Education Nation

05 Oct Education Nation

Last week I got to attend the Education Nation event hosted by NBC News.  A few years ago we worked with NBC News on a project using games, social networking and media archives as a platform for learning.  Jason and I have been writing about this experience to distill lessons for both big media and education, and that got me a press pass to the event to check it out in person.

The event started out with a teacher town hall on Sunday afternoon…

Actually, the event started several weeks prior, online.  With a significant web presence, and a Facebook page with well over 10,000 “likes”, much was known and said about the event before it even happened.  The sites proudly raised important issues in education, and touted the many different voices that they attracted to discuss them.  Critics categorized the event as a showcase of agenda-driven reformers and billionaire philanthropists.  The debate was so heated that Education Nation shifted their Facebook site to moderated traffic, which caused a much smaller splinter group page to pop up.  The debate centered on two big issues:  First, that there weren’t enough teachers represented in the agenda.  Second, that there are plenty of successes among traditional district schools, and the Education Nation panels were disproportionately favoring the charter school movement.

So back to Sunday, the teacher town hall, attended by hundreds of teachers, was a way to bring more teachers into the mix.  There were panels (astutely moderated by Brian Williams) and discussions, but most of the memorable moments came from teachers in the audience.  Unfortunately the focus continually returned to the issues raised on the website and didn’t tightly address the array of issues from the panels, leaving the feeling of raising, but not addressing many issues.  The debates around charters vs. district schools, unions, school day/year length, and tenure all surfaced again and again.  All important issues, but even the teachers there disagreed on core values.  One younger district public school teacher noted that she didn’t care about tenure, possibly representing a new workforce generation that has expectations of geographic and career mobility not present in the workforce (not just teaching) a generation ago.  Nevertheless, the tone was set and these controversies would be felt throughout the summit.

The evening event was a showing of Waiting for Superman, followed by a panel discussion with the “stars” of the movie – director Davis Guggenheim, Harlem Children’s Zone CEO Geoffery Canada, Washington D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee and Randi Weingarten from the teacher’s union.  There is much to be said about the movie (positive and negative), but the discussion afterwards felt somewhat encouraging – perhaps there is a common ground that both sides were working towards.  While Guggenheim noted that charter schools were just part of the answer, that message doesn’t come through clearly in the movie.

The next day started with the now famous trio of Marc Zuckerberg, Chris Christie and Cory Booker discussing the $100 million (now in legal doubt) donation to the Newark Schools.  They were quickly ushered off stage as Tom Brokaw announced that the last minute structure we were in (a tent built over the Rockefeller Plaza skating rink in lieu of a custom dome that didn’t work out) was leaking in the heavy rain and needed to be evacuated.  That sent the event into a bit of disarray.  The panels throughout the next two days were rescheduled into studios in 30 Rockefeller Plaza.  This had the amusing result of getting to see Tom Brokaw interview Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan in the Saturday Night Live studio. Unfortunately Duncan didn’t say anything that any of the SNL actors couldn’t have improvised their way through, repeating the same old talking points without really engaging the questions of Brokaw or anyone else.

Across the other panels populated with leaders in business, government and education several themes emerged.  There should be greater teacher accountability but we need good measures.  Schools need to prepare students for the modern workplace.  School day and year length need to be reconsidered.  Parents and teachers are both critical.  The list goes on.  But one phrase I heard often was “We know what works”.  The corollary is that we know what works, and we just need to do more of that in schools.  The “what works” referred to the successful charters like KIPP and Geoffrey Canada’s schools.  I agree that those schools are doing some good work and have been successful in replicating their models.  But I don’t think we have actually learned “what works”.  Research on charter schools is mixed – many schools fail and those that succeed do so for particular populations in certain dimensions.  We don’t really know what works about them.  But we do know that there are a lot of kids in need of higher quality education, and we should be exploring all options for providing that.

From this event it is also apparent that we may be at a critical time both in terms of need and in terms of interest about this issue.  While critics may rail against particulars of Education Nation, it is shining a powerful spotlight on an issue that nearly everyone expresses interest in, but not enough is done about.  They certainly “kicked the hornet’s nest,” on a national scale (just visit the Facebook page linked above if you want to see the tip of the iceberg) and that is probably a good place to start.