Who is Nellie Mae?

While foundations like Gates, Wallace, and Broad have earned notoriety for the “philanthrocapitalism” that has driven the privatization of public education, a lesser known foundation has flown mostly under the radar as it invests millions of dollars into “personalized” and “competency-based” education reforms.

Since at least 2009, the Nellie Mae Education Foundation has poured millions of dollars into the latest ed reform craze that has made headlines recently due to investments of billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Reed Hastings of Netflix.  When stripped of the misleading rhetoric that often surrounds it, “personalized learning” is the digital, data-driven system of schooling designed to trigger giant corporate profits along with tightly controlled, work-forced aligned learning outcomes.

Based in Quincy, Massachusetts, Nellie Mae was formed when New England-based student loan company, Nellie Mae Corporation, was sold to student loan behemoth, Sallie Mae.  (See here to learn about Nellie Mae’s sister foundation, Lumina, formed from a similar sale.) Since then, Nellie Mae has grown its assets to $532 million, thanks in part to an off-shore hedge fund in the Cayman Islands and major donations from the Gates Foundation.

Nellie Mae’s agenda to move public schools toward the unproven and controversial competency-based model of education dovetails neatly with the post-ESSA direction now aggressively pursued by the U.S. Department of Education, the American Legislative Exchange Council, as well as most major testing and ed-tech companies.

Grants from Nellie Mae can now be traced to countless personalized learning initiatives across the country, including conferences, lobbying efforts, market research,  and public relations campaigns aimed at generating public buy-in for their sought-after reforms. Recently, Nellie Mae teamed up with the Gates-funded KnowledgeWorks Foundation (which predicts the end of the teaching profession as we know it) and Mark Zuckerberg’s newly launched private-giving organization to define a “transformational vision” of education.

Nellie Mae has also awarded major grants to the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL), where Nicholas Donohue, who earns $450k a year as CEO and president of Nellie Mae, is a board member.

Locally, Nellie Mae has sunk its claws deep into the state of Maine.  Beginning in 2010, grants from Nellie Mae were instrumental in the passage of Maine’s “proficiency-based diploma” law, which laid the groundwork for the total upheaval of Maine’s schools. By following Bellwether Education’s advice and financing local non-profits like the Maine Coalition for Excellence in Education to take legislators on a retreat and Educate Maine to take hold of the Teacher of the Year Program, Nellie Mae has ensured that most Mainers know little of the extent to which out-of-state special interest groups are dictating state education policy.

In Massachusetts, similar efforts are underway by way of the Center for Collaborative Education.  With grants from Nellie Mae and the Next Generation Learning Challenges, CCE recently launched the Massachusetts Personalized Learning Network with the goal of generating “a critical mass of urban schools that exemplify personalized, competency-based” learning.

Reflecting recent social science research from Frameworks Institute  (also funded by Nellie Mae), CCE’s website invokes the value of “progress” to make the case for its experimental reforms:  “As Massachusetts’ student population grows more diverse, the one-size-fits-all school educational model of the past can no longer properly prepare our students for in college, career, and life in the 21st Century.”

Nellie Mae has also recently extended its reach into Florida, where the state legislature recently passed a bill allowing three districts to “pilot” competency-based education models. The Nellie Mae-funded Great Schools Partnership will now consult with Pinellas County Florida as it attempts to transition to this model.  (Pinellas parents be warned: Great Schools is building a plane as they fly it, and no – they are not experts as they claim.)

According to its website, Great Schools Partnership has contracted with districts throughout New England as well as in Colorado, Illinois, and Georgia.

Finally, Nellie Mae appears to be behind the “assessment reform” movement that has attempted to attach itself to the Opt Out Movement’s coat tails. With KnowledgeWorks, the Center for Collaborative Education and iNACOL  (both Nellie Mae funded) were instrumental in developing ESSA’s “innovative assessment” option that encourages states to shift toward competency-based models.Recently, Nellie Mae even awarded a five thousand dollar grant to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing (FairTest) to help them showcase “performance based assessments” that are considered a “policy enabler” to bring about the shift to competency-based education.

Moral of the story: if Nellie Mae wasn’t on your radar, make sure they are now.  No doubt they’ll be in your state soon, and you’ll want to know what they’re up to.


Author: Emily Talmage

My name is Emily Talmage and I teach fourth grade at Montello Elementary School in Lewiston, Maine. In addition to teaching in Lewiston, I have also taught special education and general education in New York City, including one year at a “high-performing” charter school in Brooklyn. I also have two master’s degrees; one in Urban Education from Mercy College, and another in Developmental Psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University. I have also worked as a research analyst and assistant at the National Center for Children and Families at Columbia and Oldham Innovative Research in Portland.

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