What to make of “Education Nation,” which took over the magnificent New York Public Library for two days earlier this week and focused a great deal of national attention on a topic most of us care about? In all, Education Nation consisted of 29 separate segments, generally organized around the theme “What It Takes.” I made it to 15 in person and watched three more online.
If you are doing the math, you’ve figured out that cramming all those sessions into two days means they had to be short because this was an event made for television and the web. And from what I saw online, it worked very well.
Education Nation has come a long way since the first one in 2010, which old NBC hands remember as “Evacuation Nation,” because a torrential downpour and windstorm forced everyone to flee Rockefeller Center for the halls of NBC’s headquarters.
These two days had some highlights and surprises. I thought at least two stars emerged: Delaware Governor Jack Markell, who spoke forcefully about the importance of early education, and Joshua Starr, the Superintendent of Schools in Montgomery County, Maryland, who argued persuasively for multiple measures to assess both students and teachers.
The best sessions involved some give-and-take among opposing views. In one entitled “A Reality Check on Testing,” Randi Weingarten of the AFT, former Louisiana State Superintendent Paul Pastorek, New York Chancellor Dennis Walcott and the aforementioned Josh Starr disagreed, often eloquently. It helped that the session was skillfully moderated by Rehema Ellis, NBC’s reliable Chief Education Correspondent. Weingarten told the audience about a new study of test prep (.pdf), contrasting how much time two different districts devote to getting their kids ready to take standardized tests. Some in the audience gasped when she presented the figures: In one district, students in grades 6-11 spent 100 or more hours on test prep, the equivalent of nearly one month of school. In another district, students in grades 3-8 spent 80 hours on test prep, the equivalent of 16 days of school. But that was the last time that issue surfaced, unfortunately.
Some sessions were content-rich, particularly the presentation by Professor Caroline Hoxby of Stanford about “Opportunity, Meritocracy and Access to Higher Education.”
She taught what Education Nation called–appropriately–a “Master Class” that showed just how many talented but poor kids fall through the cracks–and what can be done about it.
However, that was as close as Education Nation came to confronting the elephant in the room, poverty. The disgraceful fact that nearly a quarter of American children are growing up poor simply wasn’t on the agenda, although Marian Wright Edelman, Freeman Hrabowski and John Deasy, the Los Angeles Superintendent, raised the issue during their panels.
Instead, Education Nation focused on getting parents involved, using technology to improve learning, urging students to live healthier lives, and praising students who had overcome their difficult circumstances. It struck me as a bit like praising people for getting out of a burning building–but not calling the fire department.
In truth, many of the sessions were closer to show-and-tell infomercials than to probing journalism. The worst offender was “Personalized Learning,” where four panelists sang the praises of technology with nary a dissenting word or hint of skepticism.
The tone of “Education Nation” was generally pretty chummy, with very little wave-making. For example, I thought the usually reliable Brian Williams let former Florida Governor Jeb Bush off the hook in their one-on-one conversation. He began with a tough question: “Do we test our kids too much?” Mr. Bush acted as if he had been asked “Do we need testing?” and went into a polished riff about how “you can’t become a doctor without taking tests, and you can’t get in the military without taking and passing tests,” and so on. His “life is tough, so stop whining” routine plays well with crowds, but that was not what Brian Williams asked, and I wished he had insisted that the former Governor answer the original question. Governor Bush also boasted about his state’s approach to high-stakes testing, the FCAT, which has been riddled with problems, and closed with a gratuitous slam on teacher unions.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan got kid gloves treatment from Matt Lauer when he appeared via satellite, so I guess that was the event’s M.O.
Four authors participated in the 2-day event, but not Diane Ravitch, whose book, “Reign of Error,” may be outselling the other four books combined. Her absence infuriated her supporters even more when they realized that one of the authors at Education Nation was a Hollywood screenwriter/film producer and another a first-time author.
Why wasn’t Dr. Ravitch there? That depends on whom you ask. A spokesman for Education Nation said that she was sent the general invitation asking her to hold the dates because, he said, “We had her here last year and wanted her here again.” Later, he said, they asked her to be on a panel, and she declined.
I emailed Diane for her side of the story and got back this explanation:
I received an invitation to sit in the audience.
I received a second invitation to sit in the audience.
Then the list of speakers and panelists was published.
I was not invited.
I heard that many people complained–not me–that I was not invited.
Three days after the list of speakers was announced, I got a call from a producer asking if I would serve on a panel where they had an opening.
I said that they had already published their A list and I wasn’t on it. I don’t like the idea of being an afterthought. I also found it offensive that their A list was heavily weighted with CEOs and right wing governors.
I said no thank you.
So it is true that I was not invited. And true that when they reacted to pressure and invited me, I turned them down.
Here’s the irony: The media room distributed a 5-page fact sheet (.pdf) about the state of American education, including these bold points:
HIGH SCHOOL GRADUATION RATES ARE AT THEIR HIGHEST LEVEL IN 40 YEARS.
HIGH SCHOOL COMPLETION AMONG MINORITY GROUPS HAS IMPROVED DRAMATICALLY.
NUMBER OF STUDENTS ATTENDING COLLEGE CONTINUES TO INCREASE.
U.S. RANKING FOR COLLEGE COMPLETION CONTINUES TO IMPROVE.
Where else could you find that kind of positive information? (Answer: “Reign of Error”)
Wouldn’t it have been valuable to debate whether these improvements are occurring because of the accountability movement–or in spite of it? And who better to argue one side of that than Dr. Ravitch?
Many accuse “Education Nation” of tilting to the right and blame Pearson, Exxon-Mobil and the University of Phoenix, three of its five lead sponsors. That’s not my problem. My issue with the enterprise is that its tone is almost relentlessly positive, focusing on ‘What It Takes’ but then failing to ask tough follow-up questions like ‘What Stands in the Way?’ or ‘Who Benefits from Failure?’ or any other questions whose answers might afflict the comfortable.
Because Education Nation is purporting to show America that we know ‘What It Takes’ to succeed, then someone must ask logical follow up questions like ‘Why Aren’t We Doing It?’
But, that criticism aside, NBC deserves great praise for the venture, which is, after all, a work in progress. More than any other education conference, Education Nation has the potential to move the needle. The event has become education’s Super Bowl, which is why I’m already looking forward to attending “Education Nation V” next year.
- 1. Plus three Innovation Competition segments and a bunch of breaks.↵
- 2. I was part of the final event, a gaggle of journalists ably moderated by Chelsea Clinton. The panel (Jane Williams, Andy Rotherham, and Rehema Ellis were the other three) was a last-minute addition when the government shutdown prevented the First Lady from making a ‘surprise’ appearance.↵
- 3. Joel Klein of Amplify, Jose Ferreira of Knewton, Diane Tavenner of Summit (Charter) Public Schools and Joel Rose of New Classrooms Innovation Partners.↵
- 4. Amanda Ripley (The Smartest Kids in the World), Anne Henderson (Beyond the Bake Sale), Alison Stewart (First Class: The Legacy of Dunbar, America’s First Black Public High School) and M. Night Shyamalan (I Got Schooled).↵
- 5. If I am invited……↵