The former Gates Foundation director thinks technology will help ready American students for college and careers. But they (and their parents) ought to work twice as hard as they do.


Here’s a straightforward education-reform thought experiment: Suppose you had an interest in reforming public education in the United States, you believed deeply that reform was necessary, and you happened to have a few hundred million dollars at your disposal to spend on reform. How would you make use of the opportunity? Where would you invest your capital? This is the thought experiment that became for all intents and purposes a job description for Tom Vander Ark in 1999, when Bill Gates tapped him as the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s education and scholarship programs.

Before accepting the Gates directorship, Vander Ark had been, for five years, the superintendent of the Federal Way school district in Washington state (where presumably he did indulge from time to time in daydreaming about what he might do with several hundred million dollars to spend on reform). After leaving Gates, Vander Ark, who’d been trained as an engineer, took over in 2007 as president of another foundation oriented toward technology and education: the X-Prize Foundation. Although the X-Prize Foundation may be best known for awarding $10 million to the team that developed SpaceShipOne and lofted it just beyond the 100-kilometer-above-the-earth prize threshold, the foundation is, technically, an educational nonprofit with a self-described mission of sponsoring educational initiatives and funding education programs.

Currently, Tom Vander Ark runs OpenEd Solutions, a consultancy firm that advises schools on adopting new technology; his 2011 book, Getting Smart: How Digital Learning is Changing the World, makes a case for technological innovation as the solution to some of the least-tractable of the public education system’s problems.

The interview that follows addresses issues in the debate over refashioning the U.S. public school system through the adoption of new technologies. As with other American institutions widely perceived as failing or just getting by, the debate around K-12 public education has been increasingly shaped by considerations of technological innovation and the role of entrepreneurship and private-sector involvement. In the school reform debate, the pressure of outside forces bringing innovation has led, not unexpectedly, to contentiousness—an institution that traditionally has sought to further its (perceived) best interests from within, and often has resisted innovation, is now beset by promises of transformation from entities with little or no traditional affiliation with the system, and often with a grounding in a domain (venture capitalism) seen as antithetical to public education.

Looming in the background of the debate over reform-through-innovation is the widely acknowledged fact that, viewed from a global perspective, public schools in the U.S. aren’t producing a strongly competitive product. By most measures, the performance of U.S. public-school students lags alarmingly behind that of their counterparts abroad. In the 2007 TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study), for example, math and science scores for U.S. fourth-graders were lower than those of fourth-graders in, among other countries, the Russian Federation, Latvia, and Kazakhstan. Only a very small percentage (6 percent) of U.S. eighth-graders reached the TIMSS international benchmark for advanced performance in math (in Japan, the percentage was 26 percent). Perhaps more tellingly, in the influential Programme for International Student Assessment sponsored by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, U.S. fifteen-year-olds ranked 25th of 30 OECD countries in math literacy, twenty-first of thirty in scientific literacy, and fifteenth of twenty-nine in reading literacy. Although the methodology behind these rankings is open to interpretation, the overall pattern is hardly reassuring in its suggestion of cohort after cohort of globally lagging U.S. students entering a globally engaged U.S. workforce.

Tom Vander Ark spoke with me by phone from his home on Poverty Bay along the east shore of Puget Sound.

—Fortunato Salazar for Guernica

Guernica: K-12 public school students in the U.S. don’t perform as well as their counterparts abroad on a variety of measures of math, science, and reading ability. How much optimism do you have that the kind of technology-oriented reforms you’ve advocated for can close this gap?

Tom Vander Ark: Well, first of all, I do think that’s the gap that we should be most concerned about. I think we more frequently talk about the race and income gap. That has been stubborn and leads to real inequity in opportunity in our society.

The first gap that we need to pay attention to is the international gap. This is one that Middle America should be very concerned about but does not appear to be on the radar screen.

First of all, I would take issue with the premise that global competitiveness is on everybody’s radar. It’s not.

One difference that I see when I travel is that many other countries, including developing countries, have a more consistent academic press. In other words, from the bottom to the top of the pyramid, education is a consistent priority, and students have an extended family that makes education a top priority. I particularly see that in India and China and throughout Asia.

It certainly exists in the United States, but there is a high degree of variability in terms of academic press in America. We have tiger moms but we also have a very high percentage of dysfunctional families where kids receive no academic support. There’s a big middle to the bell curve. American parents want their kids to be happy but do not apply much academic pressure.

I’m worried about that curve of academic press in America. I think any reform strategy ought to take into account the high degree of diversity of this country and the general lackadaisical attitude about academic success. As a reform strategy, technology can in many ways be a powerful antidote for this sort of lackadaisical culture that we have.

It’s worth noting that to some extent we need to trick our kids into learning, while other countries have a culture that values education. Pressure and support are more evenly applied.

Given the American culture and our addiction to media and entertainment, part of our challenge is using what we’ve learned in creating entertainment media to do a better job of engaging students and building persistence in their learning.

The most important trend of the next twenty years is the fact that there will be a billion young people joining the middle class around the world, the largest numbers in India and China, in large part because of their newfound connection to learning.

Guernica: Yet it’s curious that in this country we have a culture that attaches a very high value to competitiveness, especially global competitiveness. That’s very much a part of our national discourse. It’s on everybody’s radar. Why doesn’t that permeate into the culture of education?

Tom Vander Ark: First of all, I would take issue with the premise that global competitiveness is on everybody’s radar. It’s not. It’s on the radar of the elite, both the media elite and the one-percenters, but I don’t think it is on the radar screen of Middle America.

I don’t think that Americans generally have adequate global awareness. And I don’t believe they’re adequately concerned about global competitiveness. As a result, we have an uneven academic press. I think these two ideas are related.

Guernica: But the one is not driving the other.

Tom Vander Ark: Right. But let me go back to the first question because I took a long digression on culture. You asked if technological innovation will help close the global achievement gap. Let me say two things. One is that I’m very confident that in the United States, personal digital learning will help significantly increase the percentage of students that graduate from high school ready for college and careers. I think of that as the preparation gap, the percentage of kids prepared for college and work. That gap will close in large part because of smart uses of learning technology.

However, as to the question of whether it will close the gap with other countries, I’m not confident that it will, because I expect China and India to make much more rapid progress in the uses of technology than we do in the United States. What will be very interesting is, in the same way that many villages skipped copper and jumped to cell phones, if we see the skipping of a whole generation of technology. I think we’ll see basically a half a billion kids skip traditional-model schools, the kids in rows grouped by age with a backpack full of print textbooks. A huge swath of developing countries will skip that obsolete model altogether and will jump straight into personal digital learning.

The most important trend of the next twenty years is the fact that there will be a billion young people joining the middle class around the world, the largest numbers in India and China, in large part because of their newfound connection to learning.

That, I think, is the most important trend in the world. That’s why I put ed tech in the same category as clean tech and biotech as potentially three of the four most important change forces in the world, the fourth one being representative democracy. By connecting hundreds of millions of young people around the world, ed tech will, I think, do more to change cultures and eventually more to change governments than anything else.

The biggest problem that we face in America in high schools is boredom. Half the kids are struggling to keep up and the other half are bored out of their skulls.

As a result, we’re going to see developing countries rapidly improve their educational outcomes. I think it’s conceivable that the United States will adopt some learning technologies a bit more quickly than countries in Western Europe. It’s possible that we’ll pass a few of those countries in the standings because of our historical at least partial support for educational choice and options.

It’s possible that personal digital learning will take hold here a bit more quickly than it will in the other countries, but we also will be outdistanced by Taiwan and Singapore and South Korea, countries that have high-functioning governments. In some cases they may be dictators, but they are at least people that can make a decision about the future and move quickly to mobilize resources around it.

In short, in answer to your first question, millions of kids in the United States are going to benefit in the coming years from educational technology. I think there will be a reshuffling of the OECD countries and we’ll move up the ranks a bit, but we’ll also see tremendous progress in India and China, places that are less highly bound by politics and policy than we are here in this country.

Guernica: Let me turn to the other gap that you mentioned, the equity gap in this country, growth America versus decline America. You’ve gone on record as saying that what will happen is that we’ll lift the floor; that is, elevate everyone’s achievement without a convergence of the materially advantaged and disadvantaged. Can you explain your line of reasoning at arriving at this prediction?

Tom Vander Ark: It may be, particularly where leaders are thoughtful about this and are aggressive about improving the quality of options for low-income kids, that they may in fact close the gap or narrow the gap.

Two things will also happen. One is that we’re lifting the ceiling. We’re blowing through the ceiling. Competency-based models where kids can move at their own pace, which is enabled by personal digital learning, will affect many students that are so bored in school today. The biggest problem that we face in America in high schools is boredom. Half the kids are struggling to keep up and the other half are bored out of their skulls.

When you give them engaging content and some choice over modality, rate, time, and location of their learning, we’re going to see fifteen-year-olds in calculus. We already see that where the traditional boundaries don’t exist, in Khan Academy, for example, where we see fifteen-year-old kids cruise through high school math and into calculus. I’m very confident that we’ll see a substantial portion of students accelerate their learning and it will be very common to see 16-year-olds doing college-level work given the opportunity.

The most powerful intervention of the last twenty years has been small schools.

So that’s one issue. The other is this issue of amplification: technology as an amplifier for parenting skills and teacher skills. I’m afraid that good parents are going to make really good use of learning technology and the kids that don’t receive much support at home will just spend their six hours a day or seven hours a day on a screen engaged with inconsequential entertainment.

Guernica: In regard to the within-the-U.S. achievement gap, the New York Times published an article on January 5 [“Harder for Americans to Rise From Lower Rungs”] that summarizes compelling evidence for the lack of relative mobility in the United States. If you’re a student in a lower income quintile and perceive your chances of rising as small, presumably that removes some of the motivation to learn. To what extent can technological innovations aimed specifically at enhancing motivation counteract an absence of extrinsic motivation produced by the lack of relative mobility?

Tom Vander Ark: I think that’s the urban education question: we’ve got a century of under-serving America’s urban poor and we’ve created this vicious cycle that is extraordinarily hard to turn around. The most powerful intervention of the last twenty years has been small schools. In a prior life, I had a small part in helping to support 1,200 new small schools that created a really powerful college-bound culture. Even students from historically underserved families that attend these schools with a really strong academic press and academic support system graduate at very high levels and typically attend college at very high levels.

We know from history that we can create schools with a powerful culture that counter most of the crippling effects of poverty. Technology can help us do an even better job by extending access to good teachers and extending access to good content. In states, for example, that have taken choice to the course level, take Utah as an example, we’ve already seen examples of schools where they have a lousy English teacher where all the kids quit an English class and took an English class online.

When you create that sort of access to good teachers and good content, it really can make a real-time difference. We’ll do a better job of diagnosing specific learning needs. We’ll do a better job of supporting kids with special learning needs. We’ll create new, interesting school options for families with particular circumstances, for kids that are teen parents. We’ll create more access to advanced courses. There’s just no excuse for not giving every student access to AP and honors and foreign languages. It’s easy to do it and it’s cost-effective.

The only thing standing in the way of that is state policies. By extending 24/7 access and creating these new blended models we can extend the day so that low-income kids can have eight hours a day of learning experiences instead of the five or four that they might get today. So in all of those ways, I think new technologies can help support a strong academic press, extend access to quality, and do a better job of engaging kids.

Guernica: The Gates Foundation put a lot of money into small high schools on the assumption that smaller schools are a better environment for learning. This approach ended up having mixed results, and eventually the Gates Foundation abandoned it and shifted to other strategies. There are many intuitive reasons for supposing that small schools should be better, but in practice it doesn’t seem to have turned out they are.

Tom Vander Ark: In fact, they are better. Everyone developing good schools today believes that small schools have the power to counteract poverty. Everyone is developing small schools. None of the new schools being developed that do a really good job of educating low-income kids are big. For people to say that that didn’t work is just silly.

If you look at all of the top-performing networks, they all still develop schools of four hundred kids. The challenge is really in how you fix or transition the horrible high schools we have. We’ve got thousands where half the kids don’t graduate and most of the remaining kids aren’t prepared for college and careers.

When I compare work in education with that in health care, where if something goes poorly, people die, I think there’s a relatively limited downside.

So the question is, what do you do about that problem? Obviously, that’s a complicated challenge, to develop a set of interventions to dramatically transform those schools. I think the unfortunate lesson of the last ten years is that the best we know how to do is close those and replace them with the good schools, because we do know how to start good new schools. We know how to fix elementary schools. They’re a bit easier to improve. Big high schools are just very difficult to fix. Adding small learning communities to a dysfunctional school is an inadequate intervention for a school that is profoundly dysfunctional in every aspect.

Guernica: So some interventions work and some don’t, and it’s not always possible in advance to tell which will be successful. As an entrepreneur who is interested in innovation that often involves principles that are empirically untested, how do you think about balancing potential risk and potential promise?

Tom Vander Ark: That’s a great question. Here’s the good news. In all the interventions that I’ve described, there are very few, if any, where a community was left worse off than before. In other words, almost all of the 1,200 new schools were much better than the schools they replaced. Of the eight hundred existing schools that we worked with, some obviously worked better than others. There are a few examples that you just have to put in the failure column, but you wouldn’t say that kids were less well-off as a result.

In other words, there were a lot of different attempts made, but the downside risk was quite small given how poorly we educate most urban kids. When I compare work in education with that in health care, where if something goes poorly, people die, I think there’s a relatively limited downside.

Two-thirds of American kids aren’t getting what they need or deserve today. A third of them drop out and another third aren’t prepared for college and work. With that sort of massive under-education, we can’t do worse. I’m very interested in very quickly expanding options for students and I’m willing to see a bit of unevenness as that plays out, given how important this is to our country’s future and how poorly we’re educating our kids today.

Guernica: What do you make of arguments such as those of Diane Ravitch against the involvement of large foundations like Gates, Walton, and Broad in public education—the argument, mainly, that foundations typically don’t have the accountability of elected officials and lead to control over reform which is essentially plutocratic, or to use Ravitch’s term, antidemocratic.

Tom Vander Ark: Read Terry Moe’s new book called Special Interest. I think that puts the question about her [Ravitch’s] argument about undue influence in delivery systems into clear focus. That influence is just a tiny, fractional drop in the bucket. I’m glad that foundations are becoming more sophisticated about public policy and about advocacy. I think most of the work that I see them sponsoring is thoughtful, tempered and well within the bounds of the law. In other words, it doesn’t wander into lobbying and it’s providing research and advice to policymakers.

I think it’s been a healthy addition. I think our discourse today is much better informed than it was ten years ago, largely as a result of the work of a group of new foundations that became more active in public life than foundations have historically been.

Guernica: And yet, there’s clearly an element of resistance to private sector involvement and the involvement of large foundations.

Tom Vander Ark: Education is the only sector in America that has this strange bias and historical barriers to private sector involvement. Every other public delivery system—transportation, energy, health—all have active relationships with the private sector.

Education is the strange holdout and it won’t achieve quality at scale until there are rational partnerships with the private sector that allow each form of capital; private, public, and philanthropic, to do what they’re good at. I fully understand the historical bias, but I think it’s much more related to the interest of the status quo than it is to the interest of kids.

There’s a fundamental problem in America in that we’ve organized the system poorly and that the new opportunities that are being created are not place-based. Place-based education is in many ways orthogonal to education as a service. Rick Hess calls it “unbundling of education.” I think about it as a bundled set of personal learning services, many of which are not place-based. The fact that we’ve organized most of the public education around the 15,000 school districts in America is a real barrier to progress. It’s why our march to the future will be very uneven.

Guernica: Is there something viscerally appealing about place that people are unwilling to relinquish? Is the idea of a community school so iconic that we’re unwilling to give that up in favor of a service-based delivery system?

Tom Vander Ark: Certainly, the tradition of place is deeply rooted. This is partly a generational issue that will just lessen over time. But it’s also an issue of a protected interest that, when you put the two together, is quite powerful.

Guernica: Parents are protecting the interests of their children as well, though, right?

Tom Vander Ark: Certainly. But the fact that public education is in many places defined as a school down the street, and that is your only public-funded option, I think the time has come and gone for that idea. It’s irresponsible to limit educational services to that notion. And as I said before, there’s just no reason every kid in America shouldn’t have access to a great high school education, with every AP course, with every stem course, with every foreign language course. We can do that now. We can do it really well. If we can do it really affordably, why wouldn’t we do that?

Why would we limit the only high school learning experience for a student to be the high school down the street, whether it’s good or bad? That just seems irresponsible to me. That, I think, is the new challenge. We’re only a couple of years into coming to grips with that level of choice. But what’s happening is that kids and families want choices. The great thing about the rise of informal learning opportunities is that now, even though the state may not pay for it, every kid has access to, for example, at least one really good algebra teacher.

As people begin to experience these kinds of informal learning opportunities, they’ll begin to have higher expectations for the sort of engaging and personalized education that their kids deserve.

Guernica: Do you hold to the prediction in your book that in the next ten years at least two-thirds of U.S. students will be getting most of their instruction online?

Tom Vander Ark: I think this is going to happen faster than most people realize. We’re used to looking in the rear view mirror, and as Ray Kurzweil tries to tell us, we’re living on an exponential curve and the things outside the windshield are actually coming at us faster than we think.

The really exciting thing that’s happening is the confluence of forces. There are so many different factors right now. Khan Academy showing up on your computer screen is one of them. So is the fact that states are reducing barriers so that families increasingly have full and part-time access to online learning. There’s probably a million, maybe a million and a half kids, who have the ability to blend their own learning by incorporating an online course into an otherwise traditional schedule.

I just think there are serious limitations to the life-sucks-therefore-school-should argument. So, I don’t buy that.

So new opportunities are poking through. Informal opportunities are poking through. There’s exciting new school models being developed all over the country, and an explosion of educational start-ups in this country and in others that’s being supported by a huge infusion of private capital which is being fed in part by the increasing demand in India and China for education.

All of these forces are occurring simultaneously just after the rest of the world went through this inflection to mobile computing, where mobile devices plummeted in cost and broadband access dramatically increased. It’s the background, it’s the rise of India and China, it’s informal, it’s the normal expansion of choice and charters in the United States. I think all of these have created an interesting and dynamic confluence.

And then on top of that, you add things like the shift to online assessment. Most states, I think forty-four or forty-five, three years from now will be giving all their state tests online. Just that shift could do as much as anything to shift from print to digital. That’ll mean more kids with devices, more kids with 24/7 access, more kids with access to more online learning opportunities. These things are really feeding on themselves in a virtuous cycle.

And then there’s the whole fiscal crisis. Most state and districts for another two years are going to be in budget-cutting mode. The only conceivable way to improve outcomes and reduce cost is to invent new ways to use technology to improve productivity. I think that’s another accelerant.

Guernica: Is it an accelerant or is it the opposite?

Tom Vander Ark: It is a weird double-whammy. It’s causing people to think differently about how they spend money but they don’t have any money to spend. So it is strange.

Guernica: To what extent did the fiscal crisis contribute to the problems you faced in 2010 in your effort to establish charter schools in New York and Newark?

Tom Vander Ark: The main problem there was just the weird period of time where there weren’t any start-up grants. Grants had been around for ten years, and for nine or ten years there was start-up grant money from foundations or the state. Historically, if you got a charter you would get a start-up grant, but those didn’t exist because we were going through a recession. That was the main challenge.

There are also a number of specific challenges to New York. They don’t have a history of online learning and have a law that basically outlaws innovation, where you can only make an application for a fully mapped-out curriculum that worked somewhere else. It’s a stifling law intended to promote quality that has the unintended consequence of stifling innovation. But the main problem there is just that there are no start-up grants.

Guernica: Do you see that as a problem that’s likely to persist?

Tom Vander Ark: No. I think we’ve generally worked through that. The Feds are out making grants again to charter start-ups in most states and have resumed making grants to the charters. I think that was just a weird period of time. I don’t think there is anything that you can generalize from that. But I am excited about all the charter networks, particularly in California with its struggling economy, that are developing and piloting exciting new blended models.

Guernica: Much of the discussion about technological innovation is about innovative ways of teaching basically the same curriculum that’s been taught for many years. Does the discussion about technological innovation threaten to crowd out debate over the curriculum itself and whether the curriculum needs to be transformed as radically as you’re arguing the delivery of the curriculum needs to be transformed?

Tom Vander Ark: Tony Wagner in The Global Achievement Gap addresses this problem at length. But a short answer is that, yes, I think innovation is stifled, or at least constrained, to a historic sense of standards and curriculum, a historical sort of curriculum template and standards. An example would be the Common Core [the Common Core State Standards]. I think they’re really good standards, and they try really hard not to fall into the traditional American math sequence, but the gravity of tradition is so strong that people still sort of look at the Common Core Standards through the lens of the traditional algebra one, geometry two sequence. I’m generally supportive of Common Core in the sense that I think we ought to have the aspiration that every kid is prepared when they finish high school to at least go into a community college and have the skills and credits to earn credit at the next level.

I want young people to write 500 words a day. I think there’s nothing harder than writing 500 words a day. I try to do it every day. You know how hard that is. I think kids ought to work twice as hard as they do.

Yes, it’s very hard to break out of tradition. There ought to be lots of flexibility in learning pathways. There are a lot of skills that are very important that aren’t emphasized today.

Guernica: One of the critiques you hear about customized learning approaches is that they teach skills that don’t necessarily transfer to the outside world. That by prioritizing engagement with an individual student’s strengths, such approaches don’t necessarily impart a useful mastery of engaging with non-engaging situations.

Tom Vander Ark: I think that’s mostly uninformed, to say we should force students to learn in unnatural and unproductive ways because they might have to do it in the future. That’s like saying if they go to college, they may have to sit through a boring lecture, so I’m going to use that as an excuse to do boring lectures. I think most of that argument just doesn’t hold up.

But I think we’d all agree that kids have to learn how to work hard. That is important. Self-management is important, and it’s not something that we teach in school but should. I wrote a blog three months ago where I said, “Marketing and project management are the two most important skills. Selling and delivering are what just about everybody is going to have to do for the rest of their lives, and we don’t teach either one in school.”

Hard work and being meta-cognitive of your own learning habits and how you manage your time, I think those things are important. I just think there are serious limitations to the life-sucks-therefore-school-should argument. So, I don’t buy that. Transfer of skills, though, obviously is critically important. So it’s a potential limitation of game-based learning if you fail to understand the extent to which the game is not the real world.

I’m going to use another example of a company that we recently invested in called StudySync videotapes smart, attractive, young people engaged in discourse about literature. The reason I think that’s useful is that I believe most humanity courses are insufficiently engaging and that if we can use media to model what intellectual discourse looks like, we may actually see more of it in schools.

I do want young people to develop the habit to read difficult text. I want young people to write 500 words a day. I think there’s nothing harder than writing 500 words a day. I try to do it every day. You know how hard that is. I think kids ought to work twice as hard as they do.

Guernica: You made a prediction earlier about the state of the K-12 system in ten years. Where do you see yourself and your involvement in reform in ten years?

Tom Vander Ark: I’m sure I’ll still be trying to figure it all out and figure out what’s next and make it happen sooner and better.

The one thing we haven’t really talked about, and it’s hard not to be a little bit melodramatic here, is that this really is not just another education reform. This is a phase change. This is like the printing press in the 1500s. This is a really dramatic threshold that mankind is walking through, this shift from print to digital and all that implies in the way we learn. I think it is a historic opportunity for more kids to achieve at higher levels. Like I said, I think it’s a big deal. And a challenge.

Guernica: Regarding that challenge, let me quote a passage from Getting Smart where you identify what you call the single most important change agent in transforming the K-12 system… it’s the process of “the whole calcified formal education system being enveloped by an informal online learning system.” If you had to identify one piece of the whole calcified structure that’s the most calcified, what would it be? Where’s the greatest amount of calcification?

Tom Vander Ark: I don’t know. It’s the system. It’s just crazy. One, it’s just turned out not to be a great way to govern schools, the basic building blocks upon which the system is built. And then, on top of the building blocks we’ve layered state government and this giant web of Federal legislation. It’s a Gordian knot of governance. I don’t know that you can pick one particular thing, but in total we’ve got it wrong, and it’s really hard to undo the knot.

Guernica: It’s a Gordian knot that’s calcified.

Tom Vander Ark: Yeah. That’s what it is.

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