NBC Says Education Nation Is ‘Evolving’

By Mark Walsh — October 08, 2014 3 min read
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As many people have realized by now, there will be no NBC News Education Nation “summit” this fall.

“After about four years, we had to take a step back and say, how are we going to evolve?” Soraya Gage, the general manager of Education Nation and of NBC Learn, the network’s educational products arm.

For the past four years, NBC News brought together education advocates, teachers, business leaders, and others to discuss some of the hottest topics in the field over a few days in New York City. Concurrent with each year’s event, most of the network’s news shows carried various reports on education.

Some critics took aim at the choice of participants (more on that below), but the NBC News effort, funded by foundations and corporate sponsors, was a major investment of time and attention on education over multiple platforms, from the in-person town hall meeting to TV shows with audiences in the millions.

In an interview this week, Gage said NBC News was proud of the attention it brought to the education issue with the summit gatherings and the special news programming.

“But we felt we had to evolve it,” she said. “We did it for four years at a very high level on the event side. ... We were thinking we really need to engage a wider audience.”

Focus Turning to Parents

The main summit sessions (the last one was held a year ago at the New York Public Library) came under criticism in some quarters for promoting the “corporate model of measure-punish-close schools-fire teachers-TFA, etc.,” as the education historian Diane Ravitch put it in a post on her blog last year.

Ravitch refused an invitation to sit in the audience for the 2013 summit. This year, she has co-opted the NBC title for a panel discussion this Saturday she is calling the “first-ever PUBLIC Education Nation.” It is sponsored by the Network for Public Education and will begin at 11:30 a.m. at the Brooklyn New School/Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies.

The NBC effort’s sponsors last year included ExxonMobil, Pearson, University of Phoenix, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Some have speculated that changes in Education Nation have resulted from an end to such sponsorship support or changes in leadership at NBC News and at NBC Universal. (Comcast Co. completed its acquisition of the network in 2013.)

Gage said neither was the case. “Some of our funders wanted to keep funding us,” she said.

She said NBC News remains committed to coverage of education, with correspondent Rehema Ellis covering the beat on the broadcast side and Nona Willis Aronowitz covering it for

I mentioned to Gage that the Education Nation site looked a bit dried up, with the most recent “commentary” post published more than a month ago. She said newer elements like the Parent Toolkit have active blogs and Twitter chats.

Gage said Education Nation is “evolving” to focus ontwo key topics—first, parental involvement, and next, early-childhood education.

The Parent Toolkit is the main focus for parental involvement. The Toolkit site features “growth charts” and tips for parents on the academic and health and wellness development of their children. NBC News national correspondent Kate Snow blogged on the Parent Toolkit site last month about “the importance of being an advocate for your child,” a personal account involving her two children.

Andrew Tyndall, who analyzes network TV news at his blog The Tyndall Report, was critical of the Education Nation summit last year, suggesting it promoted education reform proposals of a stripe backed by the Gates Foundation, Michelle Rhee, and the film “Waiting for ‘Superman.’”

In an email interview this week, he said, “Sponsoring the civic-minded summits runs contrary to NBC News’ core mission, which is a journalistic one—in other words paying attention to what is newsworthy and controversial.”

Gage said NBC News remains proud of the summits and other elements of Education Nation to date, but the focus will be shifting from the policy debate to a more consumer-oriented approach.

“The people at NBC are tremendously committed to this,” she said.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.