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Nellie Mae foundation
Nicholas C. Donohue

This is an exciting time in education as our nation explores how we can improve public high schools to create equitable, positive learning experiences for students across the country.

Our country recently celebrated a graduation rate which climbed to 82 percent nationwide. Here in the New England region, we are known for our success in raising graduation rates, which are on average about 87 percent.

However, when we take a closer look at whether these graduates are ready to succeed in post-secondary experiences, the picture is not as rosy.

Related: When students lead parent-teacher conferences

We estimate across New England, only 50 percent of our high school students are really ready for college or career when they leave high school.

Many of them require remedial courses to strengthen basic skills such as reading or math before moving on to the rigors of their college-level work. We believe this to be true on a national scale as well.

The good news – if you want to call it that – is our rate of readiness is increasing every year in New England.

Related: Are high schools preparing students to be college- and career-ready?

The bad news is at the current rate of improvement – three-tenths of one percent per year – we will be nearing the year 2200 before all of our high school graduates are truly ready for success.

“We must have the courage to get down to our education system’s weight bearing walls – to reinforce and reconstruct the foundation on which strong practices rest.” 

In more challenged communities such as Providence, Hartford, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles or rural communities in the northeast or the southwest it might be 2300 or even later. This is just too long.

We owe it to these students to make a bigger change and take a bigger chance. We must shift our gaze from the feel-good moment of graduates crossing the stage to a focus on readiness so we can make sure their diplomas are legitimate.

The question is, “How?”

Related: A student tells teachers: Show students you care and high schools will improve

The Nellie Mae Education Foundation has committed to reshaping high schools and renovating the systems in which they exist.

Seven years ago, the foundation advanced a student-centered learning framework to call into question traditional concepts of where, when and how learning happens.

This innovative approach to learning is not restricted to the classroom. It is personalized, engaging and allows students to take ownership over their education.

Related: The difference between being eligible for college and ready for college

However, in order to make student-centered approaches fully effective and to steepen the readiness curve in our region and our country, other changes must also happen.

We need to rethink traditional practices of delivering knowledge on a one way street to learners at their desks, and retool fundamental aspects of the system that can make education a more productive collaboration between teachers and students.

Like an old house, the time has passed where we can just buy a set of new appliances, apply a new coat of paint or build a new addition. We must have the courage to get down to our education system’s weight bearing walls – to reinforce and reconstruct the foundation on which strong practices rest.

Related: How high school would be different if students could design it

This means making funding more results-oriented, increasing both expectations and support of a professional educator workforce, assessing more but testing less and providing real incentives for a long term research and development function so that education can move from the 19th century fully into the 21st.

If we do not attend to these and other complex and challenging system issues, then our creative efforts to modernize and to even maintain public education will fail.

Now reconsidering the purposes of our systems of public education is by definition a public matter. This is why building public understanding and demand is so central to our work for the great change ahead.

Related: The end of “no excuses” education reform?

This is why we support youth and community organizing. And it is why we are working to deepen local community conversations about how we can improve education and change the focus from whether one student graduates to how we can better prepare all students for future success.

We are doing this so that all our high school graduates regardless of race, class, or socioeconomic status can be really ready to advance and succeed before two centuries pass.

Along the way, we can meet the practical issues of skill development that face our workforce and prepare our next generation of active community leaders.

We have the opportunity to honestly address racial and economic inequities and in doing so reignite one of our democracy’s great public goods — our system of public education. We can do this work and we look forward to working together to do it right.

Nicholas C. Donohue is the president and CEO of the Nellie Mae foundation, a large philanthropic organization in New England focused exclusively on education.

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Nicholas C. Donohue is the president and CEO of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, a major philanthropic organization in New England based exclusively on education. You can follow him on Twitter @NickDonohueNMEF.

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