Four Days IN Education Nation

I’ve spent the past four days immersed in public education. First in Texas, where I spoke with and listened to superintendents and school board members; then at Education Nation, a day-and-a-half event put on by NBC and sponsored by the University of Phoenix and some major foundations, and finally at the annual dinner where the McGraw Prize in Education is awarded.Education Nation by John Merrow

Remember that classic western, “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”? Just like the movie’s title, I’m starting with the good. That would be the McGraw Prize, an annual black tie event I hadn’t attended for five or six years. Last night three educators who are making a huge difference were honored, men who are challenging the status quo by demonstrating better ways to educate Americans of all ages. They spend their time lighting candles, not cursing the darkness. You can read more about Larry Rosenstock of High Tech High, Bob Mendenhall of Western Governors University, and Chris Cerf of Between the Lions here (and I hope you will).

PBS’s Chris Cerf has been helping kids learn to read, and helping their parents learn along with them. He’s poised to take the many hours of “Between the Lions” to the next level, meta-tagging the elements of every segment so that teachers will be able to call up exactly what they need when they need it. If a teacher wants her kids to see the 30-second animated bit that shows how sounds blend (‘w’ and ‘et’ is the one we saw last night), bingo, there it is. Great work, becoming even more influential.

Larry Rosenstock has already taken High Tech High to scale; it’s gone from one successful school to nine, plus teacher training, in just a few years. If all goes well, the honor Larry’s work received last night will enable him and his talented colleagues to do even more. Heaven knows we need it.

Ditto for Bob Mendenhall and WGU, created from scratch nine years ago. It has already graduated 20,000 students. WGU is truly education’s ‘Field of Dreams,” demonstrating the truth of “Build it, and they will come.” WGU is an on-line university that makes quality higher education available to the millions who cannot afford the time or the money to come to campus. At WGU time is the variable, knowledge and skills the constants.

Now to Texas: While there’s good stuff happening in some Texas schools, I heard mostly bad news there from superintendents and board members who are feeling incredible financial pressures. At a session with the state commissioner of education, leader after leader stood up and basically pleaded with him not to cut program X or to keep program Y for just a few months longer. Their frustration over the state’s political stance against aid from Washington was palpable—they need the money.

At one point in my speech about ‘marginal’ versus ‘meaningful’ education I referred to the seven major rivers in Texas that have more than 4,000 miles of strong running water. I suggested that high school science classes anywhere near one of those rivers should go there regularly and measure speed, water level, acidity, detritus, et cetera. Then they should share the data with every other high school class for common analysis. Meaningful work like that–so different from most of what happens in high school classrooms–might keep more kids in school.

Afterwards, a friendly superintendent told me it was a great idea but a non-starter. “I guarantee,” he told me, “everyone listening immediately thought, ‘how would I pay for that?’”

One potentially ugly story I learned about in Texas has to do with politics and unintended consequences. In an effort to raise standards and increase the number of graduates going to four-year colleges, politicians established new graduation standards and three variations of the high school diploma. The top two diplomas qualify graduates for colleges and universities, while the third-tier diploma means community college, at best. To get one of the top diplomas, students must take four years of math and science. So far so good, right?

Unfortunately, many (perhaps most) districts don’t have enough math and science teachers. So many students will not be able to take the required four years. What may happen, thanks to this well-meaning rule, is that more kids will end up with a diploma that only qualifies them for community college. That’s the exact opposite of the intended consequence.

Which brings me to Education Nation, the extravaganza hosted by NBC and broadcast on NBC and MSNBC. It had it all: good, bad and ugly.

You probably know the basics: a huge commitment by NBC to cover ‘the crisis in public education.’ Everyone got into the act: Matt Lauer and the President on the Today Show, David Gregory on Meet the Press on Sunday, and Brian Williams on NBC Nightly News.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan seemingly dropped everything to be on hand. On Monday he participated in a long one-on-one live broadcast about teaching as a career with Tom Brokaw with cutaways to correspondents on four university campuses. He announced a new federal loan forgiveness program (eerily similar to one that existed in the 1970’s). On Tuesday he took part in the final wrap up session with governors, US Representatives, Mayors, school principals and teachers and even one student.

All good so far, right? Who can be against public discussion of education’s importance?

Usually the devil is in the details, but in this case the devil was right there in the basic skeleton and structure of the event. This wasn’t even remotely a search for truth or an exercise in journalism. It was pretty much Johnny One Note, with no room for depth or dissent.

The message was pretty simple: we have an education crisis because we have bad teachers who are protected by evil teacher unions, and the solutions are good charter schools and great teachers. That sounds suspiciously like “Waiting for Superman,” and so you won’t be surprised to learn that one of the opening events of Education Nation was a screening of the movie. (I missed that because I was flying home from Texas.)

I kept hoping that someone would be even a tiny bit skeptical about our test-score driven schools. Wouldn’t just one person wonder whether we should stop asking ‘How intelligent are you?’ and ask instead ‘How are you intelligent?’ (Never happened, not in any session I attended.)

With the awful truth that 6,000 kids drop out every school day staring them in the face, wouldn’t someone question the wisdom of extending both the school day and the school year? I mean, what are these dropouts leaving behind? (Never happened, far as I heard.)

People on the stage moaned about the antiquated (agrarian) calendar and the fact that schools still look and act as they did 50 or 75 years ago—and then suggested that what our kids need are more hours and days of this!

When the details of the event were first announced, the blogosphere lit up with protests about the lack of teachers. NBC responded immediately and recruited perhaps 50 teachers, bringing them to New York all expenses paid (the Waldorf!). Some were asked to present ‘mini-lessons’ at the beginning of sessions, and the ones I caught were lively and challenging.

When some thoughtless soul at NBC named the session on New Orleans “Does Education Need Another Katrina?” the blogosphere erupted again, and that session was promptly renamed.

Unfortunately, NBC never did respond to calls for diversity of thought, and respected folks like Diane Ravitch were excluded (despite her willingness to participate, from what I heard).

Education Nation was basically a series of panel discussions. I paid particular attention to the moderators because I do a fair amount of that sort of work. Brian Williams gets an A in my grading book. He was beyond good. He was well informed, funny, provocative and fair.

And now to ugly. The one panel that had some real diversity of opinion was ruined by inept moderating by Steven Brill, who brought to the table his own strong views about unions and didn’t even attempt to be fair. It’s fine for a moderator to be skeptical—I believe that’s part of the job description—but it’s essential to spread that skepticism around evenly. Mr. Brill kissed up to the side he favors (Geoff Canada and Michelle Rhee) and jumped all over Randi Weingarten of the AFT and Dennis Van Roekel of the NEA. What could have been a powerful conversation about contracts, seniority and tenure turned into an embarrassing food fight. Mr. Brill gets an F, but so does whoever at NBC chose him in the first place.

So why wasn’t Education Nation set up to be real journalism? Was it the sponsors, The University of Phoenix and the Broad and Gates Foundations? I have had grants from those two foundations and have not found them to be interfering in our journalism, even though both have agendas. Did it on this occasion? I don’t know. Why on earth would NBC accept the sponsorship of an education event from a for-profit education organization that is under investigation for some of its practices?

Some critics of Education Nation are finding the silver lining, saying things like, “A national dialogue is a good thing.”

Well, I’m looking hard for signs of a dialogue, but what I am finding instead are lines hardening between two camps. Scarily, it reminds me of the abortion/choice battle. Right now it’s in the naming stage. Those who were excluded from Education Nation are calling their opponents ‘anti-teacher’ and ‘anti public education,’ while the Education Nation crowd is labeling its antagonists ‘defenders of bad education’ and ‘protectors of inept teachers’. Naturally, both groups are working hard to wrap themselves in ‘pro-children’ garments.

It’s hard to see much good coming out of this, frankly. I wish everyone would emulate the three McGraw prizewinners. I’m sure all three of them had to fight battles to triumph over complacency, inertia and hostility, but I doubt that any of them ever declared themselves to be the forces of good, battling evil. That’s what I think may be happening out there in Education Nation.

NBC says it’s going to do this again next year. Let’s hope so. There’s certainly room for improvement.


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18 thoughts on “Four Days IN Education Nation

  1. You forgot to mention that NBC censored their Facebook page. The banned people, deleted posts, then lied about it.

    Because of their propaganda I started

    That got their attention and NBC contacted me.

    They asked me to take my site down in exchange for allowing me back on their site. I said no, and they had a responsibility as a news organization to present the truth, which was not happening.

    They made significant changes–allowing all back in, setting default wall view to show all posts, not just EN–and then reverted.

    I am blocked. My previous posts have been deleted.

    NBC is now a propaganda machine for the reformers. You should have mentioned some of theat.


  2. Presentations (even when opposing viewpoints are selected) and panel discussions (even with a diversity of views represented) will never be confused with dialogue; sorry …

    Wishing so much for open dialogue on any and all topics, education and all else, I posted a discussion topic on the assessment part of a well-known and respected website dealing with appropriate assessment of both learning and the teaching / facilitating of learning. Only mildly surprising is the fact that NOT ONE person has expressed interest in such a dialogue. The only conclusion possible has to be that I’m quite alone in the desire for honest dialogue. I still firmly believe that’s the only path to meaningful change …


  3. John and all,
    I, too, am aghast at the views of Michelle Rhee and the place that Teach for America holds in this important dialogue; but I also think that we can’t merely point the finger at charter schools as the problem. Our urban districts are too big to be sensitive to the needs they serve. Charter schools mark one way to regain site based control or small districts. What we need is more site based management and an accrediting system that is standards based, not just for the kids: We need district management standards, administrative standards, and professional standards for teaching. We cannot support the business as usual push-pull politics between district boards and unions.


    • Wendy,

      We do have professional standards for teaching. They have been established with input from many resources (teachers in each certificate area, higher ed folks, administrators, etc). They can be found at – the website for the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

      Doubt they’ll even be mentioned during NBC’s week of pushing a movie, charter schools, TFA, Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee, bashing teachers and teacher ‘unions’, etc.

      John – thank you for your great ‘review’ of this poor effort of journalism.


  4. I watched the Stephen Brill discussion. Did I say discussion? It was shameful. All the “Waiting for Superman” cast gave their views (poor teachers, bad union, Charters are the saviour”
    then Brill, the Moderator (Shameful) gave his opinion and NEVER moderated. Then after everyone had given their anti union, anti teacher views, they said to Randi Weingarten “What do you have to say, Randi?’ It was the worst “dialog” I have ever seen on TV. Here’s hoping
    someone, everyone gets to NBC with their critique of a most unhelpful “dialog” and a critically
    important topic – How to Improve Schools…


  5. It is the best of times. It is the worst of times. Paradoxes portend revolution, now, as they did then, as they did in retrospect, and in prospect. Denying paradox – like defining “good teacher” and “bad teacher” as if they must, inevitably and in every case, always be different people – underscores the failure of the left to nail the failure of the right. And, in this league, two wrongs don’t make it right.

    The patently absurd notion that all good teaching is reflected in good test scores, regardless of how kids might join a class or what teachers might do to winnow their flock, exhibits the darkest failure of ideology to accommodate reality. I know of schools where they regularly held back 25% of a class from a testing year to do drill and practice, just to make the school have the highest “gain score” in the state. That Duncan and Obama have bought this same potion of painful absurdity does not mean that Congress – or we – have to pay for it.

    And it is hardly because of unions that such absurd tactics may fail. Unions, in fact, often make them succeed. It is because those tactics fail students. Holding a huge portion of kids from their 10th grade was not because they enter 9th grade ill prepared, it was to make the principal look good. That’s all. When our elected officials use the specious rationale of ill-prepared kids, they need only be confronted with their own failure to address that need for preparation! And we know, from 30 years of data in Chicago and thousands of studies, that grade retention is a key cause of dropouts.

    My real concern with your blog, however, is not with the specious politics, for you’re simply … right. My real concern is that the failure of current schooling seems to reflect a fairly simple error that grew – like Topsy – from the early 1970’s. Successful remedies actually obscure the error. Project-based options, problem-based curricula, and looping elementary classes, interdisciplinary high school or college studies and thematic years that build student interest all obscure the relatively simple problem of one-teacher per classroom, and the transcendence of control over engagement.

    In the 1970’s we addressed this problem directly, with differentiated staffing, flexible scheduling, and open classrooms. We celebrated the chaos of discovery and the richness of student curiosity, and framed teaching as an act of inspiration rather than its current kind of constipation. We recognized that “control” is a function of productivity, and not a matter of enforcement. And we did prove it did work. It was (and is) often cheaper than one-teacher-per-room, since you can usually get more than two classes in a larger room. But it has become, except for New Tech, High Tech, Envision and a few others, an exotic “innovation,” in spite of its age.

    We have forgotten Larry Cremin’s observation that the reason we’ve got 8 grades is that the contractor built 8 rooms. Our elaborate hierarchy of achievement skills ignores the fact that the New York Times is deliberately written at the 4th grade reading level! “Preparation” increasingly ignores its own target – as in prepared for what! We know – from nearly 20 years of study and models – what workplace and professional “soft skills” look like, and even how to measure them. Yet we ignore those skills in the welter of irrelevant metrics we – not we, but THEY – pretend are important.

    Smart kids will survive this too. But the nation might not.


  6. Thank you for the information and the analysis, John. Frankly, much of the Education Nation reminded me more of the yellow journalism staged events of a past era. Despite a few bright spots here and there, overall NBC missed an opportunity to do something really meaningful, but I guess that was never the purpose.


  7. The best was Andrea Mitchell’s interview with Finland’s counterpart to Arne Duncan. Asked to explain Finland’s successful education system (# 1 in math and literacy), he described the exact opposite of the education system the “reformers” are trying to impose. And it went right over Andrea Mitchell’s head! These “journalists” are an elite class who are disdainful of teachers, and although some are smart, they are pretty ignorant about public schools and education.


  8. Yesterday, 9/28/2010, the article 4,100 Massachusetts Students Prove Small Isn’t Always Better was on the front page of The New York Times, with a wonderful photo of students concentrating on a pen and paper project. The article is about two basics in education–reading and writing. A few teachers initiated a school-wide intervention project that brought immediate and continuing improvements in test results. The story reminds me of effective teaching and learning strategies depicted in “Learning in America: Schools That Work”; Jiame Escalante’s kids (Garfield H.S.) who had to take a California test twice because officials doubted their performance on the first (kids scored even higher on the second test), and Rosental and Jacobson’s report Pygmalion in the Classroom. These are examples of needs in our schools and how to meet them. Also, Michelle Rhee had some good ideas. In a recent interview Ms. Rhee said I don’t think our kids are getting a lousy education “I know they’re getting a lousy education.” When I consider the many, many, many smart young people entering this college too often the proof of Ms. Rhee’s point “is in the pudding.”


  9. I watched the Andrea Mitchell interview which discussed Finland’s approach to education. Last night, Brian Williams and the NBC Nightly News also visited a Finnish classroom as well. I can’t help but wonder if anyone has even brought up the issues of mainstreaming ESE students and diversity in the classroom. My school has an autism cluster and those children are mainstreamed if it is the least restrictive environment. Also, instructional time is used for social programs such as anti-bullying and programs about resisting drugs and gangs. Book fairs, author visits, field trips and chorus assemblies take place during instructional time. These are important for the students and community building, but present a challenge to today’s teachers who are required to teach more with less time and deal with the practical realities of today’s school environment.


  10. Thank you, John, for exposing how one-sided this was. The one bright spot for me was the 2-hour long online chat among teachers across the nation during the Sunday Town Hall — over 10,000 comments, and almost all with similar messages: stop blaming teachers, stop bashing unions; charters aren’t the answer; we need smaller class sizes, resources, supports for new teachers; the business model won’t work (it hasn’t in business!); when will the so-called “reformers” recognize that poverty is the real source of the opportunity gap?

    I wonder what became of these 10,000 comments — we were promised that they would be posted, but where and when? Why aren’t teachers put center stage instead of billionaires like Eli Broad and Bill Gates? The real problem is that the privatizers want to control and profit from the education industry, everyone that only privately-run, non-union charter schools can save them.

    As for “Waiting for Superman,” it’s hit a nerve with teachers — don’t miss Rick Ayers’ point by point rebuttal (google it).


  11. Someone from NBC responded to my blog by pointing out two (supposed) errors, my comment about Diane Ravitch and my comment about teachers initially being excluded. She reminded me that the Teacher Town Hall had been scheduled months in advance. Yes, but that wasn’t the heart of Education Nation, which is where teachers were un- and underrepresented. That’s what the blogosphere lit up about. I know some teachers who got those last-minute invitations, by the way.

    As for Diane, I probably should have used another name–Steve Barr of Green Dot, for example. He was there but in the audience.

    I reached out to Diane this morning for clarification. Here’s what she wrote:

    “It’s true that I was in California. I asked if I could participate from LA studio. They said no. I asked again. They said no. I was invited to tape an interview and jumped at the chance. Valerie Shepard taped me for 20 minutes. She told me that the interview had been cut down to 30 seconds or less. I don’t know if they used that 30 seconds. At the time I was invited, the letter listed the headliners and it was clear from the get-go that the deck was stacked. I really wished to be there but had a speaking engagement on Sept 25 and 29.”

    What’s fascinating about the NBC response is what is NOT said. She called attention to those two supposed errors but does not attempt to refute my assertions about NBC’s pseudo-journalism.

    What comes to mind is this: someone is accused of having sex with minors and coming to work sloppily dressed, and his response is “That’s not true! I always wear a necktie.”


  12. Didn’t watch the TV shows John mentioned – was out in district and charter schools with which we work. They are not involved in much of this national “buzz” – too busy working with students.

    Having worked in and with urban district public schools for 40 years now (and even appearing a couple of times in Merrow’s program, I wish there was more attention to
    * Serious misrepresentations of many people’s work by Diane Ravitch
    * Fantastic efforts of Cincinnati district high schools that have produced almost 30 point increases in high school graduation rates, and elimination of graduation gaps between white and African America students
    * Success of Minnesota’s Post-Secondary Options law that has allowed more than 110,000 students to take college courses while still in high school – a law vigorously opposed by teacher unions when proposed
    * Heroic efforts by some people to create highly effective charters, despite intense ongoing opposition from teacher unions and other groups
    * Ongoing elimination of fine young teachers due to seniority provisions
    * Great district schools serving inner city kids that dramatically reduce achievement gaps.

    There are examples of great district and charter public schools that are being constantly dissed by establishment “experts” and college of education profs who are scared stiff of the idea that schools really can make a dramatic positive difference in youngster’s lives.


  13. Thank you for this post.

    It’s unclear to me whether NBC created this fiasco out of deliberate intent to mislead or sheer cluelessness. I’m leaning toward the latter: poorly informed and lazy organizers who didn’t do sufficient research beforehand just figured the loud and powerful voices were the only voices and were utterly oblivious to the fact that there even WAS any debate.


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