Nicholas C. Donohue, President/CEO, Nellie Mae Education Foundation

Nicholas C. Donohue, President/CEO, Nellie Mae Education Foundation

The Nellie Mae Education Foundation was founded in 1998 to ensure that public school students in New England have access to higher quality educational opportunities that facilitate their success in life. Today, NMEF is one of the largest grantmakers in the region, and the largest focused on education.

Nick Donohue became the second president and CEO of NMEF in 2006, succeeding Blenda Wilson, after a long career in public education that included stints as director of district and school services at Learning Innovations, as New Hampshire commissioner of education, and as special master at Hope High School in Providence, Rhode Island, where he oversaw implementation of that state's decision to reconstitute the school. Donohue has a B.A. from Wesleyan University and holds a masters degree from the Harvard University School of Education.

Recently, PND spoke to Donohue about NMEF's new strategic plan, the Obama administration's education reform efforts, and the future of public education in the United States.

Philanthropy News Digest: Earlier this year, NMEF announced a new strategic focus that emphasizes student-centered approaches to learning. What is student-centered learning and why have you decided to focus on it?

Nick Donohue: Our focus has been, and remains, to make sure all learners — especially those who are underserved — are prepared for success. A few years ago, the Nellie Mae board asked us to think about the next stage of our work. We began looking at research which suggests that, in order for the United States to be economically successful moving forward, we will need more learners achieving at much higher levels. The emerging economic reality reveals that students will need to develop a broad range of complex skills in order to achieve their goals and contribute to society.

We also looked at how the region we serve, New England, is changing. The region — the nation as a whole, actually — is going to see an increase in the number of learners who traditionally have not been served well by our education system. Our region has experienced a slight growth in our population, thanks to increases in immigrant populations and young people of color. Latino learners, in particular, will make up a huge portion of the net population increase in New England over the next ten to twenty years. We currently support groups working to improve the preparation of teachers in the classrooms, working to raise standards, working to renovate curricular approaches to the teaching of math and language arts, so we asked ourselves: How can we help a much broader range of learners achieve more? The answer is that we need to focus on being a voice for a more fundamental shift in education. From our perspective, public education in this country still looks a lot like an assembly line on which learners are more or less batch-processed through to a marginally relevant degree, if they're lucky. Indeed, if public education in the United States were a house, we'd be way beyond the point where it needs a fresh coat of paint or new appliances. It needs an entire renovation.

Our research on best practices eventually led us to a set of principles that define student progress in terms of proficiency — students should move forward when they've achieved a set of competencies, not as a result of their age or because they finished nine months of schooling in a calendar year. When you organize the system around achievement requirements rather than seat-time requirements, you're forced to be attentive to the different needs and styles of the students you are trying to serve. For instance, learners from affluent families typically have a lot of supports that make their movement through the system a foregone conclusion, while learners who have access to fewer resources often need to receive a variety of support systems in order to keep advancing.

What's more, if you're pursuing a proficiency-centered approach to education, it matters less where, when, and with whom students learn. If someone shows progress and meets a standard, then they should get credit for that, regardless of whether or not their progress was achieved in a traditional classroom setting. We should recognize and encourage learning that is imparted by the wide variety of adults with whom learners come into contact on a daily or almost daily basis. Indeed, the current system makes learning the variable — depending on who you are and where you are — while the "where, when, and with whom" are the constants. This notion ought to be flipped on its head. We should focus on making learning a constant and the "where, when, and with whom" the variables to allow room for creativity.

In some ways, things are already headed in this direction, at least in better-advantaged communities. Across the country, students from more affluent families typically are provided with a range of opportunities, both in and out of school, that contribute to their learning. Our goal is to make those opportunities available to everyone and to make student-centered learning a core element of how education is defined, not just an alternative. We are working to advance that goal by pursuing comprehensive model development and policy changes through community leadership and advocacy.

PND: Speaking of advocacy, two of your four new strategic initiatives include a distinct advocacy component. Have the Obama administration's efforts in the area of education reform influenced what NMEF is doing on the advocacy front?

ND: We're staying on top of the administration's efforts. They're investing in innovation and trying some different things, and we're happy about that. But we're also looking for ways in which their positions can reinforce our goals while respectfully identifying how our thinking differs from theirs. For example, we're very supportive of the administration's efforts to get more effective teachers in classrooms. Teachers are a huge part of the equation. And although we don't have a particular focus on performance pay, as the administration does, the idea that you should compensate teachers for doing a better job based on a set of standards is certainly not counter to what we're trying to do.

Now, if we were working in a community that had received federal or state resources to pursue one of these ideas, would we align our efforts in the community to reflect that? Possibly. At the same time, we're sensitive to the fact that people are looking to move beyond No Child Left Behind. Right now many of the administration's efforts feel good because they're different, and "different" implies change, hopefully for the better. But I think the administration's current proposals will encounter some challenges down the road, and we're paying attention to which way the winds are blowing — not so we can sail in the opposite direction, but because it's the prudent thing to do.

PND: What are your thoughts about the proposed state education standards released by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers in March? Do they focus on the right elements? And do they have a chance of being effective if implemented?

ND: Common standards are coming. But we care about whether they are good standards, whether they measure the right things, and whether they measure those things in the right way. The devil is in the details.

That said, we don't have a problem with the proposed state standards. Indeed, we think they're a step forward. They have some nice features built in, including references to teamwork and what we would call "deeper learning" or "higher order standards" around complex problem solving, analytics, and communication. We're also glad they were framed as fulfilling a significant portion — 80 percent to 85 percent — of the state standards, rather than 100 percent. That leaves room for learning and evolution. I don't think anybody believes this is the final version. There will be a progression of the standards over time. Still, for us, there are other important things to worry about, like whether student progress and achievement are being measured in the right way.

PND: Okay, tell me a little about how students should be measured. Are the systems currently in place appropriate or effective? And if not, what would you do differently?

ND: It depends what you're trying to achieve. If you're trying to measure basic skills and compare kids based on those skills, then what we're doing today is basically appropriate and effective. But if you're interested in student-centered learning and testing the higher-order skills necessary for success in the global economy, then no, we're not going about assessment in the right way.

At Nellie Mae, we're interested in encouraging a broader variety of assessments that include the use of much more evidence. Standardized tests are both under- and overvalued for what they provide. They're great at some things; they give better information about some complex skills than people think, for instance. But they do not provide enough information, evidence-wise, about whether students can articulate solutions to complex problems or make a compelling argument in writing. Getting better at that is important, and fortunately things are moving in that direction nationally. In fact, we're working with a collaborative that's going to use some of the Race to the Top money to redesign assessments more broadly.

But it all gets back to why we now focus on student-centered learning. If you want to test kids weekly on what they learned in math class, great. But if you want to see how a student applies algebra in real-life settings, it would probably also be better if students worked together to present data analytics in front of a town committee on a particular issue like water quality. Then you would be able to make a judgment about how well they put the information together. If you really want to test higher skills, then you have to combine traditional assessment with evidence-based approaches. There needs to be a better balance between the two. We can go much further in terms of utilizing a variety of assessments to measure students.

PND: How confident are you that we can make real progress in addressing our public education challenges over the next five to ten years?

ND: I'm confident. We live in a powerful, diverse, and forward-looking society that, to some degree, is not afraid to embrace change. And there are a couple of specific reasons beyond that that make me hopeful. First, we've been shining a light on inequities in our education system for a number of years now. It has become obvious that a student's academic achievement and future prospects in life are tied to his or her zip code rather than to basic intelligence or potential. This is unfair. Secondly, I'm hopeful because technology is dramatically changing things. Sitting in a classroom and learning from a textbook is not the future. It will be part of the future, but it's not a sufficient description of how people will learn moving forward. Lastly, I think many people will realize that the funding model upon which the current system is built is not sustainable. Costs are going up even as tax revenues are falling, which means something's going to have to give.

That said, the process of change is going to be both messy and really interesting. It'll involve a wide variety of people standing up and saying, "We need something different." And as things heat up, there will be an interesting conversation about what learning should look like. We are under no illusion that it will be easy, and we know that even to play our own small part in the process, we will need help. But the American people are very good at responding to challenges, and I'm optimistic that we will be able to come together to solve this challenge.

Lauren Kelley