Placing Our Education Bets on the Community

At the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, our current work is focused on a long-term audacious goal to increase the rate of high school graduates who are ready for college and career from 50 to 80 percent by 2030.

In terms of attribution, we can claim to have made a good bet on huge educational trends five years ago when we endorsed the notion of student-centered learning, which highlights learning through four key approaches: personalized learning, competency-based learning, learning that is not restricted to the classroom, and learning that allows students to exert ownership over their learning experience.

As a recent American Institute of Research report asked – Is Personalization the New Ed Reform? The idea of a more customized approach to learning, one that meets each learner to ensure broader and deeper achievement, is certainly catching fire. This and other sources, such as a recent report on personal opportunity plans by Educators for Social Responsibility, are evidence that the field is moving – and moving fast. New England is often referenced as a leading region and relative hotbed for student-centered approaches.

We have explored an approach to assessing our own impact rooted in some familiar work of identifying grant outcomes and evaluating work we support. We have gone further to develop a broad organizational measurement framework that includes field based outcomes and indicators. Overall, we attempt to balance the measurement of what we think we impact directly with an ongoing estimation of whether the change we seek more broadly is occurring.

So, we at NMEF have a good sense that we have contributed to this movement. How much? What is ours? What would have happened anyway? We have some idea of an answer but our efforts to know more fully are still a work in progress.

Our mission is about real, sustained systems change. We aspire to elevate the outcomes for all learners. This means redefining student engagement significantly. Are we on a trajectory toward those ends? Not yet. What then, are some of the barriers to our progress?

There are many answers to this question. The change we seek is on a universal social scale. Big systems are hard to change. We do not know enough. We are not exacting enough. We adapt, but not fast enough. The same can be said for the field. Education, ironically, is not driven by knowledge but more so by familiarity. This explains in part why schools today are so similar to those 100 years ago.

The cause of sustaining an ineffective approach to any social endeavor has deeper, more complex roots. I think the answer lies in some relatively uncharted territory.

Any good conversation about successful educational reform naturally orbits back to communities and families. However, even lighter engagements – homework help, teacher conferences and basic communications between home and school – prove elusive. This comes at a time when the changes indicated by our modern age call for a deep renovation of schooling as we know it – a deep enough change that it demands deep public discourse and authorization.

Charter school advocates have long tapped the interest of families as customers for a decade or so. But direct engagement of the public on more comprehensive systems change efforts – the kinds dependent on working from within the system – seems daunting or even dangerous to many trying to lead in these directions. They see the public as unstable, reactionary and unable to grasp the need for a deep change, not just incremental improvement. Research by the FrameWorks Institute demonstrates that Americans largely view the education system as broken, but their view of what the system constitutes is limited. Engaging the public in systemic change efforts without a reframing of the public dialogue can lead to frustration.

It’s as if public leaders, local and national, are like the stars in the night sky, some larger and brighter and some with more gravity and attraction. And the public resembles the less understood “dark matter” that scientists think is the source of so much energy and potential power.

The FrameWorks research suggests that many public school leaders work with counter-productive assumptions about the readiness, interest and even the basic capacity of regular people to understand the changes our systems need to keep up with the times – never mind to keep up with other higher-performing countries. Many public school advocates seem skittish about risking some sort of negative chain reaction, when tapping into the public may be a fusion-like source to propel us forward educationally.

The FrameWorks Institute, which also develops effective new ways of talking about education, suggests that Americans are naturally drawn to core values that can be tapped to advance innovation and renovation of schooling at its foundation. These values include fairness, pragmatism and a deep interest in being prepared for a good future.

It turns out that if you give regular folks a chance to think ahead and consider what their communities need in order to be prepared – vital places to live and work – they will of course talk about individual success but within the context of community well-being.

So, in an effort to meet our mission, and promote deep innovations in the name of universal and equitable public education, we at the Foundation are placing our bet on the core values that have made us a great nation. This translates into a relatively large financial investment in direct community engagements to reflect on the future and its implications for public education. Sure this bet has its risks. This kind of public work is untested.  However, it’s a sound one because it is at its core a bet on America and its people – one that has the power to move educational change to warp speed.

This post is part of a series on the CEP Blog exploring progress made by individual foundations and the field of philanthropy funding education efforts on moving the needle on education reform.

Nicholas Donohue is the president and CEO of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation. 

effective philanthropy, foundation strategy
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