Education Nation: Year Three

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.

Year 4 is coming next fall. What will that hold?

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.

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15 thoughts on “Education Nation: Year Three

  1. John, perhaps the most compelling part above is your review of Gov. Romney, ” If some teachers said that to me and I were in a leadership position, I would have gotten upset.” Yet, much of the piece is about poverty.

    There are two truths about poverty. First, that we determine what poverty is by figuring out what roughly 15-20% of the people make, then calling that poverty. So, people will always be in poverty. However, compared to Africa, India, China, and much of the worlds, that level of “poverty” is wealthy indeed.

    The second truth is that government subsidies don’t change truth one. If we give 47 million people food stamps (as we do now), 15% of us will still be in poverty. If we raise the minimum wage 24%, as we did in 2008-2009, even more of us are in poverty than before. This is the Laws of Nature at work. Adding cash to a system causes inflation. Giving cash to large groups of individuals removes incentives. If your family is eating, you have far less incentive to go on strike and demand a wage to feed them.

    These truths do not mean that we do not have a great national shame when it comes to poverty. We do. Yet the shame is not that we have some poor. It is who those poor are.

    For far too many black families, families who have been in the United States of America longer than there has been a USA, poverty is still the norm. We have seventh generation families where no one has graduated high school, let alone college.That inability to rise, that generational poverty is the one abomination we must address without cease.

    John, there is a poverty of spirit. When you grow into a culture that says its all right to have babies out of marriage–72% of Black mothers are; when you grow into a culture that says, you don’t need an education and a job to have babies; when you grow into a culture where its fine to father many babies to many mothers and bear no fear of being shot by one of those girls’ dads; you are for sure on a track to poverty.

    “Nobody Gets Married Any More, Mister”

    We need most of all, John, to get over the idea that 72% of Black babies with unwed mothers is the same as the four Black babies born to a friend of mine. She, too, was unwed for three of them. But her parents stuck together through thick and very thin. They gave her a college education. They’re there to babysit, to attend ball-games, and to see that these beautiful kids get so many of the experiences that most such children can’t.

    So, to me, John, education is the answer. Education that it will not work out right if you have babies outside a two-parent family. Education that basic family structure is not some archaic thing of the distant past, but a reality of the laws of economics. Education, that perhaps should have come from a two-parent house, or a church, or Sunday school, but today has no place to come from but a school.

    And also civics education that no government programs can overcome those economic realities.

    And, then, for those talented students who deserve a shot at more, education in math and science and English. So they can become civil engineers and nurses and doctors and robot developers. We need all of those, and we need far more of them to be of color.

    Plus their neighbors need them to bring the wages and social capital which come with such good jobs.


    • Its interesting that neither of you would consider that poverty, particularly persistent poverty is a natural by-product of industrial capitalism and an extension of slavery.Its built into the capital industrial system to control the cost of labor. Giving money to the poor as a palliative to control the work force, that is to keep it at a subsistence level while nit destroying them out right – you don’t want to kill your slaves. You could see that defining a class of people as “poor” and using the educational system to reinforce and condition that cast or group to stay indentured through debt and discrimination and an unjust and brutal criminal justice system seems beyond your reasoning or powers of observation. As long as the educational system is run for the benefit of industrial interests (get and keep a job) rather than human interests of human development (How to learn rather than what to learn.) The public schools are designed to train and condition workers not develop intellectually independent human beings who can think for themselves.


  2. This comment demonstrates how you can go just about anywhere when you start with a false premise, in this case that poverty is defined as the bottom 15%. In fact, the poverty line is a dollar amount, which means that, in theory, it would be possible for all of us–save one very, very rich family–to be below the poverty line. To be blunt, what Ed calls “Truth One” is false.

    The fact that generations have been stuck in poverty was brought home in Michael Harrington’s “The Other America” back in the 1960’s. That book showed us that lots of white families have been mired in poverty for generations, and I think Ed ought to take a look at today’s data.


  3. John, I’ve looked at the data for 20 years, and perhaps you just read (or I wrote) too fast here.

    Yes, the poverty line is a dollar amount, but…

    The international poverty threshold is $1.25/day or $456/year. The US threshold is $11,500 for one person or $23,000 for a family of four. We don’t, and certainly shouldn’t accept any less and $11,500 won’t get you very far (I’ve tried).

    I totally agree that too many Americans of all stripes live lesser lives than they should because of finances. Government policy has something to do with that. Moreover, money income has got steadily worse over the past 40 years (since we started the “War on Poverty”). The lower half of America has not kept up with GDP.

    So, yes, there is, in fact some other policy change which would raise the tide for all Americans, not just African-Americans.

    But we were talking education here, not labor law. And the fact is that there is an idea in too many Americans’ heads that is flat out wrong. The idea that you can have children as uneducated, un-wed, unemployed young people and still have hope the next generation will do better.

    I don’t know how we do it, but the biggest single thing we can do for poverty–especially multi-generational, African-American poverty, is to impress upon them that they’ll have a chance–a good chance!!–if they take school, job, marriage, kids in that order.


  4. Glad to hear that John is concerned about teachers who say that only students parents who came to “Back to School Night” will do well. Joyce Epstein of Johns Hopkins University has been pointing out for the last 20 years that the best predictor of family involvement is what schools do to promote it. How about doing a show on her?
    How about a show on Yes Prep in Houston, which is helping youngsters from poverty backgrounds, boosting achievement and helping not only get into but through colleges and universities.
    Speaking of colleges and universities, how about taking a look at the vast difference between some colleges/universities that have a high grad rate with students from low income, first generation families compared to others with similar students and poor records?


  5. My observation and concern about Education Nation is the anti union voices given a prominent role and platform. Maybe it is the coverage that I see but It seems that first Waiting for Superman and now Won’t Back Down got a lot of attention.

    I also found Gov. Romney’s comment about limiting teacher’s political contributions very troubling as well.


  6. John – As a working parent who was with their child at an afterschool function and not able to attend “Back to School” night, I would HOPE my children were not labeled as potential drop-outs by teachers.

    Honestly, I think teachers are not so short-sited. I believe they do – and would – look beyond a single event in a school year before making such a dramatic conclusion.


    • I think most teachers would look beyond and do look beyond, or at least I hope so. I was more disturbed by Governor Romney’s lack of response, frankly.
      It’s complex, of course, because schools sometimes make it tough for parents to attend. The best ‘back to school’ night I remember seeing was at at middle school in Richmond, where they made it a party, beginning with the traditional ‘meet the teacher’ part but then followed by refreshments AND a student talent show, with lots and lots of (short) acts. You know the parents showed up for that! As I remember, the flyer didn’t say that the talent show came last, so parents came at the beginning…
      Sad to say, that school’s leader didn’t realize what he had stumbled upon and so never repeated it…


  7. Two thoughts, John. The first is your closing statements; I agree totally that rigid sessions with limited audience participation turns what could be an important dialogue into a sales pitch for narrow positions. I’m afraid if I had been present, I’d have found it difficult to remain. It’s unfortunately all too similar to most of the webinars offered these days: token Q&A portions and too much sort of veiled sales pitches by the facilitators regarding the sponsor’s products or services. Frankly, any corporate-sponsored webinars are unlikely to worth my time -AND I’m retired!!!

    The second thought relates to what I’ve been calling “local Education Communities” – groups of educators, parents, and interested citizens willing to engage in identifying and understanding local issues and the to plan, implement, and assess “better alternatives” to address those local issues. To me at least, local education reform that doesn’t acknowledge and address other local issues AND doesn’t involve local motivated people (and, yes, they are always a part of all local communities) will have little chance to succeed.


  8. There does, indeed, seem to be a confusion of symptoms and problems – and it’s at many, many levels. Comparing poverty in the U.S. with India or China, for example, or even with Turkey or Spain, ignores the relative isolation of the poor – both within cultures and across nations and economies. Poverty is ALWAYS a relative measure: a kid from a $20,000/year family in Darien is POOR; where that same family, linked with churches, jobs, and aspirations in New Orleans, could be solid middle class. Poverty is a multiple measure of income, isolation, culture, and access, and a host of other factors often idiosyncratic to the aspirations of a person, family, or community, and pretending it is a single problem is as absurd as pretending that a schoolhouse is a sufficient solution.

    And, by the way, issues of two parent families are more ironic than “Ed” observes: is it coincidence that states fighting gay marriage have exploding ratios of single parent low income families? Ha!

    Yet your observation is particularly acute and poignant that Romney simplified a solution rather than observed a problem: that was the “problem” with his administration in Massachusetts. The “problem” of poor student performance in schools is a symptom of some of many conditions that family or child may bring or build in that schoolhouse. Probably the greatest of those problems is a sense of despair and exclusion, leading to boredom, resignation, and failure of self, peers, and others. Expecting a despairing teacher population to solve such problems in their students is as absurd as expecting the wealthy to imagine more access to more wealth for more people. We can solve what we see, and too often we narrow our range of vision to only those circumstances that our solutions permit. Such selectivity doesn’t make Romney,, or Klein, or Rhee, or even the AFT “bad guys,” just a little more limited than their vision admits. The challenge for teachers – and teachers of teachers – is in breaking through ideology and other barriers to identifying an individual child’s understanding of a problem and its solution. Too many of the NBC “solutions” ignored that challenge and, if anything, reified – or even magnified – that problem.


  9. I was very disappointed in this. With sponsors like Exxon and the Gates Foundation, the voices that needed to be heard were not invited to the table. The facebook site was even more disappointing. I would post comments about problems with charter schools (from personal experience) regarding lack of parent participation and refusal to enroll students with disabilities, Foster & Homeless youth and English Language Learners. My comments were deleted several times. I was not disrespectful or nasty – just stating a truth that was not on their agenda.

    It was stilted and failed to show real parent involvement from PTA, Parents Across America or personal stories from those trying to SAVE public education from being sucked dry by charter business organizations. Now that public education funds have become an easy “low-hanging fruit” for these business folks, any discussion of policy that doesn’t include “reform” involving union-busting and destruction of our educational system as we know it is left off the table.

    This was not a true reflection of what most families across America want from our educational system. Featuring that awful “Won’t Back Down” fantasy that was financed by charter money, was a slap in the face to all who care about keeping our public schools public.


  10. Good to hear teachers say that those kids who have parents who come to back to school night will succeed and those who don’t have a less chance of succeeding. That is my belief as well. What does the science say? Has anyone ever done a study on this?

    I whole-heartedly disagree with your assertion that the teachers are saying that great teachers and great schools do not make a difference. What they are saying is that good parenting makes a difference. Great teachers/great schools make a difference and great parents make a difference. The two are not diametrically opposed. In fact, both are essential for progress. You are setting up a dichotomy where none exists.


  11. I’m confused by your strong reaction to the Massachusetts teachers’ answer to Romney. He specifically asked them what set one child apart from another child, so the idea that there are differences even before teaching comes into play is inherent in the question itself. Moreover, your other comments show that you believe this to be true as well, so I’m not sure why teachers should pretend otherwise. It’s not clear to me what kind of answer would have been acceptable to you.

    If you asked students what made one teacher better than another, would you then use their answer to imply that they didn’t think they had any responsibility themselves?


    • Fair questions/responses from Lasker and Ruth. I did not mean to discount the role of parents, who are their children’s principal teachers. I was inferring the teachers’ apparent acceptance of the ‘inevitability’ of the outcomes, and to Governor Romney’s apparent lack of curiosity and his failure to engage. I wasn’t there, of course, but I would prefer teachers who said something about the toughest challenge being the kids whose parents aren’t engaged, which might have prompted Governor Romney to explore what schools and teachers can do.
      If you have seen my recent book, The Influence of Teachers, you may recall the chapter about my own teaching and the pain I felt trying to help one particular boy whose parents were abusive alcoholics. My heart wanted to cut him slack, but my professional instincts ruled, and I did not. I saw him at his HS reunion 40 years later. To my surprise, he remembered how tough I had been on him regarding papers—and he thanked me.


  12. It is the purpose of public education to produce students conditioned to accept their role in an industrial society and clip easily into the cast system that industry has created. The purpoes of schools ought to be to promote intellectual independence and critical thought, students should be taught how to learn not what to learn. They should be able to make mean meaning out of experience rather than forced to simply embrace the dysfunctional epistemology of the core curriculum. How to learn rather than what to learn.


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