Thursday, January 7, 2016

Rules for Tools

Tom Vander Ark is as prolific as hell, so I have to admire his tenacity and energy, but every time I read his stuff, I'm driven to conclude that he's kind of a tool.

I don't intend to make a personal judgment-- for all I know, he's a delightful gentleman. But he often seems to achieve the near-perfect expression of the corporate tool approach to the education biz. This is unsurprising-- Vander Ark has been the executive director of education for the Gates Foundation, an education venture capitalist, and the head of a retail chain start-up.

If you want a taste of Vander Ark's corporate tool approach to education, you can check out his latest thoughts at Huffington Post-- "21 Things Education Leaders Should Do Right Now"

Well, actually, twenty-one things ed leaders should do in the next 180 days or so. Vander Ark has broken the Things into three groups of seven.

First Ninety Days

1. Make good first impressions. Visit every school.

2. Check out your leadership team. Get rid of anybody necessary in order to build a "high trust, high capacity team."

3. Hone your personal narrative. (Seriously-- this is how Vander Ark writes). "You'll have a hundred opportunities to share your story during your first ninety days," particularly if you don't waste time listening to people.

4. Open your political capital bank account and make initial deposits. He's talking about making political connections outside the school. You know-- with important people.

5. Create transparency and candor. Get people to talk about what's working or not. "Let the community experience you as a learner."

6. Put some heavy thinks into "a couple of symbolic acts that let the community know who you are and what you're about."

7. Signal priorities early while remaining open. "Address obvious inequities. Don't wait to harvest low hanging fruit."

But enough about me. Let's talk about me. Notice that this language is largely indistinguishable from instructions on how to launch yourself as the CEO of any corporation, This is one of the views that has been carried into the "education leader" world from the corporate world, where it has become usual to assert that a great CEO will be a great CEO whether he's in charge of an oil company, a toy company, or a soup company. Why not just add "school district" to the list of companies you can run? Expertise in the company's work is not needed-- an awesome EO can run anything.

Second Ninety Days

8. Build on "as much of the old stuff as possible." Assuming, I guess, that you have any ability to evaluate the old stuff. "Continuity counts."

9. Clarify roles and goals for staff members.

10. Hold community conversations. "Balance improvement and innovation."

11. Communicate "twice as much as you think you need to." Interesting idea here-- if "you're missing the empathy gene" get someone internal to "preview your messaging." I have other advice. If you're missing the empathy gene, get out of education.

12. Well, this is creepy. "Find and leverage teacher leaders" and "use management of strategic projects to reward and test emerging leaders."

13. Don't just use test scores to measure. "Measure what matters even if it's hard." No word on what to do if you have no clue how to measure it.

14. And when you're hit by "inevitable barrage of criticism., remember it's probably not about you, it's about the job." Hmmm, no. It's probably about you.

I always have the same reach ton to reading Vander Ark's stuff-- who talks like this with a straight face. When I worked for a mining machinery manufacturer manual production department, we used to create lampoon versions of corporate baloney-speak. They sounded a lot like Vander Ark.


Now Vander Ark will give us seven quick steps for transforming a school or district.

1. Do a mindset check. Make sure you believe in a growth mindset. "If leaders want teachers and students to develop an innovation mindset, they should start by examining their own approach to the work." I can't help feeling that Vander Ark has substituted "students" for "engineer" or "worker" or "drone" or "meat widget" in some copy-and-pasted CEO training manual.

2. Share your next generation vision. This seems to mean "personalized learning," and Vander Ark offers Denver and Harlem Success Academy as exemplars.

3. Develop talent. Not human beings, apparently. Just talent. Also personalized learning. Badges!
Competency based! Micro-credentials! So, literally, develop some talents, and hire the right mat widgets to carry those talents around.

4. Plan for access. Blended learning! Digital conversions for every district! Get all meat widgets plugged into talent development stations.

5. Supported school models, because reasons. Fine new school models can be found by consulting New Schools Venture Fund and other capitalists who may not know a damn thing about schools and education, but they know all about moving money around  in useful ways. KA-ching!

6. Partnering for progress. "Schools can't do this work alone." Really? Because schools got us through most of the 20th century, including becoming an emerging world power and putting a man on the moon without having to call for help because we just couldn't hack it without a helpful corporate partner to further education by sucking Return on Investment out of schools.

7. Stick around! After Vander Ark transformed from CEO to superintendent (you can get a look at how disastrously and quickly that went right here), he acquired the phrase "served as public school superintendent" in all his bio material. Yet, that doesn't seem to have been a lifetime career move. How long does he mean? Well, "real equity producing progress takes time-- a broad web of leadership maintained over a decade." Wow! A whole decade!! So, a third of a regular teaching career. Suddenly I'm hugely impressed by the many people who have taught their entire adult lives in the same school.

So if it ever seems as if ed reform involves a bunch of aliens coming from some other planet to occupy our schools, just read some Tom Vander Ark-- it will help confirm that you are absolutely correct.


  1. I feel terrible that I am laughing out loud here about something so awful.

  2. When I was in school back in the dark ages when they still had spelling, we had to not only spell the word but copy the dictionary definition and/or use it in a sentence. Someone needs to assign that task for Mr. Vander Ark. I don't think "conversation" and "communication" mean what he thinks they do.

    But the word "occupy" in your last sentence may be the most appropriate word use ever.

  3. Actually, to me most of it sounds like advice for politicians, and how to be calculating and phony. Or like advice to sociopaths who are trying to act "normal". "Educational leaders" seems to mean "people who want to take over your school district". And apparently Vander Ark is around a lot of people "lacking the empathy gene". Not only should people like this not be in education, why do they think they're even fit to form part of humankind? Unbelievable and creepy.

  4. Have you seen this infographic yet? Emily shared it a couple of months back in a post about Vander Ark I believe with the caveat that it is really scary. Vander Art sits on the board that created this vision for education in 2035. Other members hail from Harvard and Stanford and many other high-profile institutions of higher education ad ed-tech businesses from across the globe. You might be able to dismiss it out of hand, if you didn't see who's behind this transformation. I'm very worried they have the influence and capital to make it happen.

    1. Wow. Biometrics monitoring, big data as "evidence-based pedagogy," and people that look like lego robots. No teachers, just "teacher reputation models." In this "vision," families seem to not interact with any other real people except each other within the family. A family is an island. Really scary.