This Funder Has an Ambitious Plan to Redesign K-12 Education for the 21st Century

We've been writing a lot lately about philanthropists keen on reinventing K-12 education to make it relevant to a 21st century economy. These funders are looking beyond the familiar, polarized battles over charters, choice and accountability, and instead focusing on the challenge of how U.S. schools can do a better job of cultivating creativity and critical problem solving skills. 

Earlier this fall, we reported on Laurene Powell's push to reinvent high schools with this goal in mind. And we also spotlighted the recent creation of the Learning Policy Institute, which is led by Linda Darling-Hammond and bankrolled by a group of funders that includes the Sandler Foundation. In announcing the institute, Hammond said that the mission of schools must be to prepare students "to work at jobs that do not yet exist, creating ideas and solutions for products and problems that have not yet been identified, using technologies that have not yet been invented." Meanwhile, we've also covered growing funder interest in personalized learning, most notably by the Gates Foundation.


You can see why some funders are so keen on sparking a revolution. The world's economy has changed considerably over the last 50 years. The era when a high school diploma was all you needed to land a comfortable, middle-class job is long gone. Today's students need not only to graduate high school, but to graduate ready for some level of postsecondary education or job training. They also have to develop such skills as critical thinking, problem solving, and creativity. These and other 21st century skills are necessary for success in the modern economy.

Unfortunately, the current K-12 education system has not kept pace with the rapid change in the rest of the world. Sure, there have been some changes in classroom tools and activities. Interactive whiteboards have replaced old-fashioned chalk boards, and students use computers in some classes. But in a larger sense, the education system in 2015 continues to use the same design as a half-century earlier. A schedule of bells regulates the school day. Teachers lead students through a curriculum of lessons and assess them to see whether they learned the content. The school year is still structured around an agricultural model in which students take summers off to help families harvest that year's crops. The school day hearkens back to a time when homemaker moms could easily pick up their kids at 2:30 in the afternoon. 

If students are to be adequately prepared for 21st century challenges, they deserve an education system that will give them that preparation. Making such a system is the goal behind a major new initiative from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation. The Massachusetts-based funder just announced a $200 million grantmaking strategy to reinvent K-12 education with the goal of boosting college and career readiness for New England students.

"It's 2015," Nellie Mae states. "So why is our education system still designed as if it's 1915?"

Nellie Mae estimates that only 50 percent of New England high school graduates are college- and career-ready. Through this new effort, the funder hopes to raise that rate to 80 percent. How, you ask? By transforming K-12 education to become more student-centered.  

As the name suggests, student-centered education is a more personalized approach to learning, one that incorporates a student's skills and interests into the learning process. Through this model, learning is competency-based, with individual students learning at their own pace rather than moving as a single unit through a curriculum. Students progress based on their mastery of content, rather than time spent in a classroom or at a certain grade level. Under this model, teachers function more as facilitators, responding to individual student needs and academic challenges.

Nellie Mae identifies the following four characteristics as necessary for the kind of student-centered learning it believes will reshape K-12 education for the better: learning is personalized, with teachers meeting students where they are; learning is competency-based; learning occurs anywhere at any time, not just between morning and afternoon school bells; and finally, students take ownership of their own learning and success. As we've reported, Nellie Mae has backed this approach for a while now, and has collaborated with like-minded funders such as Hewlett and Mott that are also interested in bringing this kind of innovation to K-12. 


Over the course of this five-year, $200 million initiative, Nellie Mae hopes to accelerate the adoption and implementation of student-centered learning systems, increase the tools and resources available to educators to operate such systems, and build a sound base of research evidence supporting student-centered learning. All of this sounds like ample funding opportunities will exist for New England-based school systems, for education nonprofits and organizations, and for research outfits, including think tanks and institutions of higher education.

Just as schools' physical facilities need improvements and renovations to keep pace with today's educational needs, the activities that take place in those buildings need upgrading as well. We'll be keeping an eye on New England as the Nellie Mae initiative unfolds.