Tom Vander Ark, Executive Director, Education, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

October 15, 2003
Tom Vander Ark, Executive Director, Education, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Although the drive to raise the performance of the nation's public schools is entering its second decade, progress has been slow and real achievements hard to come by, particularly in large urban school districts and low-income communities. Moreover, years of education reform have largely neglected high schools, resulting in overall graduation rates that hover around 70 percent and are closer to 55 percent for African American and Hispanic youth.

A 2002 survey of 920 high school teachers funded by the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation found that teachers in large high schools were more likely to report students dropping out or falling through the cracks than students in smaller high schools. The survey also revealed that high schools of all sizes face similar problems, with fewer than a third of teachers saying they were happy with their schools and only 20 percent reporting that morale was high.

The Gates Foundation focuses its education grantmaking in two areas: creating more small high schools and reducing financial barriers to higher education. The foundation is helping large, troubled high schools transform themselves into smaller, more personalized learning environments, while at the same time funding the replication of successful small school models. It also funds scholarship programs that are helping thousands of low-income students attend college each year.

In August, Philanthropy News Digest spoke with Tom Vander Ark, the executive director of the foundation's education and scholarship programs, about the state of secondary education in the United States, the challenges of urban school reform, and the foundation's efforts to jump-start the small school movement.

For the five years before he joined the Gates Foundation, Vander Ark served as superintendent of the Federal Way school district, one of the largest in Washington state, where he was one of the first superintendents recruited from the private sector to lead a public school district. Prior to that, he ran a consulting practice for Cap Gemini and was a senior executive for a large national retailer. In addition to his duties at the foundation, Vander Ark serves on the boards of the Foundation for Early Learning, the Partnership for Learning, the James B. Hunt Jr. Institute for Educational Leadership and Policy, and Western Governors University.

Philanthropy News Digest: Tell us about the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. When was it established and what is its mission?

Tom Vander Ark: Well, the foundation was formally established after the merger of two earlier family foundations, the Gates Library Foundation and the William H. Gates Foundation. The Gates Library Foundation began as a project at Microsoft in the mid-'90s and became an independent foundation in the latter part of the '90s. It awarded its first education grants through its Teacher Leadership Project in 1997. At about the same time, the William H. Gates Foundation began making its first global health grants. By 1999, it became apparent that the Gates family was interested in committing more resources to the areas of education and health. So, planning began in 1999 to merge the foundations; in 2000, the staffs moved into the same offices; and in 2001, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation was officially established.

PND: How long have you been with the foundation?

TVA: Just over four years; I started in 1999.

PND: Did you have a background in education?

TVA: Yes. Prior to joining the foundation, I served for five years as the superintendent of the Federal Way school district in Washington state. It's one of the larger public school districts in the state.

PND: What is the focus of the foundation's education program?

TVA: Actually, we started the program with a number of goals in mind. That first year, we made $79 million in grants for teacher training and $120 million in leadership development grants. We began a district transformation program to improve entire school districts, as well as a program in research and evaluation. And we launched the Gates Millennium Scholarship Program. So we really had five programs by the end of 2000. But by 2001, we had begun to narrow our focus to high schools. In both learning and in health, the Gates family encourages us to focus on the largest, most important, most difficult issues of our time, and the state of our high schools fits that bill. So for the last three years our goal has been to improve high school graduation rates in this country and increase the number of students who graduate from high school that are ready for college, particularly low-income students and students of color.

"...Top-performing students, although usually prepared for college, often complain that their education lacks relevance and, in many cases, rigor...."

PND: How would you characterize the state of secondary education in the U.S.?

TVA: Today's high schools were conceived at the beginning of the twentieth century to prepare students for work in an industrial economy that looked very different from the economy we have today. As a result, and in an effort to serve all students efficiently and "fairly," our high schools serve few students well. Top-performing students, although usually prepared for college, often complain that their education lacks relevance and, in many cases, rigor. Low-performing students are often pushed through a watered-down curriculum with virtually no individualized support to develop the skills — such as reading, writing, and problem solving — needed to succeed in life. Average students frequently fall through the cracks, virtually ignored by a system that accepts mediocrity. A majority of all students, but especially those in urban districts, report feeling disengaged from high school. The bottom line is that we are losing nearly one-third of all our students before graduation day — and nearly half of all African-American and Hispanic youth. It's a clear signal that the system is broken.

PND: How did things reach such a pass?

TVA: As I mentioned, while our economy has been transformed from a largely industrial one to one that values the ability to create, process information, and perform high-level skills, most of our country's high schools were built in a different era to meet the needs of a different economy. And as the economy increasingly shifts from manufacturing toward information and services, there are fewer opportunities available for people who lack basic skills. Much of the nation's focus on education reform during the last couple decades has been on elementary schools, and elementary school students on average are performing at a higher level than they were. It's now time to focus these energies on our high schools. Transforming high schools so they are able to ensure that all students graduate ready for college, work, and the responsibilities of citizenship is one of our nation's greatest challenges.

PND: The Gates Foundation is trying to address the crisis in American secondary education through its Small High Schools initiative. Can you tell us about it?

TVA: Thus far, we've committed about $500 million to improving American high schools. With that investment, we've been able to sponsor some five hundred new high schools and have made grants to about eleven hundred existing schools. We've made those grants on the basis of the emerging understanding of what good schools look like. They're all different, but they share some common characteristics: They have high expectations for all students; they engage all students in a rigorous course of study; they support about four or five personalization strategies; they have a positive climate and strong connections to the community; and they provide opportunities for teachers to learn together and improve their skills. So small is an important characteristic, but it's just an enabling characteristic that allows teachers and administrators to create a rigorous and supportive learning environment. It's not a solution in and of itself, and our goal is not to focus on "small" for the sake of smallness; our goal is to make schools better and to help more kids graduate.

"...So small is an important characteristic, but it's just an enabling characteristic that allows teachers and administrators to create a rigorous and supportive learning environment..."

PND: What has your research told you about the optimum size for the kind of schools you're trying to create?

TVA: A good size for high school is roughly four hundred students. Recent studies have shown that, all else being equal, students in small high schools pass more courses, graduate, and go on to college more frequently than those in large ones. Moreover, these effects appear to be greatest for low-income students and minority students. Studies also show that students in small schools feel less alienated and tend to be more actively engaged in school activities. Discipline problems and crime are less common in small schools. Students in large schools are eight times more likely to report serious crimes and ten times more likely to see a fight than students in small schools.

It is important to remember that small schools aren't inherently better. But the small environment does help foster the "three R's" that are the hallmarks of a good school: rigor, relationships, and relevance. Small schools offer personalized education, emphasize rigorous learning, cultivate adult-student relationships, and provide a relevant course of study. High-quality small schools provide teachers and students with the best environment in which to teach and learn effectively.

PND: How do you identify school districts for the program? Do they approach you, or do you approach them?

TVA: We don't accept unsolicited proposals. We invite proposals from communities that have a high level of need, a strong chain of leadership, a community that is engaged and interested in improving secondary school education, and where there appears to be an opportunity to make a significant impact.

PND: Once you've selected a district for the program, do the schools in that district remake themselves according to a blueprint you've laid out? How long does the process take?

TVA: It takes a year or two. The first step is to initiate community conversations that seek to lift the aspirations of the affected communities for all students, particularly poor and minority students. There are a lot of conversations the first year about what kids need to know and be able to do in order to succeed in the twenty-first century, as well as what we know about good schools. We ask parents, students, teachers, and community members to think about the changes that need to be made so that all students are more successful. In effect, we spend the first year building a broad base of support, learning about what's been successful in other communities, and beginning to create a plan.

"...We ask parents, students, teachers, and community members to think about the changes that need to be made so that all students are more successful..."

PND: Have you had any districts change their mind about the program after the initial phase?

TVA: Not at this point. Naturally, though, our grantees do move at different paces, and some have moved more quickly through the process than others.

PND: Do you work with other organizations and/or partners during the planning process?

TVA: Well, in all our grants we work through intermediary organizations. In fact, we've made grants to over a hundred intermediary organizations. They're either local foundations, nonprofits, universities, or chambers of commerce, who in turn actually make the grants and provide support to the local school district. In addition, we try to build funding alliances with other national and local foundations to support those intermediaries.

PND: Can you share any success stories or lessons you've learned?

TVA: There are some emerging lessons. We've learned that it's important to create new schools side-by-side with our attempts to improve large, struggling schools. It's difficult to start a new school, but it's even harder to remake a large, struggling school into good, smaller schools. So in all the communities in which we work we stress the importance of starting new schools. Some communities — New York, Milwaukee, and Chicago are examples — have even adopted new schools as a secondary reform strategy; they're becoming very aggressive about new schools, closing low-performing schools and replacing them with new, smaller schools.

We've also learned — and I think this is good advice for states as they think about their accountability systems — that schools need clear direction, qualified outside assistance, multi-year support, and a learning network of schools doing the same sort of work. I think those are lessons that need to be built into every state accountability system.

PND: Speaking of the states, is it reasonable, given their straitened fiscal circumstances, to expect them to fund a significant expansion of small schools in low-performing districts?

TVA: Now, more than ever, it's important to spend every education dollar wisely. As states implement the No Child Left Behind legislation, civic and educational leaders have been given an opportunity to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of their current educational systems, set priorities, and redirect existing funds accordingly. Consequently, and despite budget crises, there are examples of effective high school reform under way in half the nation's sixty-one largest urban school districts and their communities. The fact is, one-third of all students do not graduate from high school, and the achievement gap is widest for African-American and Latino youth. This is a crisis that cannot wait for rosier economic times.

"...This is a crisis that cannot wait for rosier economic times..."

PND: Do you and your colleagues have any new initiatives planned for the near future?

TVA: We plan to stay focused on high schools. It's a long-term problem, and we've made a long-term commitment to finding solutions. That said, new schools like High Tech High in San Diego and transformed schools like West Clermont in Cincinnati, Ohio, are already showing impressive results. And this past fall, more than one hundred and fifty additional new or redesigned small, rigorous schools and academies opened their doors. So we will continue to sponsor new schools and look for ways to help large, struggling schools improve.

We will also continue the Gates Millennium Scholars program to help remove financial barriers to higher education, and we will continue to evaluate all of our investments and approaches and apply what we have learned to future investments. At the end of the day, we recognize that all of the foundation's assets would not be nearly enough to ensure that our young people get the high-quality education they deserve. That will take the commitment and dedication of local, state and federal governments, educators, the private sector, foundations, and local communities.

PND: Well, thank you, Tom, for speaking with us this morning.

TVA: It was my pleasure. Thank you.

Kevin Kinsella, PND's managing editor, interviewed Tom Vander Ark in August 2003. For more information on the Newsmakers series, contact Mitch Nauffts at