I recently had a chance to cover NBC’s Education Nation summit, an event that at times uneasily mixed the obvious with the surreal and left me feeling both overwhelmed and optimistic at the same time.
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. On its own, the people gathered for this event would be enough to overwhelm. But after 2½ days of bickering, tears, posturing, and wary but determined hope, I was left fried.
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 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.
Canada is impressive. His fervent desire, entrepreneurial spirit, and outright chutzpah have led to a great success story — and an ever-present American Express commercial — in one of the toughest areas of the country. I 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 one group was underrepresented, it was school board members.
My executive director, Anne Bryant, was featured on the closing panel that aired Tuesday, and board President Earl Rickman also was at the meeting. 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 on "change agents," 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.”
Amen to that. It’s why the absence of school board members continues to disturb me, both for personal and professional reasons. For districts to be successful, school boards must be part of the conversation. I was — and am — very concerned that the constituency of my organization did not have fuller representation. Worse was the powers that be at NBC didn’t seem to care.
That said, you can’t help but be fired up about the future after what became a three-day pep rally to improve education in this country. I’ve always said that everyone involved in education knows what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and who should be part of the conversation. Where we disagree is on how to do it.
If we know what works in public education, then let’s just do it. Bickering between adults gets us nowhere.