Donald Nielsen

Senior Fellow and Chairman, American Center for Transforming Education

Donald P. Nielsen is a Senior Fellow of Discovery Institute and Chairman of the Institute's American Center for Transforming Education.

From 1992 to 2008, Mr. Nielsen concentrated his activities in the field of public education. He traveled the country for two years studying America's public education system and subsequently was elected to the Seattle Public Schools Board. He served on the board for eight years and was President of the Board from 2000 to 2001. During his tenure, Mr. Nielsen and his colleagues oversaw major reforms to the Seattle Public School System that greatly enhanced the educational experience and heightened achievement for students, administrators, teachers, and parents.

Prior to retiring in 1992, Mr. Nielsen was co-founder, President, and Chairman of Hazleton Corporation, the world's largest contract biological and chemical research, and testing company. Based in Vienna, Virginia, Hazleton Corporation concentrated its activities in the life sciences industry, providing industry and government with contract biological, chemical, and immunobiological research services. The Company's clients were the world's leading pharmaceutical, chemical, agri-chemical, medical device, and food companies.

Hazleton Corporation (originally named Environmental Sciences Corporation) commenced operations in 1969 as a $200,000 start-up. When Mr. Nielsen retired in 1992, Hazleton had grown to $165 million in sales and employed 2,500 people in five countries on three continents. In 1983, Hazleton was listed on the New York Stock Exchange, and in 1987, Corning, Inc. purchased the Company. Mr. Nielsen remained CEO of Hazleton for five years after the acquisition by Corning.

In addition to his current role as Chairman of the American Center for Transforming Education, he also serves on the Advisory Board of the University of Washington Foster School of Business and is an emeritus member of the Ambassador Board of the University of Washington School of Education.

During his business career, Mr. Nielsen served on numerous corporate and non-profit boards. Corporate boards included Delta Dental of Washington, TeachFirst, and VWR Scientific. Non-profit boards included Junior Achievement, YMCA, The Alliance for Education, The Seattle Foundation, IslandWood, and the Talaris Institute. He also served nine years as a Trustee of Seattle Pacific University.

Mr. Nielsen graduated from the University of Washington where he received a BA degree in Business in 1960. He was elected student body president his senior year at the University of Washington. In 1963, he received an MBA degree from the Harvard Business School.

He was the recipient of the Harvard Business School's 2004 Alumni Achievement Award. In 2009, he received the Leadership Award from the Foster School of Business at the University of Washington. That same year, he received the McNaughton Award presented annually to a Seattle Citizen in recognition of civic leadership.

Mr. Nielsen is married to the former Melissa J. Mounger. They have three grown children and seven grandchildren. He and his wife, Melissa, are co-founders of the National Eating Disorders Association.


Closing Schools Should Be the Last Resort, Not the First

Earlier this month, the Seattle Public Schools (SPS) announced plans to close 20 elementary schools. According to the district, SPS simply has too many schools for too few students. This is not a new problem, as enrollment has been declining for several years. Between 2019 and 2023, the district lost over 5,000 students, most due to the COVID-19 shutdown.

Uniform Schools Yield Uniformly Poor Results

Parents who have two or more children know how totally different children can be. Even with the same two parents, living in the same house, eating the same food, and having very similar learning experiences, children will still turn out to be different in personality, interests, and even appearance. So why would we stick with an education system that treats all children alike?

Education: A Republican Opportunity

In the 1960s and 1970s, two major pieces of federal law began the dismantling of American education. The first was allowing government employees to join unions, and the second was the creation of the federal Department of Education. Republicans should reverse these laws, which have proven detrimental to the efficient and effective functioning of both our K-12 and university systems. 

Our Public School System Is Set Up To Fail — and It’s Succeeding

The recent report by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, sometimes referred to as the nation’s report card, is a devastating assessment of the condition of our nation’s schools. In short, there has been virtually no educational progress with our nation’s children in more than 30 years – and urban districts are the worst performers. 

A New K-12 System

If we want to effectively educate all of our children, a new education system is needed — not a tweak of the existing system and certainly not more money.

The Monopolies of Education

Monopolies are seldom efficient or effective. With three monopolies built into our current K-12 public education system, it's not hard to understand why the system is failing the majority of children.

It’s Not Just About Guns

The recent mass shooting at Robb Elementary School, in Uvalde, Texas, has again brought the nation’s attention to the issue of gun control and what, if anything, we can do to prevent further bloodshed.

It’s Time to Rethink School

A society is measured by the degree to which it loves, nurtures, and educates its children. Today, we are failing at all three. It's time to rethink school.

Why Do Singapore Students Outperform the Rest of the World?

Research reveals that the most significant influence on student academic achievement is the quality of the teacher in the classroom. Singapore has the highest performing children in the world. Is it possible they have the best teachers? What is Singapore doing dramatically different that the U.S. can emulate?

The Source of the Problem

Racism and police brutality are one source of the problems we are facing today, but those problems have been exacerbated by government’s failure to demand excellence in the performance of their employees and their leadership.

We are Failing Our Children

In 1983, the famous report, “A Nation at Risk” concluded that our country was failing to effectively educate our children. The authors were so critical of our schools that the preamble of the report summarized their findings by saying that; “if an unfriendly foreign power had imposed our schools upon us, we would have considered it an act of war.” That was 1983. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush held an education summit, called “Goals 2000.” Bill Clinton was the chair of that summit. After days of deliberation, another report was issued stating that, “by 2000, all children will enter school ready to learn and 90% of our children will graduate from high school.” Many other goals were listed, none of which were achieved. In 2001, President George W. Bush and

A Message from Don Nielsen

During the summer I completed a revision to my book, Every School. The revision brings all the information up to date and also adds an important new chapter—a detailed “Game Plan” for a state. I believe the only way we will transform our schools is to change the governing state laws and this chapter gives state legislators and Governors a game plan on how to start and accomplish the transformation of their schools. The highlight of the last few months was the hiring of a new program coordinator, Bailey Takacs. Bailey comes to us with a lot of experience in legislative matters and with a passion for education. He is already making a huge difference in our ability to do research and to get our message out. Also, we were able to connect with the CEO of ExcelinEd, Jeb Bush’s

Separate Students by Achievement, Not Ability

In an article published on Aeon, Oscar Hedstrom suggests that tracking, measuring a student’s ability to learn (i.e. ranking students as above average, average, or below average) is not a good idea. The author is right. If you believe every child can learn, as I do, then you need to take into account where a child is in their learning. Rather than tracking, what I propose in the updated version of my book Every School is simply giving kids who are behind in their learning more time (longer day and longer year) and smaller class sizes with the best teachers. That is, give them the opportunity to catch up quickly so they can rejoin the others. This is not tracking; this is placement based off achievement or mastery of the subject. All children can learn—placing them in tracks based

What We Do: Transforming Our Schools

Here at the Discovery Institute’s, American Center for Transforming Education (ACTE) we focus on system change rather than focusing on improving the present system.  We do that because, for decades we have tried dozens, if not hundreds, of reform ideas without any material improvement in student outcomes. We have also tried to improve schools by dramatically increasing the amount of money we spend on education.   Again, the results have not been forthcoming.  Basically, we have learned that reforming a failed system yields a reformed failed system.  We have also learned that putting more money into a failed system simply gives you a more expensive failed system.      The current system is obsolete and no matter how much we tweak it and

One Size Fits All Should Fall

Enough squabbling has been done on whether or not the current education system works for every child.   New flash, it doesn’t!  Today, about 25% of our students drop out before graduation and another 45% graduate with insufficient learning to qualify them for community college, and in many cases, insufficient learning to qualify to enter the military.   Hardly what one would consider an effective education system.  Education, particularly K-12 education is meant to prepare a young person to be able to pursue their dreams—whatever they may be.   It could be college, a certificate program in a community college, a trade like welding, coding, electrical, becoming a mechanic or a hairdresser.  Perhaps, its music or the theater; it