In an effort to reshape public education in New England so that it is more effective, equitable and better organized to prepare all learners for success, the Nellie Mae Education Foundation (NMEF) promotes student-centered approaches to learning at the high school level.

As part of this work, NMEF has released a report, It Takes a Whole Society: Opening Up the Learning Landscape in the High School Years. The report – prepared for NMEF’s Research and Development Initiative by Robert Halpern of the Erikson Institute – says that rethinking the high school experience to engage outside-of-school partners can provide more effective and personalized learning experiences.

In the report, Halpern describes the need to shift from today’s one-size-fits-all approach toward a diverse set of learning experiences that will allow young people to explore a variety of pathways. Doing so, says Halpern, will require cross-industry collaboration.

Halpern states that most high schools are currently too narrow in focus. He says that for today’s diverse youth population, a common curriculum in an isolated school setting is ineffective.

“We should be focusing on how to provide good learning experiences that are based on what we know about the development of young people,” says Halpern. “In high school, young people are learning more about their own strengths, limitations and qualities, beginning to find their own voice, and beginning to forge personal goals. We need to recognize and support different kinds of learning in high school that allow young people to grapple with a complex, shifting adult world.”

Halpern calls for American society to acknowledge that academic and applied learning can work together to provide better learning experiences. Halpern states that learning experiences during the teen years should:

  • Provide a bridge to the adult world.  Introduce dimensions of the larger culture including occupations and work, types of communities, parts of the world, and social and political problems. For example, at Big Picture schools, students spend two days per week throughout high school in apprenticeship-like learning roles in adult work and service settings.
  • Reflect real tasks with real consequences.  Engage young people in genuinely useful work so they can experience a complete cycle of activity in a particular field. For example, in the Nature Conservancy’s summer residencies for urban youth, tasks have ranged from restoring native shellfish populations to estuaries to surveying the behavior of endangered bird species. Young people’s efforts lead to tangible products or performances that can fulfill real needs of their communities.
  • Contribute to a community of practice.  Enable youths to participate in individual and team activity that leads to a collective goal. David Feiner of Chicago’s Albany Park Theater Project notes that his young theater artists learn to work in a way that “makes room for several different peoples’ ideas…they learn to look at other peoples’ ideas, suggestions, solutions to problems…they learn how to operate in a terrain where we can assess one another’s choices and one another’s actions.”
  • Link personal experience to something larger.  Offer the opportunity for young people to be immersed in social, moral and ethical issues at play in the larger culture. For example, young documentary filmmakers at New York City’s Education Video Center have focused on such topics as the challenges facing undocumented youth, the corrupting influence of credit cards, racial stereotyping in popular culture, police violence and the (lack of) connection between school and work

The report also lists some of the ways high school experiences are already being re-conceptualized to attend to the developmental needs of young people, including:

  • Refining the curriculum. Well-known models such as High Tech High and Expeditionary Learning, along with lesser known high schools such as Washington, D.C.’s School Without Walls have incorporated selected innovative elements such as project-based learning into the standard high school experience.
  • Injecting career and technical education (CTE).  In CTE, learning and producing are viewed in an integrated way.  And increasingly, the concentration requirements and curricula are updated to reflect the necessary skills for changing occupations. In some European countries, there is a common schooling experience until about age 16, at which point students’ pathways diverge to fit their individual career requirements.

“This report states the importance and relevance of youth development to the learning process of adolescents,” says Beth M. Miller, Ph.D., Director of Research and Evaluation for NMEF. “Moving our country toward a more student-centered approach that connects learning to experiences, strengths and interests can help teens achieve at higher levels and be prepared to succeed after high school.”

Halpern says that society needs to begin to actively question the “givens” of our current education system. Assumptions about whether or not all students should study a common curriculum, who should be involved in high school education, how learners are assessed, and how schools are held accountable should be reevaluated in light of what we know about how young people develop and learn, he says.

Most importantly, the report argues that institutions need to open up and adapt to young people, rather than leaving it up to young people to make their way – or not.

“The structure of learning during the high school years in the United States urgently needs re-thinking,” adds Halpern. “We must begin to organize learning so that all young people have the chance to access vital, rich learning experiences that benefit them now and prepare them for their futures.”  

Download the full report: It Takes a Whole Society: Opening Up the Learning Landscape in the High School Years.

Download the Executive Summary.


The Nellie Mae Education Foundation is the largest charitable organization in New England that focuses exclusively on education. The Foundation supports the promotion and integration of student-centered approaches to learning at the middle and high school levels across New England. To elevate student-centered approaches, the Foundation utilizes a three-part strategy that focuses on: developing and enhancing models of practice; reshaping education policies; and increasing public understanding and demand for high quality educational experiences. The Foundation’s new initiative areas are: District Level Systems Change; State Level Systems Change; Research and Development; and Public Understanding.  Since 1998, the Foundation has distributed over $110 million in grants. For more information about the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, visit

The Erikson Institute is an independent institution of higher education that prepares child development professionals for leadership. Through its academic programs, applied research, and community service and engagement, Erikson advances the ability of practitioners, researchers, and decision makers to improve life for children and their families. The Institute is a catalyst for discovery and change, continually bringing the newest scientific knowledge and theories of children’s development and learning into its classrooms and out to the community so that professionals serving children and families are informed, inspired, and responsive. For more information about the Erikson Institute, visit

For more on grants and grant writing, visit Grant Pros.

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