NBC’s Education Nation summit placed an at-times harsh spotlight on the nation’s public schools in two-and-a-half days of panel sessions that featured a little bit of everything. On Sept. 29, NBC released a video recapping the three-day summit, which included remarks by NSBA Executive Director Anne L. Bryant on reforming teacher tenure.
The ambitious multimedia event, streamed live on the web and shown in excerpts on NBC News and the conglomerate’s multiple cable channels, drew a who’s who of star power from education, politics, and entertainment, complete with bickering, tears, posturing, and, ultimately, wary-but-determined hope.
Did anyone get off their pre-established soapboxes? Not really. Will it result in lasting change? The jury’s still out. Did it pay attention to a deserving if not the deserving issue of the 21st century? Absolutely.
Overall, the sessions I saw except for one notable exception generally were balanced. The events touched on math/science performance, the global economy, the need for highly qualified teachers, the battles between reformers and unions, and, especially, the plight of low-income minority students in high-need urban schools.
On that front, it was not anything new or revolutionary. But then again, the issues are not new.
One of my biggest fears was that the event would be a two-plus day infomercial for “Waiting for Superman,” the new documentary that I have very mixed feelings about. And those fears were not allayed on Sunday, when the film was shown under the tent in Rockefeller Center to an invitation-only crowd of 300 that stuck around for a panel session featuring director Davis Guggenheim, Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers, Chancellor Michelle Rhee of Washington, D.C.’s public schools, and Geoffrey Canada of the Harlem Children’s Zone.
You can’t help but be impressed by Canada, whose fervent desire, entrepreneurial spirit, and outright chutzpah have led to a great success story in one of the toughest areas of the country. I also appreciated the fact that he went out of his way to note that charters are public schools, some traditional public schools work as well as his, and the crisis we face is one we all should embrace.
The Rhee/Weingarten battles, which continued throughout the summit, became tiresome, as did the relentless bashing/undermining of the work of teachers’ unions. I will never go down as the biggest fan of unions, but it was nice to see Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter come to Weingarten’s defense with regard to contract negotiations.
Speaking of Duncan, the man is everywhere. I have never seen an education secretary be so passionate about getting his message whether you agree with it or not out to the public. And Nutter provided a nice counterbalance to D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, whose allegiance to Rhee was a factor but not the sole factor in losing his bid for re-election earlier this month.
If there was one group that was underrepresented, it was school board members.
NSBA Executive Director Anne L. Bryant was featured on the closing panel that aired Tuesday, and NSBA President Earl Rickman was in attendance. However, only a handful of school board members attended, and they represented other groups, such as parent organizations that were invited to the summit.
That fact wasn’t lost on Andres Alonso, chief executive officer of Baltimore City Public Schools. Speaking at a session titled “Change Agents: How do we reinvent the status quo at all levels?” he pointed out that no school board members were on the panel and only two were in the audience.
“They should be here discussing these issues,” Alonso said. “Reform in the absence of the board of education is problematic.”
Alonso said the board’s work in Baltimore is “some of the reason we’ve been effective.” He noted a time early in his tenure when the board supported his plan to close underutilized schools, even though he received a no-confidence vote from the union.
“I told them, This is what I can predict what will happen,’ and it did,” Alonso said. “Throughout everything, with the vote of no confidence from the union, the board’s support was huge. Even though there was some contention behind closed doors, ultimately their support was huge.”
Amen to that.
Sound bites from the three-day session:
President Obama, from Today Show interview: “Part of the challenge, I think, for the entire country is to understand that how well we do economically, whether jobs are created here, high-end jobs to support families and support the future of the American people, is going to depend on whether or not we can do something about these schools.”
Tom Brokaw, prior to an interview with Education Secretary Arne Duncan: “The private sector has an enormous stake in our success
especially as we operate in a global environment. It’s a rising tide around the world. Do we become part of it or do we become submerged by what is going on elsewhere?”
Andres Alonso, chief executive officer of Baltimore Public Schools, on reforming his district: “This is incredibly hard work. It requires that we all work together, and I don’t mean in a kumbaya way, but understanding that it’s incredibly hard.
There’s not a single city in America that’s doing their job right. The question is, can we make fast progress that puts us on that pathway?”
Rep. George Miller, chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee: “This has reaffirmed what we know. We need to change and dramatically improve our education system.
It’s happening in some places, but not across the nation. We’re caught somewhere between the 19th and the 21st century.”
Brian Williams, NBC Nightly News Anchor: “This is a national issue. It’s very close to a national security issue. When did we lose the threat? When do you think we decided we could make this anything less than a top priority?”
Joel Klein, New York City schools chancellor: “This is a political business we are in, and the status quo will always have fierce defenders. I have to pay math and physical education teachers the same thing, and as a result I have a shortage of math teachers. When you truly professionalize teaching and have true competition
I think we’ll move the system in a way where teachers find it much more congenial and exciting. If you don’t shoot for excellence, you will come up with mediocrity every time.”
Duncan on passing the buck: “There is much more common ground than people realize. Unions have to move. Superintendents need to move. Students need to move. Let’s stop blaming. Let’s stop pointing fingers.”
Washington, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty: “To go forward people are going to have to be willing to take political risks. These kids cannot wait; one year is too long.”
Gwen Samuels, Connecticut parent: “We’re here today because we are in crisis. You’ll call us for an ice cream social but you won’t call me because my child has a better pathway to prison than to college.”
Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the Chief State School Officers: “Are we asking the right question? Is this about fixing schools, something created in a time past under very different circumstances? Or are we about educating all children to a high level?”
Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter on changing schools: “It can happen. It takes a whole community approach. You have to be involved. You have to be empowered. It’s a checking of massive egos at the door. I don’t run the schools. I don’t have authority over them, but I feel the responsibility for them. Education is economic development.”
Miller: “This country talks about how they want a moon shot. They want a Sputnik moment. Folks, this is it.”
Words and phrases used by speakers ad nauseum: Change agents, achievement gaps, tipping point, status quo, void, crisis.