Recently I was very privileged to see Joanne Weiss, the Director of the Department of Education’s “Race to the Top” program, speak at Edu Tech an education industry conference. Frankly seeing her speak provided me an enormous sense of confidence that the federal government is focusing on at least a few of the right things in when it comes to K-12 education in a very structured and logical manner.
Joanne Weiss was a very cogent and impressive speaker. She has a record of success in investment strategy and management assistance that includes a portfolio of investment ventures at the New Schools Venture Fund, a national nonprofit venture philanthropy firm. Throughout her career, Weiss has helped to pioneer innovative work to increase the effectiveness of teaching and learning processes. Prior to joining New Schools Venture Fund, she was CEO of Claria Corporation, an e-services recruiting firm that helped emerging-growth companies build teams quickly and well. Weiss has spent 20 years in the design, development, and marketing of technology-based products and services for education.
I love the idea of business rigor being put to bear in helping to drive educational improvement. Why not use our best leaders on what I believe is one of the most important issues this country faces.
The “Race to the Top” that Ms. Weiss oversees is a $4.35 billion program to spur reforms in state and local district K-12 education. It is funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (Stimulus Funds) and provides a venue for states to compete for funding of programs focussed across a number of areas:
- Development of great teachers and leaders
- Investment in state success factors, standards and assessment
- Turning around the lowest achieving schools
- Implementation of data systems to support instruction
- Investment in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education
To receive funding , states submit applications in a competitive projects with grants ranging from $20-75 M for small states up to $350-700M for the giants of CA, FL, NY and TX.
40 states applied for funding in January with a second tranche applying this month.
What I felt so promising is that the government was handing out funding in an openly competitive manner requiring the States to develop well thought out strategic plans for how they would use the funding.
The whole program seems very reminiscent of how investment decisions are made by the Venture Capital and Private Equity community. While Ms. Weiss said that it is of course too early to tell whether the funding is “working,” she did point out that this program elevated education issues to the state level and for the first time at least 31 states have comprehensive plans for education.
Makes me proud of my government.

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