Putting the Kids in Control: This K-12 Funder is All About Student-Centered Learning

Nellie Mae Education Foundation began in 1990 as the philanthropic branch of the Nellie Mae Corporation (NMC), a nonprofit student loan financing company. Think of Nellie Mae as the New England cousin of Sallie Mae, which acquired the company in the late 1990s. The sale created the endowment for Nellie Mae Education Foundation, which went on its own.

With a background like that, you would think that Nellie Mae is another funder focused on issues of college access and higher education affordability—and you would be wrong. While that was the mission for a while, the funder shifted its strategy in 2008 to concentrate on systems-level changes in K-12 education. The funder views this approach as better aligned to its mission of improving educational outcomes for underserved students across New England.

Nellie Mae believes 21st century students are ill-served by an early 20th century K-12 model. Maybe preparing kids for assembly lines and big corporate hierarchies made sense in 1950, but it doesn't today in an era where creativity and problem-solving skills are essential to success. In turn, the key to nurturing those traits is empowering students early on to make their own decisions. 

What's more, students learn in different ways and at different paces, so the more they're controlling their education, the more they can tailor it to their own needs. 

This thinking is at the core of Nellie Mae's funding strategies. The student-centered learning environments championed by this funder are all about boosting student engagement and helping them take ownership of their own learning.

Of course, Nellie Mae is hardly the only funder keen on this approach, and we report all the time about funders touting blended learning and, more broadly, the potential for technology to engage kids in more customized ways. 

But Nellie Mae is unusual in that advancing student-centered learning is the sole and overriding goal of the foundation. And it's unusual in how many levers it's pulling to advance its goal. 

Under this approach, education is personalized, with students doing more individually paced learning tasks. It also emphasizes a competency-based approach to advancement, in which students advance by demonstrating mastery of content rather than by turning a year older or completing a certain number of hours of classroom instruction. Finally, student-centered enviornments incorporate student interests and skills, and recognize that learning is not confined to the classroom or to the school day.

To advance its vision, Nellie Mae is pushing changes at both the district and state level, and it's supporting research to better understand and improve student-centered learning. On the policy front, the foundation has been engaged in an effort to push ed reform in Massachusetts and is collaborating with Hewlett and other funders to support the Innovation Lab Network, group of state school leaders that says it's working to "identify, test, and implement student-centered approaches to learning that will transform our public education system."

As well, Nellie Mae has an eye on reshaping the larger conversation about education reform, which has tended to be dominated by a focus on imposing greater accountability on schools and teachers, as opposed to putting a spotlight on how learning happens, and then looking at what resources are needed. Nellie Mae was among a group of progressive funders who backed work by the Frameworks Institute to tell a new story about education. 

The foundation began this year by renewing grants for five New England school districts to help them transform their systems to emphasize more student-centered environments. Nellie Mae's District Level Stystems Change initiative awarded the grants to school districts in Pittsfield, NH; Portland, Maine; Hartford, CT; Meriden, CT; and Revere, MA. Two additional districts—in Burlington and Winooski, VT—are slated to receive funding in the spring of 2015.

Come to think of it, maybe Nellie Mae Education Foundation's approach is about college success after all, since a key to ensuring such success is to better prepare students to master academic content and the critical thinking skills necessary to achieve beyond high school.