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Joanne Weiss’ career demonstrates that social innovations are often created and driven by people who reach across the nonprofit, for-profit, and government sectors. Weiss started her career by co-founding and leading several for-profit companies, and then joined the nonprofit NewSchools Venture Fund, which for the last 12 years has funded nonprofit and for-profit educational reform organizations. And last year Weiss was recruited to be the director of the U.S. Department of Education’s $4.3 billion Race to the Top Fund.

The Race to the Top Fund  is not a typical government program. Instead, it borrows from the nonprofit and for-profit sectors, most notably the idea that competition can stimulate change. Rather than getting grants based simply on how many children are in school or how many schools are failing, states must compete for money by putting forward innovative programs that improve their educational system.

In this interview with Stanford Social Innovation Review Managing Editor Eric Nee, Weiss explains what the department hopes to accomplish with Race to the Top, what criteria will be used to judge the states’ proposals, why it is important for states to compete for funding, and how the Race to the Top Fund is different from the U.S. Department of Education’s Investing in Innovation Fund.

Q. Why is the Race to the Top Fund important?

There are pockets of excellence and incredible assets that a lot of states have within their borders — schools and districts that are doing tremendous work for kids. The problem is that we don’t recognize those efforts, understand what it takes to replicate them, and disseminate what’s working and make sure that it’s spread across the state.

Race to the Top is designed to help America identify which states “get” the problem and are willing to step up to the plate and say: “You know what? We do have assets in our state. Here are the things that are going well and here’s how we’re going to scale and replicate those things. And here are things we’re not doing so well, but another state, another country, another place is doing them well. We’ve studied them, and here’s what we’re going to do in our state.” The hope, of course, would be that once we’ve got a number of states doing it, the rest of the states can come along.

Q. To receive Race to the Top funds, states have to demonstrate that they are achieving results in four different areas. What are those four areas and why did you pick them?

The law was written by Congress, but Arne Duncan (now U.S. secretary of education)was involved in the process, of course, and all of the K-12 programs that the department is developing are aligned around these same four areas. The first reform area is standards and assessments. Standards define what students should know and be able to do, and assessments measure that knowledge. The goal is to ensure that students get an education that prepares them for success in college or the workplace by the time they complete high school. It’s critical, and it’s not happening today.

The second area is human capital. Great teaching and great school leadership matter — they are foundational. Teachers and principals are the adults who make the most difference in whether or not a child really learns.

The third area is data systems. I am a data geek from way back. I have a tremendous belief that education should be much more rooted in data, in cycles of continuous instructional improvement. Teachers and principals need to become really good consumers of instructional data and use it to make informed decisions about what kids need.

The last area is turning around struggling schools. No system is stronger than its weakest link. We’ve got schools that, in some cases for decades, have been manufacturing dropouts instead of high school graduates. That is totally unacceptable. Tinkering around the edges doesn’t work. You need a wholesale turnaround plan in place for those schools in order to make sure that they are delivering a totally different kind of education.

Q. Which of those four areas has there been the most controversy over?

The controversy is primarily in two places. One is around school turnaround. Here, the controversy isn’t so much whether we should be engaged in turning around schools, it’s that people don’t know how to do it. We’re getting a lot of comments like “you’re too prescriptive” or “you’re not prescriptive enough.” The “you’re too prescriptive” argument goes like this: “We don’t have proven answers about how to actually turn these schools around, so how can you say that these approaches are the approaches that we should try?” The “it’s not prescriptive enough” argument holds that adults have been letting kids down in these systems for years and years, so we have to get very, very clear about what needs to happen to turn these schools around, or it will never happen.

The truth is that we don’t know exactly how to turn around schools. The truth is also that excuses and inaction don’t help students who are trapped in these schools. It’s a real dilemma, not a fake one. But at the department, our feeling is that we have some models of success on which to build and we need to step up to the plate and start working on it.

The other big controversy is around teacher effectiveness. How do you measure teacher effectiveness? How do you know whether a teacher is a good teacher or not? And how important is it to know whether a teacher is a good teacher or not? There’s a very complex national debate going on around that issue now, and the Race to the Top asks states to take these questions head on.

Read the entire interview in the Stanford Social Innovation Review

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Also on Stanford Knowledgebase:

  1. Shelton Challenges U.S. Business and Education Leaders to Transform Schools
  2. Teachers’ Preferences for Where They Teach May Disadvantage Urban Schools
  3. Penny Pritzker’s Latest Challenge: Helping Fix Public Schools

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