Remarks of Joanne Weiss to the Annual Meeting of the American Diploma Project Network

Archived Information

Remarks of Joanne Weiss to the Annual Meeting of the American Diploma Project Network

September 10, 2009

Thank you for inviting me here today. And thanks, especially, to Mike Cohen for Achieve's leadership of this extraordinary coalition of States, and to Achieve board members Craig Barrett, the chairman of Intel, and Governor Bredesen of Tennessee, who are so committed to improving our nation's educational system that they have made education a priority in their work, and have made time to be with us here today. Also I want to acknowledge Governor Pawlenty of Minnesota and the other governors and business leaders on Achieve's board for their commitment and leadership. Personally, I'd also like to add that I'm thrilled that I'll be able to work more frequently over the next several years with many of you... I look forward to learning from you and with you... as you lead the work on the ground, and the Department—we hope—quickly learns how we can best support you in that work, and, through cross-State convenings like this one, accelerate everyone's learning and progress.

Let me begin, too, by thanking all of you for the leadership you have shown over the past five-plus years since the American Diploma Project got started. ADP has been instrumental in paving the way for many of the reforms that are at the heart of our national discussion on education reform, and are key to the President's and the Secretary's education agenda.

Preparing students to graduate from high school ready for college and the workplace is core to what we are all trying to do. The President has set two goals:

  • First, by 2020, he wants America to reclaim its position as #1 in the world in the percent of population that has a college degree.
  • Second, he wants every American to have at least 1 year of post-secondary education, as a reflection of our commitment to reducing the gaps in high school graduation and college access and success.

These goals are a reflection of a deep and fundamental belief—a belief that I know is shared by everyone in this room or we wouldn't be doing the work that we do—that education is the key to creating a healthy economy, to ensuring a thriving democracy, and to enabling our children to lead productive and fulfilling adult lives. In today's workplace—and certainly in tomorrow's—we have to graduate students who are much better prepared for the demands that will face them.

But I know I'm preaching to the choir here... so let me turn, instead, to the place where the rubber and the road meet, because it's our jobs—each of our jobs—to figure out what solutions we need to implement—what policies and practices will have the biggest positive impact on student outcomes—and then to execute our pieces of them extraordinarily well.

And that's where I come back to ADP and the role you have played in laying the foundation for the work we are all engaged in today. All of you have recognized that in order to provide our children with the knowledge and skills they'll need to compete in the global economy tomorrow, we need to prepare them better today. We need to know what it means to be college and career ready:

  • How do we define it, what does it look like?
  • How will we know when our children have achieved the goal?
  • How can we tell if our students are on the path toward that goal, all along the way? And if they are not, what can we do to get them—each one of them—back on track?

These questions you have been asking, and the answers you have been pursuing, form the basis for many of the reforms in which we are now engaged. The education reform community has, essentially, been undertaking in a big "backwards mapping" exercise to define the standards and put in place the people, the practices, the supports and the infrastructure that we're going to need in order to prepare our students for college and the workforce.

Yet, even as we sense real optimism that we may be able to unite around a common set of college and career ready standards—that this first and crucial step isn't a pipedream anymore—we are still plagued by a history of similar failed endeavors, a legacy of high hopes that were dashed.

From where I'm standing, though, three things "feel" very different this time. You—those of you who have been part of ADP for a while as well as others who are newer to the network—you are among the leaders of this critical movement, and I'm guessing that you see these things even more clearly than we in Washington do. But here's what it looks like to us.

  • First, we see the coalition of States growing. The reality of preparing our children to compete—not just with kids who live down the block or across town, but with those who live in other States or countries, with students in Singapore, China, India or Denmark—that task is daunting. But if States are doing it together, using the same standards and measuring sticks, we'll be able to do it better. If our nation's resources—our teachers, school and district leaders, as well as academics, curriculum and test publishers, technology developers, and researchers—if all of these resources are mobilized to focus around the same high goals and the same standards, then I believe the country can get there.
  • Second, those of us on the outside who are watching with great hope as the States come together to develop common standards, we are delighted to see you cling tenaciously to a high bar, to high standards, to high expectations for our students. During the public comments period for Race to the Top, the concern many voiced was, "What if the proposed common standards aren't high enough?" That's exactly the right concern to have. And with so many States clearly focused on this issue and working to ensure that the standards truly prepare students for success in college and the workplace, we are optimistic that you'll succeed.
  • The third reason this time is different from other efforts is that this time, we have funding to help. Rahm Emmanuel says "never let a good crisis go to waste," and we are certainly turning this economic crisis into a gift to our children and to the future of our economy by using this portion of stimulus funds, through Race to the Top, to help States build out the assessments, the tools, the materials and the PD that are needed to implement and measure our students' college and career-readiness.

So... how does all of this fit into the Administration's agenda and into Race to the Top?

  • Well, standards and assessments are the core of our agenda—common, career and college ready standards, and the assessments that measure them—these are the bedrock on which the rest of the reforms are built.
  • Sitting on top of that foundation, we need great teachers and great school leaders. You'll see a big emphasis on this in Race to the Top. If the standards tell us what matters, the teachers and principals are the ones who translate that into instruction and who guide our students' learning. Our entire human capital agenda is built around these two facts: (1) great teaching matters, and (2) great teaching happens more consistently in schools led by great principals.

    Now I know that the Department is being accused of being all about testing to measure teachers, so let me go back to first principles and say this again—great teaching matters, and great leadership matters. So our policies focus, very simply, on four things that support this. First, on recognizing who's good, that is, whose students are growing, are making good academic progress. Second, we're focused on developing, rewarding and retaining effective teachers and principals. Third, we want to recruit great new entrants into the field and prepare them well for success... and this is only happening in small pockets around the country today. And finally, we want to ensure that the best teachers and principals are working in the schools and with the students who need them most.
  • The next element of our agenda concerns data. To guide their students' learning, educators need good information about what students know and can do, and they need it available at their fingertips so that they can adjust and differentiate their instruction appropriately. While many of the Administration's programs focus on States' longitudinal data systems, in Race to the Top we are also focused on data systems that we're calling instructional improvement systems—solutions that help teachers, instructional leaders, principals, and administrators, know what's working, what's not, and for whom. When coupled with strong professional development and a school-wide culture of continuous improvement, data is a powerful lever for change.
  • Fourth and finally, we have a moral obligation to turn around our persistently lowest-performing schools. No system is stronger than its weakest link, and we have to focus special and particular attention on the neediest of the children we serve. We have to make sure that they have the best of the best, because when you're far behind, you need support the most—these students need access to the best teachers and the best principals running the best, most effective schools. And they need it urgently.

Race to the Top comprehensively embodies this agenda. It asserts that all four reforms, together, must be tackled—that it is the thoughtful design and interplay of these four reform areas that will lead to sustained and lasting instructional improvement in classrooms, schools, and districts, and that will lead to higher achievement and attainment for our students. Education is a complex system, and each area interacts with the others; if we don't get the key building blocks right, the structure we build won't stand, and it certainly won't withstand the inertia that stalls most education reforms.

Now as you know, Race to the Top is constructed differently from most education grant programs you've seen. It provides over $4B in very flexible funding to incent and support serious, coherent, and comprehensive reform. The keys to success will be good ideas and plans, conditions conducive to reform, demonstrated political will, and the capacity to execute. Race to the Top is structured to ask applicants these overarching questions:

  • In each of the four reform areas, what legal and policy conditions has each State created—already—that are conducive to education reform and innovation?
  • For each of the four areas, what plans does each State propose implementing over the next four years that it believes will lead to the most dramatic improvements in student outcomes? How do these plans build on and connect to States' existing efforts and assets?
  • How will States ensure that they—and their LEAs—can execute against those plans? This is about capacity-building—it's about having the leadership and the teams, the support plans and the operational infrastructure that are needed to successfully deliver on proposed plans.
  • And the culminating question, what is the impact on student outcomes, statewide, that these plans will have? In the end, it's all in the service of increasing student achievement, increasing high school graduation rates, narrowing the achievement gaps, and preparing our students for success in college and the workforce.

Let me spend a few minutes now on some specific questions we've heard about Race to the Top. Before I do, let me remind you that we are in a "quiet period"—that period after public comment has ended and before we've released the final notices. So I'm limited in what I can say, and in the questions (when we get to that in a few minutes) which I can respond to. Having said that, there are a number of logistical and clarifying questions that I can address.

First, timeline and public comments.

  • As you know, we released the proposed priorities and criteria in late July, and there was a 30-day comment period that closed at the end of August. During that month, we received about 1,200 comments from people all over the country, including most of you—from chiefs, governors, state legislators, and members of congress; from unions, teachers of all types, parents, and superintendents; and from education associations, nonprofits and CBOs representing dozens of different constituencies. What was most notable to me—and I have read all of the comments—was their passion, their interest in education, their diversity, and the clarity and authenticity of the voices. We heard from America, and it was informative and fascinating. All of the comments are posted publicly at; I urge you to sample a few. We are now reviewing the comments to inform the changes we will make as we prepare to issue the final application package later this fall.
  • We have proposed that States have two opportunities to apply. States that are ready to apply now, may do so this winter as part of Phase 1—they'll have 60 days to finalize their proposals from the time we release the final notice. States that need more time to get ready will have until spring 2010 to apply. We call this Phase 2.
  • States that apply in Phase 1 but are not awarded grants may reapply for funding in Phase 2 (together with those States that are applying for the first time in Phase 2).
  • Phase 1 winners receive full-sized awards, and so do not apply for additional funding in Phase 2.
  • Phase 1 winners will be announced in the first half of 2010.
  • Phase 2 winners will be announced by September 2010.
  • Though the stimulus legislation imposes on us the requirement to select all winners and obligate funds by September 2010, States will have four years to spend down the funds.

Next, LEA participation. We understand clearly from the comments we received that we need to clarify this. We will do so in the final notice. Here's what we can say now.

  • When a State wins, it has to pass at least 50% of the funds through to participating LEAs via the Title I formula. However, these funds are used by LEAs in a manner consistent with the State's Race to the Top proposal (they are not used in Title I prescribed ways). The other 50% can be used by the State or passed through to any districts, again in a manner consistent with the State's proposal.
  • Now let's talk about how the States determine which LEAs participate. To be eligible to participate in a State's Race to the Top proposal, a district must explicitly agree to implementing the plans in the State's proposal. We have proposed that States and participating LEAs sign formal agreements such as MOUs outlining their roles, responsibilities, and agreed-upon plans. We have received a number of comments and suggestions on this topic and we will work to clarify in the final notice how LEAs participate and how they demonstrate commitment to their States' plans.

Next topic... budgets.

  • We plan to include budget guidance in our final application notice. We will be proposing budget ranges that are fairly wide and will be based roughly on a State's student population. However, we expect this guidance will be nonbinding. That is, States would develop budgets that match the needs they outline in their specific proposals, even if these come in above or below the ranges we have suggested. This is very flexible funding that's tied to States' specific plans and needs.

Finally... let me tell you a little bit about how the competition itself will work.

  • All judging will be done by external peer reviewers. We are working to assemble panels of our nation's most distinguished educators, policymakers, and scholars to participate in the review process. The Secretary has put out a public call for nominations. You'll find all of the details through a link to the Secretary's open letter on the front page of our website, If any of you know strong candidates, please send them our way. The deadline for nominations is September 30, so please act quickly.
  • We will explain clearly in the final notice how the competition will be structured and run.
  • Because this competition is large, and because it is so critical to the Department that it is crystal clear that this competition is about education, not about politics, we plan an unprecedented level of transparency. This means that we will be publishing, at a minimum, the point values for each criterion. We're also exploring other avenues, such as posting applications online together with the reviewers' comments and scores. We are working hard to operate this competition in a transparent way. We welcome any ideas you have for how else we can be completely forthcoming.
  • We are currently planning to hold a bidder's conference once the final notice is released to support States as they apply. More on that will come as we get closer to that date.

Now let me turn back, for a moment, to some additional comments we heard. Since releasing the proposed notice, we've been criticized for being overly prescriptive; we've also been asked to be more specific. First, on the "prescriptiveness" front—I will be the first to admit that the legal templates and frameworks the Department uses to express its policies are not the optimal vehicles for communicating a vision; we end up publishing what look like lists. But I hope that if you review each core reform area, you'll see that what we're asking State applicants to do is describe their approach to addressing each of the large "levers for change." Whether it's figuring out how to put data into the hands of your teachers, or developing an HR framework for teachers and principals that's anchored in how their students are performing, or stepping up with urgency to address our persistently lowest-performing schools—we're asking for your ideas and your plans for how we can get all of our students ready, by the time they graduate high school, for success in college or the workplace.

So I want to throw one challenge back at you. We have put forward key areas for reform, areas critical to significantly improving education in our country—and we're asking you how you would like to handle them. Race to the Top allows every State tremendous freedom and flexibility to describe your big picture theory of change and your correlated agenda for reform. It then asks you how you will embody your agenda in an actionable plan, how you'll execute the plan, and how the work you do under this plan will lead to increasing student outcomes statewide. Finally, it asks you to tell us how much it will cost to fund it.

Now contrary to the criticism that we were being too prescriptive, we also received many comments—many, many comments—from States asking us to be more specific. States asked us to tell them if they could do this, or how to do that. Now, I acknowledge that we put out something that looks like a list, because that's how our frameworks work. And we got back comments that ask what you need to do to comply with our lists, because that's how you've always had to do business with us. We all—in the Department as well as in the States—need to move out of our comfort zones and old patterns of behavior to make this work.

I urge everyone—when we get to the application stage—to color outside the lines, to think differently. Don't assume there's something we want to hear and parrot that back to us; and don't assume that any counterproductive constraints under which you operate are immutable.

Our intent through Race to the Top is to provide a significant amount of funding to support the most promising reform plans in the country for the States that have the best shot at executing these plans well. The Secretary has repeatedly said that the best ideas come from schools, districts and States—not from Washington. We are looking to States to lead the way. The winners of Race to the Top will be the leaders of the education reform movement for our country—we are counting on them—our children are counting on them, on you—to show us the way.