For those in the NY area: John will be speaking live with Merryl Tisch, the Chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents, on October 24th at the JCC in Manhattan (Upper West Side). You can purchase tickets here.
NBC News put on its third iteration of Education Nation earlier this week and did an even better job this year. I suppose that could be considered faint praise, because year one was pretty bad and year two was only fair-to-middling. I’d give the 2012 version a B or maybe a B- for “performance,” but NBC News deserves an A for effort, because no one else is even attempting to create a national dialogue about what has to be recognized as our country’s greatest challenge.
For those who weren’t there or following events online, on NBC, MSNBC or CNBC, here’s some basic information:
Three days of activities, including a couple of “Town Hall” meetings, dinner with General Colin Powell, interviews with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Governor Romney, the President on video, three former Secretaries of Education and the current Secretary; the premiere of “Won’t Back Down,” and dozens of short and generally tightly focused panel discussions.
A superb venue: the elegant New York Public Library.
Hundreds of eager and capable folks there to make sure we got to the right places.
In short, Education Nation is now a “must attend” event for wonks like me, and a lot of us were there.
I imagine many more were watching on the various NBC networks, and we ought to give them credit for such blanket coverage, almost always live. It was, as veteran newsman Tom Brokaw said, “NBC’s version of a moonshot.”
(And, as a sad commentary, this might turn out to be the most air time the two candidates spend talking about education, so we should thank NBC News for that as well.)
Biggest disappointment: No session on cheating. That’s a glaring omission, because there’s a lot of it these days — by students, teachers and administrators. We explored this in a piece for PBS last spring:
I didn’t get to everything because of my own production demands, but I was on hand for about three-fifths of the program. From what others told me, I was in the audience for the best and the worst of the program.
Easily the best: “True Grit,” subtitled ‘Can You Teach Character?” Brian Williams did a superb job of orchestrating a lively and informative conversation with Carol Dweck of Stanford, Angela Duckworth of Penn, the writer Paul Tough and columnist David Brooks. That’s well worth your time (click the link above).
Just Awful: “The New Standard: The Common Core in the Classroom.” It was jargony, often incomprehensible and sometimes just plain stupid. One of the cheerleaders on the panel told us that, with the Common Core, a teacher will now be able to devote attention to a child who is falling behind. Hey, d’oh, that’s what all good teachers have always done.
But that session, bad as it was, brought into view a flaw in Education Nation’s design: it is too much cheerleading, not enough inquiry. I think a lot of the audience wanted the moderator, Rehema Ellis, to ask tough questions about the Common Core, but the only tough question came from an audience member who identified himself as a parent and a school board member. He told of hearing a presentation about the Common Core by New York Deputy Chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky that, he said, was ‘incomprehensible.’ However, no one on the panel proceeded to make it comprehensible. Instead, we heard that the Common Core would make schools better, more rigorous, blah blah blah.
The focus of this year’s Education Nation was on “Solutions,” and there was a lot of talk about our international rankings and our high dropout rate, the implication being that those were the “Problems” that were being addressed. But rankings and dropouts are “Symptoms,” not problems, just as a high fever is symptomatic. What is causing so many students to drop out without graduating? Why are other nations doing better than our kids on international tests?
In some way it’s kind of silly for NBC News to devote three days to “Solutions” without first making more of an effort to identify the underlying problems.
For some, of course, the “Problem” was teacher unions. That view was pushed hardest on Sunday, when Education Nation celebrated the new parent-trigger film “Won’t Back Down” and hosted a discussion about the role of Parents that featured just one (largely silent) parent and two panelists, Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein, who are far better known for their hostility to unions than for parenting.
The elephant in the room at Education Nation (and in the public education sphere) is poverty and the ability of schools to ameliorate its effects. Everyone acknowledged that we are living in a time of unprecedented childhood poverty, but no one — not one person — was angry or embarrassed about it. In fact, everyone seemed to accept poverty as an unchangeable reality (even though it’s changing — by getting worse).
Many speakers touted “Great Schools” and “Great Teachers” as the solution to poverty, which is laughable on its face. Maybe they are one way out for some children, but the solution? Spare me.
For me, a revealing moment came during Governor Romney’s presentation. He spoke with justifiable pride about Massachusetts’ educational accomplishments during his tenure there. He described a meeting with teachers that was being filmed. He asked teachers if they could tell which children were likely to succeed and, if so, how. He said the teachers told him they couldn’t speak freely with the camera rolling, so he banished the film crew. Then, he said, the teachers told him that they could easily identify the likely dropouts just by noting which parents came to “Back to School” night. If parents showed up, those kids were likely to do well. If no parents bothered to attend, then those kids were probably going to be failing students.
That was tantamount to saying that what they did as teachers didn’t make a difference, and I found the Governor’s lack of reaction striking. If some teachers said that to me and I were in a leadership position, I would have gotten upset. I would have told them that we have come to a fork in the road here. “We have to figure out how to change your attitude, or you have to find work elsewhere, because we cannot have teachers who accept that reality. We need teachers who will redouble their efforts to change that kid’s trajectory, and if there are things you need from me to enable you to make that difference, tell me now.”
Think about it: What those teachers were telling Governor Romney was that, as far as they were concerned, schools and teaching don’t make a difference!
But perhaps they don’t. In fact, the unspoken subtext and unexamined contradiction throughout all the talk at Education Nation and elsewhere is the shameful truth of the close correlation between a child’s zip code/parental wealth AND his or her life outcomes. What that reveals is that, for most kids, education apparently does NOT make a significant difference. Schools do NOT change most lives significantly. Why don’t we talk about that? Is that too depressing?
If we just created more “Great Schools” and found more “Great Teachers,” would that actually solve the problems of poverty? Shouldn’t that question be on the table?
If it is true that most schools fail to change lives, why is that so? Is it because too many teachers think the way those teachers Governor Romney described? Or could it be because we are so obsessed with metrics that we haven’t taken the time to figure out what schools are supposed to be doing? (I think it’s the latter.)
Some politicians, usually Republicans, want school funding to be portable so that, for example, a poor kid in Stamford, CT, could travel on a bus for 20 minutes to the wealthy town of Darien, where the schools are strong, or take their dollars to private or parochial schools. Their belief is that the competition would force the lousy inner-city Stamford schools to improve.
This is all talk because it glosses over competing interests. “The nation” may — in the abstract — want poor kids to have the chance to go to great schools, but parents in Darien and other wealthy towns don’t want the Stamford kids in their schools. They believe that they have earned the right to better schools by working hard and moving up the ladder.
Education Nation is a great platform for digging into these complexities. But that would require a willingness to tolerate uncertainty, ambiguity and contradictions.
Brian Williams ended this year’s Education Nation by announcing that there would be a fourth one a year from now. I would love it if next year’s event were not so rigidly structured. Perhaps the organizers could include two “Wild Card” or “TBA” sessions and wait until the last minute to decide what topics would be explored. Welcome the challenge of unanswered questions and the likelihood of leaving us with even more questions.
NBC News and Education Nation are providing a real service to us all. I am writing and thinking about these complex issues because of the sparks provided by Education Nation, and I am sure that I am not alone. Thank you, NBC News.
PS: Speaking of thank you notes, I urge you to think back and remember the teacher who changed your life—and sit down right now and write her or him a thank you note.