Education Nation IV

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{{1}}, generally organized around the theme “What It Takes.”  I made it to 15 in person{{2}} 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{{3}} 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{{4}} 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:


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.{{5}}


[[1]] 1. Plus three Innovation Competition segments and a bunch of breaks.[[1]]

[[2]] 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.[[2]]

[[3]]3. Joel Klein of Amplify, Jose Ferreira of Knewton, Diane Tavenner of Summit (Charter) Public Schools and Joel Rose of New Classrooms Innovation Partners.[[3]]

[[4]]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).[[4]]

[[5]]5. If I am invited……[[5]]

10 thoughts on “Education Nation IV

  1. John,
    Yes, as it has done from the beginning, NBC News has failed to showcase the vary real debate over the future of our schools, through its soft lens focus on “what works.” Here is a partial list of the debates we SHOULD be having in the public arena:

    Is closing schools in African American and Latino neighborhoods the path to success? This should include representatives from these communities who can speak about what is happening there. From Chicago, student Asean Johnson, community leaders like Jitu Brown, union leaders like Karen Lewis. Parents, students and educators from Philadelphia, where the governor has cut $1 billion from the schools.

    What is happening to teacher evaluations when they are tied to test scores? How are the systems put in place as a result of Race to the Top working out in places like Hillsborough, Florida, Memphis, Tennessee, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. How about having Linda Darling-Hammond report on her research. Have teachers speak about their experiences.

    What can we expect from Common Core assessments? Teachers, students and principals from New York should be heard from. The researchers at FairTest have been studying the new Common Core tests, and could share their views.Carol Burris, New York’s principal of the year, would be a great choice.

    Should special ed students be required to take the same standardized tests as others, as Secretary Duncan insists? Should their schools and teachers be evaluated based on their scores?

    What is happening to Early Childhood education? What do the Common Core standards and associated curriculum and tests expect of young children? Nancy Carlsson-Paige could offer some insights, along with kindergarten and first grade teachers who have been implementing the new programs.

    Online Schooling: Innovation or Money Pit? Take a closer look at the virtual charters that are receiving thousands of dollars per student in public funds. Are they delivering results? Interview Gary Miron, who has done the research to find out.

    Challenges for Charters: Are they delivering on their promise? Should we focus on “serving the strivers” and let the rest fend for themselves? What is the story with attrition and selective admissions? Researchers Julian Vasquez-Heilig, and Bruce Baker could offer some insights on the results they are seeing.

    The School to Prison pipeline: Are schools with “zero-tolerance” discipline policies putting students in jeopardy with the criminal justice system? What is the effect of exit exams and other high stakes tests? What are the alternatives to suspension being explored in some systems?

    A critical look at Teach For America as it enters its 23rd year. This summer a debate opened up within the organization – let’s hear from Gary Rubinstein and some of the alumni of the program, as well as researchers who can tease apart the effects of teacher turnover and attrition, and the impact of alternative entry programs like TFA.

    Veteran teachers: Treasures or Liabilities? A recent post by Steven Singiser reveals that in many schools, teacher turnover is actually seen as a positive thing, and veteran teachers are viewed with suspicion. Is the veteran teacher a treasured source of expertise? Or an expensive albatross?

    Education Nation continues to feature softball interviews with Brian Williams, who two years ago went so far as to say “The Gates Foundation… It’s their facts that we’re going to be referring to often to help along our conversation.”

    This program is a facsimile of dialogue, a simulation of rigorous discourse. It is an indication of the sorry state of corporate journalism. The real debate is occurring, and even the New York Times best seller list shows that. But NBC missed it this year. I am sure Diane Ravitch, and many more, will be available for future debates, if given the chance. The ball is in NBC’s court.


  2. Greetings John,

    Besides poverty the other elephant in the room is pedagogy. How has the science and art of teaching been affected by high stakes testing mandates? Your discussion of AFT’s study on test prep is the tip of the iceberg.

    Vast numbers of teachers are compelled to utilize scripted curricula in order to prepare children for standardized tests. Student autonomy to delve into time sensitive ideas and interests is quite rare.

    There is deep dissatisfaction in the teaching profession now and morale is low. Teacher autonomy has been usurped. We have become a nation with a national pedagogy. That pedagogy is radical behaviorism.

    Clyde Gaw


  3. “…or any other questions whose answers might afflict the comfortable.”

    Don’t think it’s so much about afflicting the comfortable as afflicting the profitable.


  4. After century of didactic pedagogy we could invest in dialogic instruction that encourages intellectual autonomy and critical thinking rather than conditioning. How to learn rather than what to learn. If the schools are intended to support a democracy why are still running a voc ed system? Are the schools designed to only develop workers?


  5. While there has been SOME improvement over the years, the flaws apparent in the very first Education Nation still persist.

    Even thought there are now some skunks at the garden party, in the form of voices of those who do not buy into the conventional “wisdom” fueling the “reform” movement, or what Pasi Sahlberg has rightly labeled the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM – an appropriate acronym), the likes of Joshua Starr and teacher Jesse Hagopian are the exceptions. There are FEW voices of classroom educators, or even of students, current and recent, who speak cogently about what has been happening to their education, how the “reform” movement does NOT meet their needs or interests, but rather serves the interests of politicians who demagogue the issue and those who benefit financially from GERM, and that definitely includes PEARSON.

    Why have Amanda Ripley and not recent student Nikhil Goyal?

    If you are having journalists, why not the likes of Valerie Strauss, whose Answer Sheet Blog at the Washington Post is one of the few places where voices opposed to GERM regularly get a hearing?

    Yes, Diane Ravitch should have been featured from the very start. So should perhaps our most knowledgeable scholar about teaching, Linda Darling-Hammond.

    Why not have a panel consisting solely of the current and some former National Teachers of the Year? Perhaps then we could get Anthony Mullen among others. After all, NTOY is supposed to serve as the voice of America’s Teachers. Are not a couple of NTOYs more relevant than M. Night Shyamalan?

    With the emphasis on testing, why not bring in knowledgeable psychometricians, like Ed Haertel, or Eva Baker, or James Popham, or Bill Linn? Could it be because they are so critical of how we are misusing test?

    Why not bring in superintendents who have been outspoken for years on the damage GERM has been doing, like John Kuhn of Texas?

    I did not watch any of it this year, in part because of my own teaching schedule, in part because of the personal matter of caring for a spouse dealing with cancer.

    But I also did not watch because I have seen enough over the past few ears to know that I would be frustrated – you rightly note that Bush was not challenged. Unfortunately, he should be challenged not just on the statement he did not answer, but what his “chiefs for change” have been doing. Perhaps he can be asked to explain why when given the chance voters REJECT the people he so values, as those in Indiana did in picking Glenda Ritz over Tony Bennett.

    I hope you will continue to challenge conventional wisdom John. I hope you will use your megaphone, both of your blog and of your television work, to help make Americans aware that there are real alternatives to GERM. Ravitch discusses a number of those in her book. There are superintendents like Josh Starr who can talk about Montgomery County’s teacher evaluation system. There are principals, teachers, parents, and students who can describe what REALLY makes a difference – and trust me, it is not doing well on external tests that makes the real difference in the lives of students. It is first and foremost relationships.

    Perhaps one panel at the next Education Nation should consist of a conversation with just one man, Parker Palmer, author of The Courage To Teach, which is the book I have given those student teachers I have supervised.

    It is not too late to save public education from the infection of GERM, but time is running short.

    We need to change, but GERM is a doubling down on policies going back 30 years to A Nation at Risk, continuing through Goals 2000 through No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.

    Unless and until we are willing to step back and completely rethink what we are doing, we will spend billions, and while test scores may go up not have fundamentally improved public education.


    • I like to think that some of the folks with decision-making power will hear of your and other suggestions and feel the pressure. NBC News has a lot of pride in its professionalism; just how much we will see going forward.


  6. The successes in American education identified by Ravitch, and now suddenly acknowledged by NBC, did not just suddenly happen. They reflect incremental growth that has been occurring all along for many, many years, while being denied by conventional shock doctrine and the plethora of repeated “the sky is falling” edicts issued by politicians and reported, without question, in the mainstream media. Others in education previously reported them though, including Berliner and Biddle in the 90s and Bracey in the 2000s, but they were discounted and ignored.

    If anything, this growth continued to occur in spite of school “reform” efforts that were externally imposed by non-educator politicians, not because of them. No doubt, such nuances are likely to escape the fine grained analysis of investigative reporting, since that practice is virtually nonexistent in journalism anymore. Plus, in this culture, no one wants to officially give credit to veteran teachers for their expertise and diligence, because that’s antithetical to the “failing schools” “bad teachers” narrative that was perpetuated long ago as a result of the “A Nation at Risk” propaganda in 1983. All along, the problem has been poverty, and, sadly, despite our country now having the highest poverty level of developed nations, with nearly 25% of our children poor, poverty is still being ignored.


  7. John Merrow – I’ve been interviewed by Brian Williams as part of the Teacher Town Hall in Ed. Nation #2. The teachers that appeared on stage got to mingle with producers and Mrs. Gates and others in the Green Room and we were asked individually and together our suggestions to make the whole week better. I wasn’t privy to every discussion, but every one I was part of we were VERY emphatic about the disconnect of having no real educators or those with other points of view on panels during the week, as well as most of the issues raised by you and others above. When we’d ask specific questions about why that wasn’t happening (since they had been blasted for the same reasons after #1) they were very uncomfortable and would not answer directly and seemed almost embarrassed and would make knowing glances with each other (the producers and other NBC folk there). It was very apparent to other co-interviewees and I that this was not a topic for discussion or even acknowledgement.


    • Virtually every segment in each Education Nation should have been preceded with the disclaimer, “And now a word from our sponsors…”

      NBC is a sell out that has been bought and paid for by Gates et al.


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