Beginning Sunday, Sept. 26, NBC will be broadcasting a national "Summit" on education, which it has titled Education Nation. There will be panel discussions, an exhibit hall, and it will begin with an electronic town hall with Brian Williams, broadcast live at 12 Noon EDT (so much for people on the West Coast who might be attending religious services). NBC hopes to have several hundred thousand teachers signed up for that town hall.
In theory, one might think what NBC is doing is good - it is a focus on education as a national priority. In practice there are some serious concerns which have already been expressed publicly as well as in numerous communications to people responsible for organizing the event.
Perhaps the most significant concern is this - there are many voices being included, but the voices of parents and teachers are surprisingly not considered a significant part of setting the agenda.
Please keep reading for more details.
On September 13, NBC issued a press release in which it announced the confirmed speakers to date. Here is that list as presented:
• Maria Bartiromo: Anchor of CNBC's "Closing Bell with Maria Bartiromo" and Anchor and Managing Editor of "Wall Street Journal Report with Maria Bartiromo"
• Michael Bloomberg: Mayor, City of New York
• Cory Booker: Mayor, City of Newark, New Jersey
• Phil Bredesen: Governor, State of Tennessee
• Steven Brill: co-founder of Journalism Online, CourtTV and American Lawyer magazine and author of "The Rubber Room" In The New Yorker
• Tom Brokaw: NBC News Special Correspondent
• Geoffrey Canada: CEO & President of Harlem Children's Zone Project
• David Coleman: Founder & CEO, Student Achievement Partners; Contributing Author of the Common Core Standards
• Ann Curry: News Anchor, "Today" and Anchor, "Dateline NBC"
• Arne Duncan: US Secretary of Education
• Byron Garrett: CEO of the National Parent Teacher Association (PTA)
• Allan Golston, President, US Program, The Gates Foundation
• Jennifer M. Granholm: Governor, State of Michigan
• David Gregory: Moderator, "Meet the Press"
• Reed Hastings: Founder & CEO of Netflix
• Lester Holt: Anchor, "NBC Nightly News," Weekend Edition and Co-Host, "Today" Weekend Edition
• Walter Isaacson: President & CEO of the Aspen Institute
• Joel Klein: Chancellor of New York City Schools
• Wendy Kopp: CEO and Founder of Teach for America
• John Legend: Musician; Founder of the Show Me Campaign
• Jack Markell: Governor, State of Delaware
• Gregory McGinity: Managing Director of Policy, The Broad Education Foundation
• Andrea Mitchell: NBC News Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent and Host, "Andrea Mitchell Reports"
• Janet Murguia: President & CEO of the National Council of La Raza (NCLR)
• Michael Nutter: Mayor, City of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
• Bill Pepicello, Ph.D.: President of University of Phoenix
• Sally Ride: First Female Astronaut; Vice-chair of Change the Equation
• Michelle Rhee: Chancellor, District of Columbia Public School System of Washington,D.C.
• Edward Rust: Chairman & CEO of State Farm Insurance Companies
• Gwen Samuel, CT delegate to Mom Congress
• Barry Schuler: Former CEO of AOL
• Sterling Speirn: CEO, Kellogg Foundation
• Margaret Spellings: Former US Secretary of Education
• Antonio Villaraigosa: Mayor, City of Los Angeles, California
• Randi Weingarten: President of American Federation of Teachers (AFT-CLO)
• Brian Williams: Anchor and Managing Editor "NBC Nightly News"
For many of us, that list was more than a little unbalanced, and illustrates much of what is wrong with discussions of education policy in this nation. There are many corporate executives, there are people from educational policy organizations, there are politicians, there are foundations. There are journalists. Many of these lack any real knowledge about education, or are well known for pushing a particular view of education to the exclusion of any other.
There are more than 30 names. Of these two are from parent organizations, and there is one representative from the smaller of the two national teachers unions.
Where are the voices of parents?
Where are the voices of those actually teaching?
I have been privy to an exchange of emails between some notable people who raised these concerns and those responsible for recruitment and outreach.
I know that there were strong urgings to reach out to teacher leaders. As far as I can tell, most of those whose names were suggested - and emails were provided - were NOT contacted from the side of NBC. I know, because mine was a name on that list.
I would not necessarily expect to be included on such a list. My one recent teaching award is probably not of a great enough significance to justify inviting me, and my feelings are not hurt.
But why is the first name we see the head of a for-profit university, yet we see no current classroom teachers?
Let's take the presence of the University of Phoenix, and several of the other people on that list. Perhaps it can be explained in part by looking at the sponsors of the event. You can find the list on the website, but let me save you the time:
University of Phoenix
Members Project American Express
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation
W.K. Kellog Foundation
The commitment that NBC is making is notable. The corporate and foundation commitment might be commendable. But I cannot resist making some remarks about that list.
About the Members Project, they have funded two education initiatives this year, Donorschoose.org and Jumpstart for Young Children, based on the votes of those who have American Express Cards. They do not have a person among the speakers, which is probably appropriate.
University of Phoenix is a SPONSOR - and for this they get one of the speaking slots?
The foundations of Gates and Broad have been putting a lot of money into education. They have thereby become major players, able to shape many policy initiatives to their perspective. Some of the efforts might be positive, but there has been a tendency for that point of view to crowd any that might be critical of their efforts, which include things such as Teach for America (note the presence of Wendy Kopp among the speakers, and remember that Michelle Rhee is a TFA alumna) and New Leaders for New Schools. Diane Ravitch uses the term "Billionaire Boys Club" to question the influence of such foundations upon American educational policy.
Why is Stephen Brill one of about thirty speakers and no classroom teacher is?
Why do we not have the voice of say the immediate past National Teacher of the Year, Anthony Mullen, or even the current National Teacher of the Year, Sarah Brown Wessling? To be NTOY one is not only an excellent teacher, but expected to serve as spokesperson for the nation's teachers. Surely one, or better both, of these fine teachers could have been included.
For those who are teachers and want to participate in the Town Hall, you can go to this link to learn more and to sign up.
I have not yet done so. I do not know if I will. I am unwilling to serve as passive wallpaper that can be used to claim support for an effort with which I have serious problems.
One can submit a question to be discussed. It is not clear to me how those questions will be screened. I worry that those that might challenge the underlying assumptions of the summit will be excluded.
I looked at the mission statement for Education Nation. It is appropriate to note our high dropout rate. As I have written before, I think the emphasis on international comparisons demonstrates a misunderstanding of what those comparisons represent. I find too great an emphasis on the economic purposes of education and a total lack of the role of education in preparing a person to be a citizen in a democratic republic. Given the importance of civic participation in a functioning democratic system, I immediately wondered why Sandra Day O'Connor was not an included speaker, given how hard she has worked to raise the issue of civic education?
It is nice that there is a president of a teachers union, albeit the smaller one. I know that the NEA president will be participating in one of the 11 announced panels. But teachers are not their unions. Some of us may even be union activists but feel that our unions do not address some of the real issues we believe need to be addressed. Having one union president and so many corporate types does not allow even for the raising of many of the concerns of teachers, which go far beyond issues of teacher pay and evaluation. I have read and heard that the presence of Randi may be to set her up as illustrative of teachers and their unions as obstructionist to real reform.
There are real issues in American education that need to be addressed. We can read about them in the mission statement. We can see that they are supposedly addressed in the panels.
Supposedly. But too many points of view are not included.
Why is there no representation from people who do Montessori work, which has been proven to be very effective?
Some of the organizations and individuals present have supported the work of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Why is there no representation from that organization. For example, why not invite Jolynn Tarwater, the current National Board Certified Teacher in Residence?
The National PTA organization should be included. It is good that Mom Congress has a representative. That is 2 there representing parents. Against that consider there are four mayors and three governors; and top executives of Netflix, the Aspen Institute, and State Farm Insurance, and the former CEO of AOL. Pray tell, why are these voices more important than those of parents?
Or perhaps we can look at those selected to represent the administrators of schools. We see Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee. They represent ONE viewpoint of how schools should be organized and run. And by the way, the data does not support that either has been all that successful, and in the case of Rhee her approach was just fairly strongly rejected in the primary defeat of her boss Mayor Adrian Fenty of Washington. There have been superintendents with notable success who take a far different approach to educational reform. Where for example is the likes of Carl Cohn, who had notable success in Long Beach, CA?
I cannot tell people how to approach this effort by NBC. I only know that I am skeptical. I may watch the town hall with teachers, but as of now I do not plan to sign up. I am unwilling to provide that kind of validation for something I viewed as at a minimum flawed, and at worst destructive of really addressing the needs of our schools and teachers.
I'd like you to imagine the following. Suppose we are going to have a national summit on health care. Do you not suppose that a substantial number of the voices included would be from professionals in health care, including doctors and nurses? Would you have 3 people with just the head of the AMA to represent doctors?
Or how about legal reform - would not lawyers scream if such a conference were organized without a substantial portion of the main participants being members of the profession representing the range of opinions within the legal field?
Why then is it when it comes to education that people think it is appropriate to have major discussions about education without fair inclusion of the voices of those who bear the greatest burden for the education of our children, the parents and the teachers?
I hope that despite the flaws I see in the organization of this effort some good comes out of it. I fear that it is yet another example of driving educational policy while excluding voices that should be a major part of the discussion. Perhaps the town hall will at least provide some audience for the concerns of teachers, if the questions addressed represent the full range of views and concerns.
I hope I am wrong.
I fear that I may not be.
I worry that this event will yet again mean that teachers - and parents - are excluded from meaningful participation in the shaping of educational policy.
Starting next week, we will see.
And there is time for NBC to work to provide greater balance than what we have so far seen.