Guest Column

Better by Design


In our increasingly complex world, schools and school districts face four fundamental challenges: high standards, new technologies, more diverse learners and new market pressures. Schools that have successfully confronted these challenges share one characteristic: They all have strong, capable and passionate leaders.

Leaders change things that need to be changed. They facilitate development or adoption of coherent designs that bring active inquiry, in-depth learning and performance assessment to every classroom; designs that harness technology as a tool; designs that give teachers time to improve their practice and work on shared challenges; designs that create powerful sustained adult relationships for every student. Good schools are better by design.

Leaders enroll others in a compelling vision of the future and help break massive redesign or reform efforts into manageable chunks of work. To have a districtwide, united vision to help all students achieve requires leadership at every level, from the classroom to the superintendent’s office.

Customized Training
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has recognized this need for high-quality leadership and committed more than $100 million to the cause, bringing training opportunities to every superintendent and principal in the country. The foundation’s State Challenge Grants for Leadership Development seek to help every school leader create an education system that fosters high achievement.

Announced in March, the grants aim to improve access to quality leadership development and technology training for all school leaders. Through this program, each state has the opportunity to assess its needs and expand (or create) a customized professional development program for its superintendents and principals.

Texas was among the first states to apply for a leadership development grant. With a strong program already in place, the state sought funding to expand its Technology Leadership Academy to reach 50 percent of all private and public school superintendents and principals. The academy is administered by the Texas Association of School Administrators and, in its first few years, reached more than 400 principals and superintendents with quality training, including in-depth training on technology planning, curriculum integration, staff development models and sustaining a technology infrastructure.

A coalition of education, government and business leaders led by TASA came together to design a proposal and present the request to the foundation. The funding, about $1,500 per participant, will ensure that a growing cadre of the state’s educational leaders have the knowledge and skills both to understand and affect broad systems change and to integrate technology effectively into the learning environment.

Learning From Experience
Leading a district or a school through a significant change process is always a challenge. During my five-year tenure as superintendent of Federal Way Schools, a suburban school district between Seattle and Tacoma, we attempted to build a performance-based infrastructure while improving student and teacher access to technology. It was an ambitious agenda, but we had a dedicated crew eager to move forward.

With this internal encouragement and a little outside help, we built a districtwide grant program called Teacher as Architect, which offered funds to every school to provide the time and resources necessary to develop or adopt effective school designs.

The response was overwhelmingly positive. School staffs welcomed the opportunity to work and plan together. What we had learned, often the hard way, was that dramatic improvements in student learning require promoting adult learning first. Every school is unique and needs to be given the leeway to lead its own community and staff toward the shared goal of helping all students achieve.

Architects First
My own leadership experience as a superintendent has been but one of many that have helped shape the education initiative at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Before launching the foundation’s education grant programs last spring, I had the good fortune to travel the country for most of a year speaking to colleagues, fellow superintendents, as well as to other education experts, policymakers and practitioners. All of these voices contributed to our education agenda.

Education leaders want access to learning experiences that incorporate the opportunities of technology and the challenges of whole systems improvement. In every state, perhaps in every community, what this means varies but the end goal is always the same: helping all students achieve at high levels.

The commitment we have made is to assist every state with building a leadership development program that moves schools and systems of schools closer to this goal.

My tenure at the Federal Way schools reinforced what I knew from previous business experience: Leaders are architects first. Effective educational leaders engage teachers in designing high achievement environments and use technology as a tool to advance their vision. Good schools are no accident. They are better by design. And there is a great leader behind every one.

Tom Vander Ark, former superintendent in Federal Way, Wash., is executive director for education for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, P.O. Box 23350, Seattle, WA 98102. E-mail: