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This Month's Interview: Tom Vander Ark

We need more than cash to fix the education system.

June/July 2009

He started out as a businessman. Then he was the superintendent of Federal Way, Washington, for five years. You probably know him as the founding head of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation education initiative. More recently, Tom Vander Ark was president of the X Prize Foundation, which gives massive rewards for solving major social problems. Now he's a partner in an education public affairs firm and managing partner in an education venture capital fund. And he's sounding more urgent (and more radical) about school reform than ever.

Q: So what was it like leaving the Gates Foundation in 2006, after eight years as an executive director?A It's a big stage to step off. For eight years I would go to conferences and be mobbed by grant-seekers. For the last couple of years, I could actually go in obscurity.

Q: What does Revolution Learning, your education venture capital fund, do?
A: It's one of the few venture funds dedicated entirely to learning, and the only one that starts and funds companies as well as funding other peoples' deals.

Q: You served as superintendent of Federal Way in Washington State. How did your business background help you in that position?
A: I stepped in with a fresh set of eyes and asked a lot of dumb questions.

Q: And what did you learn from your time as a superintendent?
A: The most important takeaway was a deep understanding of how complicated education is, and how difficult it is to change it.

Q: Are education people really all that different than everyone else?
A: They respond to organizational and external stimuli in a different way. They are mission-driven and a bit more averse to risk than those in the private sector.

Q: What else is different about working in education?
A: The politics are unbelievably intense, multilayered, and extremely personal. It's not just that there's local, state, and federal politics. There's also the personal politics of each and every parent concerned with their child.

Q In your opinion, how large of a division is there within the education community these days?
A I don't see such a sharp distinction. Even the strongest advocates of choice and accountability admit that you can't fix education in America without fixing poverty in America.

Q: So we should focus on ending poverty, then?
A: Education is the most powerful change lever for a community. A good school can increase the college completion rate for low-income kids from 5 percent to 50 percent-a factor of 10.

Q: What would your priorities be if you were a superintendent now?
A: I'd do what Joel Klein and Steve Adamowski are doing in New York City and Hartford: I'd give autonomy for the high-performing schools, I'd give guidance for the struggling ones, and I'd close and replace the ones that have failed.

Q: What do you think about labor agreements?
A: The "thin contract" that Green Dot and some other schools are using is a good model for districts, even more than for charter networks. It's an example of how the whole system should work.

Q: Do you think that the federal stimulus is going to promote innovation and change?
A: I was hoping that we would see this financial crisis used more creatively to have fundamental conversations, but it's not really happening, not that I see. The downside to the federal bailout is that it puts a big Band-Aid on a system that's really obsolete.

Q: What happens if our schools don't make those dramatic changes?
A: The alternative will be a slow decline. We'll play this game for another 10 years while the world continues
to pass us by.

Q: How much change does education really need?
A: We've got a problem in education that only innovation can solve. We can't reform our way out of it, or spend our way out of it. We have to invent our way out of it.

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