., I had spent much of my career working with high-performing school systems serving disadvantaged populations; so I thought a lot about enabling excellence. When I got to D.C., I realized that most policymaking seemed to be targeted at preventing bad actors from doing harm; so the focus was on sanctions. It was a totally new perspective for me. We quickly realized that both points of view were valuable, and that the best policy decisions would arise from collaboration. We could have a long discussion about what this meant, for example, for Race to the Top versus School Improvement Grants (SIG) —but that’s for another day.

Third, it bummed me out when I moved from California to D.C. that I’d have to get dressed up for work every day. What’s wrong with jeans? Sandals? T-shirts?

You were involved in the very early days of education technology. Has the ed-tech world evolved in the ways you expected? Are there any ed-tech ventures today that especially intrigue or excite you?

I’m one of those crazy optimists who has, for decades now, seen the potential for technology to revolutionize teaching and learning and forecasted that it was “coming soon.” Here I am, doing it again! But it’s really going to happen this time. Really…

If you look back at the history of ed-tech programs, you’ll see that the “education” side is still in its infancy. We’ve had computer-based explanations, tutorials, drill and practice, and a smattering of cognitive tutors for more than twenty years now; we’re still mostly doing online the same things we do in classrooms every day, pointing cameras at good “explainers” and mixing in a little practice. The big innovations haven’t been in teaching and learning (yet), they’ve been in technology: scoring, audio, video, networks, data mining, and social interactions. With the “tech” side moving so fast, it’s been hard for the “ed” side to keep up, much less innovate.

But the costs of hardware are finally right. The technology is no longer invasive, it’s pervasive. And in K–12, with common standards across so many states, we have a new set of market conditions that should spur innovation. So the productivity gains we’ve seen in business, in retail, in manufacturing—I think we’ll finally start seeing them soon in education. MOOCs, like Coursera, and websites, like Khan Academy, are already proving there’s a massive market. And solutions like LearnZillion and BetterLesson are finding ways to turn great teachers into scalable resources. Big data, virtual worlds, cognitive tutors, and online games—it’s all coming. The challenge will be to make sure that students from disadvantaged backgrounds get the same access and have the same opportunities to learn with technology as more privileged kids have.

You spent a number of years at NewSchools Venture Fund, which, among other things, helped launch some of the nation’s very best charter management organizations (CMOs). Today, charter replications and expansions are increasingly common, but ten or fifteen years ago did you ever imagine that KIPP, Uncommon, YES, IDEA, and other CMOs would grow like they have?

Yes! The whole idea was to use charter laws, which had enabled the creation of new and innovative schools, to spur new school systems. We didn’t think we could get the attention of (much less have an impact on) traditional schools without proving that low-income kids could be served at a scale akin to a district and achieve at high levels. “Scale with quality” was the goal from the start. And thank goodness the early pioneers had the passion, dedication, know-how, and fortitude to make their organizations successes. They have proven the possible and worked hard to proactively share what they’re learning; and are now seeding the education field with some great talent.

One thread running through all By the Company It Keeps interviews is work-life balance. Any advice for those earlier in their careers wondering how they can have it all…or at least something close to it?

Marry well and lean in! My husband, Paul, is a full partner with our kids (that’s a given) but he’s also my biggest supporter. He knows me well—he knows what makes me happy and what I’m good at. His honesty, support, encouragement, and flexibility have helped me choose the right opportunities and make them successful. I have, I hope, done the same for him.

I’m from the “lean in” camp, not the “you can/can’t have it all” camp. No one can have it all—not men and not women. There will always be choices to make, timing and locations to consider, and consequences to live with. That’s life.

But way too many women—and I put myself squarely in this category for years—shy away from opportunities that they aren’t positive they will excel at. We “go for” something only when we’re overqualified for it. Now I’m no fan of an arrogant, “I-can-do-anything” attitude, but I do think that women need to own and shape their careers by taking more risks and more aggressively going for high-impact opportunities.

Finally, I think we need to stop thinking of our careers in black-and-white terms: that we’re either working or we’ve “stepped back.” High-powered workplaces (whether classrooms or offices) need more balanced and flexible options for both men and women. Solutions like job-sharing, tele-working, and part-time opportunities can help families enormously and keep much-needed talent active in the workforce. Successful organizations are starting to get that.

What class, professor, or experience at Princeton had the greatest influence on you?

At Princeton, I was a biochemistry major who loved literature classes best. I learned to think rigorously and analytically from the sciences and then found refuge in the humanities. I stuck with biochemistry because it was a challenge … and sheer momentum was about to carry me to medical school. I had always taken seriously Princeton’s motto, “in the nation’s service”—so I stopped, took stock, and thought about where I had the potential to make a significant contribution. It was clear that science and medicine weren’t it for me.

It was a scary moment, when the course of my future went from clear to foggy. But over the next couple of years, I stuck my toe in different waters, and “education” quickly became the clear choice. Two aspects of education have consumed me since: using what we know about how people learn to improve educational quality; and delivering on the promise of education as the great equalizer for all students.

As you think about the next chapter of your career, imagine that you could seek advice from any four people throughout history. Who would they be and what would you ask them?

Socrates wasn’t particularly good at “scale” but he was great at tailoring education to meet each of his students’ needs. With “mass personalization” on the horizon for education, I’d love to know what edu-app Socrates would have designed.

I’d talk to Martin Luther King about school choice, charter schools, vouchers, and education as a civil right.

I’d ask John Dewey and Maria Montessori what they’d have done with broadband-equipped classrooms.

-Andy Smarick

This first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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