Tom Vander Ark deals in hundreds of millions of dollars a year as head of education funding at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. But that’s not especially unusual for a man whose past experience includes running a large public school district and serving as a senior executive at a $5 billion national retailer. Indeed, Vander Ark made the switch from the business world to education in 1994 when he was chosen to lead Federal Way Public Schools, one of Washington state’s larger districts. He was one of the first superintendents in the country recruited from the private sector, and in his current post at Gates he’s hoping to change the way American high schools do business.
A native of Denver, Vander Ark also serves on the boards of the Foundation for Early Learning, Partnership for Learning, Communities in School, and Western Governors University. Although the Gates Foundation is known for advocating smaller high schools, in this recent interview with Philanthropy, Vander Ark makes clear that enrollment size isn’t the only number he care about.
PHILANTHROPY: Why does the Gates Foundation focus its education funding on high schools?
MR. VANDER ARK: Because they are (a) the least effective part of the American education system, (b) the hardest to change, and (c) until three years ago received the least attention. It’s not that high school is more important than preschool or early literacy.
PHILANTHROPY: Could you give a brief overview of education funding at the Gates Foundation during your tenure?
MR. VANDER ARK: Education is one of the foundation’s two areas of focus; health is the other. Four years ago, we launched an education program that had five different parts—professional development, district partnerships, school grants, scholarships, and policy and research. About three years ago, we began to narrow that focus as we recognized the three obstacles I just mentioned. We now focus solely on improving high schools.
PHILANTHROPY: At our education affinity group meeting New York you said you like to work through intermediaries. Why?
MR. VANDER ARK: Intermediaries allow us to work at scale. We work with 100 intermediaries in 200 cities around the country. It would be difficult, impractical, expensive, and ineffective for us to do that work ourselves. Working with intermediaries also allows us to build local capacity. It improves our local intelligence. It makes us smarter, and it improves sustainability. New Visions for Public Schools in New York City, for example, is one of our intermediary grantees, and it has survived four chancellors in the last decade. Their continued partnership with New York public schools becomes more and more important with each successive chancellor.
PHILANTHROPY: Are there some projects you’ve funded of which you’re especially proud?
MR. VANDER ARK: I’m proud of the work of all our grantees. The high school work is particularly difficult, as our first evaluation report underscored.
I’m most optimistic about the new schools we have funded. We have funded almost 400 new schools; fewer than a quarter of those are open, but we’ll have over 100 new schools opening in September 2003, in addition to new schools within a school.
We have exciting and important replication initiatives. I’m particularly proud of an alternative school initiative we launched this year. These nine grantees work with kids who haven’t been successful in a traditional public setting.
We are expanding our early college work. We funded over a 100 new early-college high schools, where students leave with an associate degree or two years of college credit. We also have about seven intermediaries expanding math, science, and technology high schools.
PHILANTHROPY: Could you say more about those early-college or “bridge schools”?
MR. VANDER ARK: Some people call them a blended institution. They bridge high school and college. Clayton Christensen would call that a disruptive innovation. Many people are scratching their heads, trying to figure out what these schools are, and we’re not quite sure how they fit into the emerging landscape, but it seems clear there ought to be multiple pathways to and through college. For at least some students, it helps to have as a goal, not finishing high school, but going to college.
PHILANTHROPY: Will such schools raise the academic standards of high schools?
MR. VANDER ARK: Yes, dramatically, and that’s where there is a leap in logic here. All of our early-college high schools seek to serve disadvantaged students, many of whom enter ninth grade performing below grade level. The schools must make a serious effort to accelerate their learning for several years, so that they’re able to begin serious, college-level work when they’re a junior or senior.
But for many students what matters most is creating a new goal, improving their motivation, and increasing the support systems. For some kids, that alone will be an equation for success.
I’m not ready to suggest this is the new format for high school, but it ought to be an option in every community. In general, we’re all about creating options for kids.
We believe there ought to be a variety of options for all students, not just affluent students. That implies a fundamentally different school landscape from the one we have today—giant, comprehensive, factory-like schools in which kids choose from over 100 courses with no adult guidance, build their own curriculum, and then are expected to integrate it all. It works for about 20 percent of our kids; it’s a disaster for the rest. Changing that landscape will require a great deal of focused urgency, some of it applied through accountability systems, some through systems of choice, some through advocacy for high standards for all students.
PHILANTHROPY: Does American education currently have sufficient market pressures?
MR. VANDER ARK: Let me put it this way: Most poor kids don’t have choices today. The No Child Left Behind legislation incorporates choice as an exit strategy, but both that legislation and the current and limited voucher programs assume choice exists, when in fact disadvantaged families have a hard time finding choices today. We need a variety of people working on the supply problem, in both the public and private sectors.
Our grant portfolio is about 75 percent traditional public schools, about 20 percent charter schools, and about 5 percent private schools. We think it’s important to work with every avenue available to meet the supply problem.
PHILANTHROPY: You recently made a large commitment to Cristo Rey and its growing network of Catholic high schools. What aspects of its model are the most valuable?
MR. VANDER ARK: About a year ago, I heard that the last Catholic school was leaving the city of Denver. When I grew up, Denver had three good Catholic schools in the inner city. The same thing seems to be happening in New York City, in Chicago, and many major markets around the country where Catholic schools are either closing their doors or moving to the suburbs, thereby eliminating an important, effective option for urban families.
When I read about the Cristo Rey plans in Denver, we investigated and found three Cristo Rey schools were open around the country. We visited all three and found that efforts to replicate the successful Chicago school were well under way. We determined we could help accelerate the size and pace of their plans through a partnership.
Two things about the school are encouraging. First, like many urban Catholic schools, they fit our profile of what a good school looks like: They’re small, with a rigorous curriculum and a supportive culture. To that basic model they’ve added a work-study component in which the kids work a few days a month in clerical jobs at local businesses. It was added largely out of financial desperation—the kids’ pay goes to the school—but it has turned out to be, educationally, a very important component of their model. One striking thing about students at Cristo Rey is their sense of confidence and efficacy. The time they spend in the adult workplace has proven to be enormously valuable.
I went in a bit skeptical, wondering if the students would feel at all taken advantage of, since they don’t receive a salary. But in all three of the schools we visited, every single student who was asked, “What’s your favorite part of school?” told us “the work-study.” The students really value the opportunity to spend time in a work setting. They appreciate being treated as adults and given real responsibility. They also recognize they’re gaining valuable work experience and learning a lot of things they wouldn’t learn at school.
PHILANTHROPY: You’ve praised these schools for instilling “a culture of respect and responsibility.” Is such a culture common in schools today, and if not, why not?
MR. VANDER ARK: No, it’s not common at all, and the giant comprehensive schools we have created systematically inhibit all that we know to be important for sustaining such a culture. They’re a disaster for teachers and kids. They promote isolation and anonymity. It’s impossible to create any kind of coherent culture in a school where kids can choose from courses of varying difficulty while teachers work in isolation. It’s hard even to have a faculty meeting when you’ve got a school of 2,000 kids. You probably have 150 staff members and have to hold the meeting in the gym. If a school’s faculty can meet around a table and make decisions about the life of the school, it allows the adults to be authoritative. By contrast, kids own the culture in big schools. In good, small schools, the adults own the culture. They consciously intend to create an authoritative culture, expressed in more or less formal ways.
When you visit elite private schools in this country, they’re almost all small. If you say, “Your waiting list is three times your enrollment. Why don’t you expand?” They’ll tell you, “Things wouldn’t work as well. We would start losing control around the edges.”
Another cultural issue: We seem to have used the same architects for our prisons, our high schools, and our administrative buildings in the last 30 years. They’re depressing places just to go in.
PHILANTHROPY: Besides smaller schools, what other factors do you think are crucial for donors hoping to spur improvement in education? In your research, have you tried to rank these factors?
MR. VANDER ARK: We never set out to lead a small schools movement in this country. Three years ago, we tried to summarize what we knew about good schools, and small wasn’t on the list. What we said then and still hold is that good schools start with high expectations for all students. They have high standards that apply to everybody, not just rich white kids. They have a common intellectual mission that reflects those high standards. They’ve made hard choices about what they do and what they don’t do. They don’t even attempt to be everything to everyone. They have a common focus that provides an integrating theme to the curriculum and the culture and also attracts parents, teachers, and students to the school.
As we’ve discussed, they have a positive culture based on respect and responsibility. They are a professional learning community where teachers work together as a team and take responsibility for a group of students. Good schools are all personalized, and though personalization doesn’t just mean small, that’s an important starting place. I would boil down what we know about good schools to rigor and relationship.
PHILANTHROPY: So people misread what you’re trying to do if they think you’re only concerned about smaller schools?
MR. VANDER ARK: We are about improving the college-ready graduation rates in this country, and we’ll go about doing that in any way possible. On the one hand, I’ve never seen a big, comprehensive, nonselect school that was successful. I’ve seen a lot of good small schools that are achieving success. But we’re not ideological about attacking the problem. We’re trying to attack it in many different ways.
PHILANTHROPY: If you could wave a magic wand and enact one K-12 education reform in America, what would it be?
MR. VANDER ARK: I can’t answer your question because there isn’t one. There isn’t a silver bullet. This is hard, and it’s complicated, and we do a disservice to the subject to try to boil it down to one reform.
The starting point is to realize that we’ve got a crisis in this country. So if I could do one thing, it would be to make the public, parents, and policymakers aware that we have a graduation gap and a preparation gap in this country that constitutes a civic, social, and economic crisis.
If we all agree that we have a problem, then we can work together on what the right solutions are, state by state, community by community, high school by high school. We at Gates are not ideological about what those solutions look like. We want to broadcast the fact that a third of American kids drop out of school, and that another third leave completely unprepared for college, work, or citizenship, which adds up to a big, long-term problem-and not just educationally. It’s a workforce problem. It’s a problem for our civic institutions. We want to highlight this problem and convince more people to work on it.
PHILANTHROPY: You recently gave a grant to the Manhattan Institute to find the State of Washington’s actual high school graduation rates. Why don’t we already know?
MR. VANDER ARK: Because it’s a subject we lie to each other about. Almost every state lies about graduation rates. We convolute a fairly simple subject. The simplest way is to look at how many eighth graders you have, and how many of them walk across the stage four years later.
The State of Washington had started reporting the graduation rate as a percentage of entering seniors who graduated, which is out-and-out chicanery. The report we commissioned, by the way, was effective. The day we released it, the state superintendent issued a press release saying they were changing the way they calculate the graduation rate.
Jay Greene, who conducted our study, is working on a second project to measure college-ready graduation rates. One of the difficulties for our agenda is that the one metric I’m most interested in I can’t measure—college-ready graduation rates. We have no consistent way to measure that. So Jay and others will help us look at that, based on standardized test scores, college entrance exams, and course-taking history. I’m desperate for the real number. I think it will be staggeringly low, and I’d like to help states adopt consistent ways to measure it and to set some goals in that area.
PHILANTHROPY: In your own education, who was the most important educator?
MR. VANDER ARK: Two people. I had an eighth-grade English teacher who was brutal. She made me rewrite everything I did, which bugged the heck out of me but was invaluable. The second one was a vice president with whom I worked in a retail business who made me rewrite everything I did three times, and then rewrote it himself. Unfortunately I was 30 years old, and you’d think somebody with a master’s degree would have learned how to write. But I didn’t do nearly as much writing as I should have in high school, and I certainly didn’t in college because I went to an engineering school, which didn’t provide so much an education as a training in rigor and discipline. I’d say Miss Gressen in eighth grade was the biggest influence.
PHILANTHROPY: What’s next?
MR. VANDER ARK: The current set of initiatives I’m especially interested in is CMOs, charter school management organizations. We’ve supported three not-for-profit CMOs: Aspire, to whom we made one grant in northern California and another to open a school in Los Angeles; Envisions, which is a math, science, technology network of schools in northern California; and Village Academies in New York. I’ll be making an announcement soon about launching other CMOs.
I think CMOs are important for two reasons.
First, the ones we are working with—and this can’t be said of all private CMOs—are attacking the supply problem. They’re working in the toughest neighborhoods in the country, creating good schools for poor kids. But the larger benefit is that, given the new goal of teaching all kids to high standards, these CMOs have a unique opportunity to design schools and systems of schools from scratch. That’s critical R&D work.
I think the CMOs will teach us about success at scale. They’ll learn things about building market-responsive systems that will provide important lessons to public school districts. So that’s part of what’s next on the horizon.