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  • 1. Nick Donohue Interview for The New England Journal of Higher Education NICK DONOHUE INTERVIEW FOR THE NEW ENGLAND JOURNAL OF HIGHER EDUCATIONQ: Hello. I’m John Harney. I’m the Executive Editor of The New England Journal of Higher Education. I’m here today with Nick Donohue, who’s been President and CEO of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation since late 2006. This past year, Nick and his colleagues have been reframing the Foundation’s strategic focus for the next four years and beyond. Nick, in a nutshell, what is the Foundation’s new focus?A: John, a couple of years ago, the board began to look at our past and current performance, and they asked themselves some really good questions. What difference were we making? How much of a difference were we making? And for whom were we making that kind of difference? And they asked us to look into that question and really reflect on where we had been in the past six or seven years as a foundation. We took a look, and we discovered some interesting things. We looked at the context in the world around us, and we realized that issues of global competition had really changed things for schooling. Where in the past it was OK to have a subset of learners really achieve and excel and move on to, really, the gold standard, which is postsecondary success, that if in our society, we’re serious about remaining competitive, we needed a lot more learners achieving those levels of skills and knowledge: that those were the new currency for success. We looked around at issues of not just more learners learning, but more learners learning more; that the way we had in our education systems established the outcomes, the standards, if you will, for performance, they really were focused on the basics, somewhat due to federal policies, somewhat due to the natural evolution of schooling. But that it was the combination of those two challenges – more learners needing to succeed and more learners needing to succeed at higher and more complex levels that really led us to rethink our approach. Page | 1
  • 2. Nick Donohue Interview for The New England Journal of Higher Education So when we started to think, well, what would you do to accommodate achievement in that kind of context? What would it look like? Is it really enough to continue to support the improvement in school as we know it? We came to a different conclusion. Through a rigorous process, we looked at the data, the information, and we came to the conclusion that it really wasn’t about [simply] making the classroom structure that we know today better and working better. The notion we came up with was student-centered learning opportunities – opportunities that put learners really at the center of the design, where we explore different ways of engaging students, different places where students learn, different agents of learning, different people they connect with to help them achieve skills and knowledge— where we really make the learning the constant, and make time and agency and location the variable. Because right now in school; time, location, and agency are the constants and learning’s the variable. And we’d like to turn that around. We think this is a solution, in part, to issues around equity. There are lots of reasons why we have differential levels of achievement. But the outcome levels are so low, especially for those who are low-income, low-income of color, underserved populations in our communities across the region, that we think one of the root causes is the actual design of the learning environment. And the way that people of all different kinds need to adapt to a system that is really based on one principle, which is “one size fits all.” And that doesn’t make any sense in today’s world, especially if you incorporate the notion that technology has just turned on its head the notion of information flow. Classroom structures of the past were designed so that a teacher in front of the class could convey and parcel out information through textbooks and lecture, and some experience. And now, of course, the information is a fire hydrant, gushing out all over us. The question is, how do you organize schooling and learning opportunities to take advantage of that flow of information, take advantage of the differences learners bring, to build on their needs and their interests, and to really get more creative and bring our schooling system up into the 21st century? So student-centered learning is what we call it. It’s about calling into question the variables, as I said, of when learning happens, where learning happens, who are the agents, if you will. We think there’s room to expand those notions. Everyone has a variety of adults who are important, who help them learn. Well, let’s make that part of how we organize for school. Let’s integrate technology in real ways, and let’s be careful about how we assess learning and how we hold ourselves accountable, make sure we keep our eyes on the right things. Page | 2
  • 3. Nick Donohue Interview for The New England Journal of Higher EducationQ: Can you offer an example of how a student-centered learning model would bring in other agents?A: A lot of communities have internship [and] community-service learning activities, and these are rich, powerful experiences. In fact, when you ask people to describe the powerful learning experiences they have had in their lives, and you allow them to consider school opportunities and other opportunities, they will frequently talk about the out-of-school, if you will, or unofficial relationships they had that led to learning. So internships, community-service opportunities, life experience -we’re very interested in understanding better how to assess the learning people get in a wide variety of arenas. So these processes —internships and service-learning opportunities — are rich. Not enough of them are actually for credit. People are learning skills and knowledge in these arenas that they should get credit for.Q: And you’ve referred to how the internships can be tied back to the academics. Is there a specific role for that in the student-centered model?A: I think it’s essential to varying degrees. We have some actual experience organizing events, where there are learners who were on the brink of dropping out, and they needed one more civics course or credit to get their high school graduation. And they participated in really complex and interesting analyses of community-based issues related to public water supply, voting rights, a myriad of things that are real-world opportunities. And they produced documents, they gave presentations, they studied, they researched, they analyzed, they did all the things that our schools purport to be about. And those experiences and skills and knowledge were vetted by professional teachers. And those learners get credit for those opportunities. That kind of situation, more and more, ought to be available to people. Lots of issues [are] related to it – quality control, making sure they’re rigorous; making sure it’s not just the easy secondary route, where people kind of recover some credit in a less rigorous way. But we think it really jibes with where we are in the world, because we want our young people to function in a high-functioning way in real-world settings, and our employers and our community leaders tell us we definitely need more of that.Q: Does the teaching establishment seem receptive to these kinds of ideas that in a sense are turning the old ideas of schooling on their head?A: Absolutely. I think that it’s a breath of fresh air for, I think, most teachers. Teachers enter teaching because they want to engage young people, help them learn, and have a fulfilling experience for themselves while they do it. There are many who tell us they’re really eager to exercise this option, because it liberates, if you will, the expertise and the aspirations they brought. They want to do some interesting things. And there will Page | 3
  • 4. Nick Donohue Interview for The New England Journal of Higher Education always be a place for classroom lecture and engagement, and some very traditional methods. We’re not saying abandon those completely.Q: What about time and location?A: When it comes to time and location, we’ve really learned a lot in the past couple of years. Our work around after-school and out-of-school time, our work in adult learning, our work in a whole range of areas has been about trying to organize high-quality academic experiences for learners when they’re not in school. It’s a very simple notion: that school is a place where people learn, and should learn; and they learn and engage and grow outside of school and outside of the school hours as well. So anyone who’s been on a sports team, or had a job or studies on their own, knows what it’s like to accrue information and knowledge. Everybody has a story of the young person who’s doing pretty well in school, but who excels in this curricular activity around art or technology, or something they’re self-motivated about. And so while staying inside of the box of making sure that we focus on the skills and knowledge people need to succeed – because we do support a standards-based approach to this … that there are things people really need to learn – that the places and times that they can learn these things just vary. It does not all happen between 8:00 and 2:00 or 9:00 and 3:00, or some schools, 7:30 and 1:00. I mean, learning does not stop when the bell rings and the kids walk out on the street. There are lots of opportunities. We want to help people make those part of what counts for learning in a high-quality, rigorous way.Q: Is there an issue in terms of the out-of-school opportunities being as inequitable as school has been for some groups of kids? If you’re relying on visits to museums and things like that in out-of-school time, doesn’t that vary with family income and preparation, that sort of thing?A: Absolutely. And that’s part of why normalizing these kinds of opportunities as part of our normal educational opportunities, our public educational opportunities, is so important. More well-to-do people have better opportunities to learn. We don’t capture that learning. But they have the opportunities. You can never do this just based on people’s natural, available opportunities that they have as families. That would not address the issues of equity, which are at the core of our purpose. We’re about providing greater equity of opportunity. So those opportunities we’re suggesting ought to be lined up with things that work for the higher achievers. So for example, we know that low-income children lose more learning in the summer, and that higher-income children actually sustain and gain learning in the summer. Well, we know why that is: the richer activities, more time with adults, all the things that you might think would lead to higher achievement. How do you make those part of a school experience? Page | 4
  • 5. Nick Donohue Interview for The New England Journal of Higher Education So one of the implications for student-centered learning is not just using time differently, but thinking about the school year differently. We don’t think that, to have an equitable system of any kind, you can continue to have a gap that’s two or three months long where you’re risking the learning that happened in the last part of the last school year, and you’re taking up the beginning of the next school year. Basing our school calendar on an agrarian calendar, which is at its roots … we wonder if the time has come to reconsider that.Q: In terms of assessments, how do you measure whether it would be more equitable with these programs if that’s part of the student-centered model?A: Well, we support really rigorous assessment and accountability. We think, especially for reasons of equity and just basic quality, that you need to stay on top of whether you’re delivering the goods for learners. So we want to be clear about that. Assessment and accountability are important features of the system we envision, and the one we talk about and want to support. No Child Left Behind [had]lots of issues with it, one thing it did is it shined a light on the differential outcomes. There will always be differences in learning. Not everybody has to have the exact same outcome. But the notion that you can equalize that is very critical to us. We think holding education, ourselves, and all the players in education accountable is critical. So to do that, you have to assess student results. Have to gather information about whether learners are learning what you want them to learn. Now, testing has gotten a bad name lately, because what we mean by testing now is a very rigid, very narrow experience that tests in very narrow ways some basic skills. It’s not robust enough, it’s not varied enough, and it doesn’t gather enough different kinds of evidence about student learning. You want to know if somebody can add, you can give them a set of math problems. You want to know if they can write, you can give them something to write. You want to know if they can think or problem-solve, you’ve got to give them a problem to solve. So we believe that assessments need to involve more evidence, more performance, if you will, more demonstration—opportunities for students to show in varied ways what they can do. You want someone to be good at teamwork, put them in a setting where they got to work with other people and see how well they do. You want to assess whether people can present themselves publicly, then give them a chance to present themselves publicly. And there are a myriad of ways that have been worked on for years of being able to measure these kinds of things in thoughtful, rigorous ways that are both reliable and valid, which are two assessment terms. “Reliable” means you have to get the same estimation of performance no matter who is doing the judgment, and “valid” means that the assessment opportunity actually measures what you want to know about. And there are ways to do those more creative assessment processes as part of a varied system. So Page | 5
  • 6. Nick Donohue Interview for The New England Journal of Higher Education there’s going to be a place for “sit down, take the test” the way we did and some of our parents did, and there’s got to be an opportunity for students to show what they know. If you know it and you can show it, then you ought to get some credit for it.Q: So is part your work collecting models on that sort of thing?A: Yeah, we’ve been researching different forms of this kind of assessment. We’ve got a number of grants out, actually, where people are developing some original designs to see whether these systems can really work and be up to the standards that we need them to be. And we’ve got some research … looking at what people have been doing for years, because this kind of approach is not brand new. Our education system has been defined, especially in the past decade or so, by a much more rigid set of expectations and ways of measuring. People understand that it’s time to move forward. There’s a lot of public concern about the narrowness of how we measure learning. It just doesn’t make sense that it’s the only sufficient way we can do this.Q: And what’s an example of how you can get the students to show mastery in these things without filling in the bubbles, as you say?A: When it comes to demonstrating mastery of a complicated task or a problem-solving challenge, you actually have to give somebody a problem to solve. And that defies filling in a bubble, because you need to see whether they understand the problem. You know what, they should get credit for understanding the problem, they should get credit for organizing around the problem, they should get credit for enlisting resources to solve the problem, and they should get credit for partial achievement of the problem.Q: Who does the assessment? Maybe that’s the question. How do you judge the mastery?A: Some of the models we’ve examined include classroom teachers being presented with information and evidence. There are places where there are panels and juries of other community members who have some say or contribute to judgment without having the high-stakes final say in the matter. When it comes to really some of the formative or interim or basic assessments, engaging a wider array of people and making those determinations is just real-world practice. There’s no other context where we put determination of skill and proficiency in the hands of a Scantron machine. We know there are ways, and we’ve invested in ways to bring lots of different people together to judge work. And people are pretty good at it. People know quality when they see it, if they are given some guidance. And so there’s a lot of precedent for this in the workplace, and in higher education. I mean, the most famous is the presentation of a dissertation to a panel, and that’s a written piece, oral presentation with a lot of hard questions that are hard to quantify ahead of time. Page | 6
  • 7. Nick Donohue Interview for The New England Journal of Higher EducationQ: And at lower levels, there’s the example of the Boston Arts Academy that has the artists come in, basically, and watch performances and productions.A: Yeah. Boston Day and Evening has a competency-based piece in Boston. (So does) Parker Academy in Worcester. There are schools in every state in the region that are experimenting with this approach, and doing well with it.Q: Stepping back a little bit, you’ve spoken about standards a few times. What are some of the things that we think students do have to know to succeed, whether in work or higher education?A: It starts with some very basic, familiar things. Literacy: you need to be able to read and write. Numeracy: you’ve got to be able to work numbers in today’s society. Knowing something about history, we do learn from the past, and we’ve taken it for granted lately. Some social science is critical. Understanding the scientific process is a critical dimension of what we need to do. Understanding some of what people would call higher-end cognitive skills around analysis, creative thinking, problem-solving – these kinds of things that employers have been clamoring for, for the past decade, [as they] have seen the coming of a global economy. And they know, to be competitive, we need people who can think, work on teams, solve the problem that they don’t know about today, communicate well with their colleagues and others, who have a sense of purpose, who have a connection to the civic life,—another area we think is critical. But rooted, again, in a really incredibly strong and important deep grasp of some of what people would call basic skills, because those are still critically important.Q: And you made the point in the piece that you recently wrote for The New England Journal of Higher Education about the fact that higher education does encourage this student- centered learning in a lot of instances. So why is there that chasm between K-12 and higher education in terms of personalizing the experience?A: One of the ways we look at it is that higher education has had a primary spot in our culture in terms of currency and quality. So we’re proud in this country of having a high- end higher education system. And, admittedly, it was really an opportunity that only a few got to take full advantage of, because of access in terms of money, resources, selectivity. There’s still a premium put on being elite and selective. We’re coming around in higher ed. to understand that we need more opportunity. Community colleges’ day has come in terms of being seen as really a viable opportunity, where quality and rigor and practicality can be addressed. On the K-12 side, we have had a right emphasis on equity and universal access and engagement. And we – it’s kind of like the train tracks between France and Spain you used to have the place where you’d have to get off, and there’d be one gauge on one side and one gauge on the other. And we worked ourselves into that situation. Had some different priorities at the lower end, different priorities at the upper end, and now we’re Page | 7
  • 8. Nick Donohue Interview for The New England Journal of Higher Education trying to reconcile things. Our focus is, what do we do about it? And we think the opportunity is really working both ends of that divide. Our focus for the future is going to be much more on the sort of middle school/high school end of things. We hope, over time – and we’d like to support a sort of a secondary agenda – to help our higher ed friends think about, how do you take what you’ve learned about personalizing or student- centered approaches in higher ed, and how do you help inform what’s going on at the K- 12 end of things? So that will have implications for admission processes, it’ll mean rethinking the ACCUPLACER in terms of the only way to measure whether a student’s ready, because that reinforces the basic skills piece. And it’ll be, I think, a really interesting and rich conversation, because higher ed really is leading the conversation recently, around innovative designs, partly because it’s a more market-based industry, and they’ve got to respond, because people are coming around saying, “We need this, I want this.” And they’re responding, and K-12 ought to be able to do the same.Q: And if higher ed could help K-12 with that, they’d be helping themselves in terms of their enrollment being stronger – or their pools being stronger, I would think.A: We think so.Q: How does the new vision balance school needs with district needs with state needs with federal needs, such as No Child Left Behind, and do they reinforce each other?A: Absolutely. They do reinforce each other. And we think that it’s critical to work on a number of those levels in concert at the same time. That’s why we have an integrated approach to our work. And that’s why we’re involved in national discussions to help sort of shape and support an evolution of assessment and policies at the federal level, because they really do define what the states do, and in a trickle-down way, what the districts do and what the local folks do. There’s nobody in our country now who doesn’t know the enormous test pressure and the narrow test pressure that our classroom teachers are under. It’s evident to almost everybody, including our learners. And we have an opportunity to rebalance that in a way that affects local practice, district practice, state, and federal practice. So they are connected in that way, and that’s one example of how we’re trying to work on a number of different fronts to address that connected issue.Q: The Foundation’s organizational approaches of practice, policy, and public understanding seem to have evolved and been emphasized with this new focus. Can you speak to that?A: We’ve long been invested in trying to develop programs, or models, if you will, of practice, about how you work with young people in different settings, as I said, adult learning, after school, higher ed. Model development and knowing how to do the thing Page | 8
  • 9. Nick Donohue Interview for The New England Journal of Higher Education you’re talking about is critical. It’s easy to talk about. You’ve got to demonstrate it, show it, and make it better. So we’re into model development, or supporting good practices. If you want to change the system more significantly, and not make these programs just add-ons or alternatives for those who the system’s failed, then you’ve got to start talking about policy, got to start talking about the rules that define schooling. So some of the things we talked about before – the Carnegie units for graduation, time requirements for school, these things that really build the box that school is today … you need to reconsider those, or you’ll end up only having these innovations occur in spaces where they can get away with it. And that’s not what we’re about. We’re about helping the system really think about a different way forward as a core facet of what is done, not as an alternative. The problem is that good ideas done well don’t always push a system forward. So for other reasons around systems, dynamics, change, and sociology, whatever the explanation is, big historical systems are hard to change. Higher ed. has gone through this, K-12, healthcare, transportation – these big systems are hard to change. They’re well-entrenched. So in order to move and make the best out of the models or practices, and to really push the policies forward, we think that it’s necessary to promote public demand. So part of our work will be to rebalance the conversation and support young people, parents, teachers, community members, and people inside the educational establishment and institutions to promote change, but with a real emphasis on trying to grow an expectation that there might be a better way to do things … that we don’t have to just improve the situation we’re in, maybe we can change the situation.Q: You say you want to grow student-centered experiences into a core facet of education, rather than simply an alternative or an add-on. You also say you want to improve outcomes for underserved students, which would be in keeping with the Foundation’s history. Can both be accommodated together?A: We think that one is really a means to the other. We think that, if you really are serious about meeting the needs of underserved learners, then it’s time to start thinking about student-centered approaches to learning as at least a significant core feature. We say it that way because these kinds of approaches are marginalized. They’re used after failure. They’re used successfully after failure. There are dozens of programs that have startling results with dropouts and kids who the system has failed. Why not use the intelligence, experience, and knowledge that these programs have gained in terms of how to beat the odds, and make it a preemptive opportunity before failure? It can be done cost- effectively, it can be done rigorously, and we treat it like an alternative, rather than what it ought to be, which is a core facet of schooling and how it’s defined. Page | 9
  • 10. Nick Donohue Interview for The New England Journal of Higher EducationQ: What you’re promoting sounds so logical and natural in some ways. So why have these solutions not taken hold at this point? And why do you think the Foundation can be the one organization to serve as the catalyst for this type of change?A: Habits are hard to change. Traditional approaches are hard to change. We do a lot of things in ways that we could do better. In this case, education is so important at this time in our society’s history that we’ve got to do something better. And we know what to do. So we think there’s a new opportunity to push through the status quo and really antiquated approaches to organizing a really critical experience, which is education. We don’t think we can do this alone. Our analysis of the context, our analysis of the field, our look back at ed reform have all told us that partnership and joint purpose are critical. We’ve found people around the country and around the region who are enlisted in this kind of effort, who are already working on the same thing. We’re discovering that emerging field of student-centered education, because it is an emerging field. Even with that, we know that the limits of that partnership are dependent on a lot of things that happen outside of our control. So we’re counting on the currents, socially, of increased attention to equity persisting, the pressure of a changing economy demanding higher skills, the continued explosion of technology promoting more personal engagements with information, because that’s on such a steep curve, it’s just unimaginable. It’s about direct and clear and focused partnerships. It’s about being part of a bigger community of people working on the same thing. And it’s about a hope that some other things fall in place along the way and continue. And we’re going to do the best we can, because our mission is about supporting the futures of the learners in our region, and making sure that everyone has an opportunity to succeed, and a really fair opportunity to succeed.Q: Thank you for your time, Nick, and good luck with the initiative.M: Copyright 2010, Nellie Mae Education Foundation.END OF FILE Page | 10