NPR Education ‘Hub’ Launches Amid Challenging Times

By Mark Walsh — May 28, 2014 4 min read
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NPR last week launched its new education effort, the one funded by recent grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Wallace Foundation.

The May 19 launch of NPR Ed, though, was overshadowed by the radio network’s announcement the next day that it was laying off 28 staff members and canceling “Tell Me More,” a midday show geared toward people of color.

The developments were unrelated, but perhaps emblematic of the divergent winds whipping public broadcasting. The Gates and Wallace funding was part of $17 million in grants from four philanthropies announced in December to deepen NPR’s coverage of certain subjects. But the Washington-based network (which no longer goes by National Public Radio) has been battling budget deficits for several years.

The new education effort is both an expanded team of reporters and editors and an online “hub.”

I caught up with Steve Drummond, the editor of NPR Ed, last week at the Education Writers Association in Nashville, Tenn., and in a phone interview afterwards. Just what is NPR Ed, I wanted to know.

“First, it’s a pretty major expansion from the three people combined covering education mostly on the radio, to a total of nine people doing it across all platforms,” said Drummond, a former Education Week editor who has worked at NPR in various positions since 2000, including time as a senior editor on flagship “All Things Considered.”

Secondly, he said, the effort will aim at looking at “how learning happens.”

“That’s a little bit different than some of the education policy debates that dominate a lot of coverage,” he said. “The main thing we can bring is a storytelling ethos.”

As Drummond put it in a blog post on the NPR Ed site last week, the education team “spent a lot of time talking about who we want to be and what kind of stories we want to tell. Stories about learning, stories about teachers and professors and students and principals and parents. Stories that take place in classrooms and communities.”

What they don’t want is “incremental policy developments. Dense debates over obscure funding formulas. News conferences. In other words, we don’t think you’re coming to NPR Ed to hear sound bites from members of Congress or from the alphabet soup of organizations that fill our inboxes with their latest reports.”

And Drummond said that discussion crystallized into one headline-like sentence in his head: “One thing we’re not about is, ‘Whatever It Is That Secretary Duncan Said Today.’”

So Drummond himself noted the irony that he found himself on a stage at the education writers’ conference at Vanderbilt University last Tuesday with none other than U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Drummond conducted a question-and-answer session with the secretary, who has been a regular at the EWA events.

Drummond pressed Duncan on the Common Core State Standards and what his legacy might be as secretary. Duncan stressed the continuing fight for educational equity in this country (the appearance was just days after the 60th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education desegregation decision), and he largely managed to avoid making news before a room full of journalists.

Drummond’s NPR Ed team includes on-air education correspondents Claudio Sanchez and Eric Westervelt, bloggers Juana Summers and Anya Kamenetz, and various producers, editors, and “visual journalists.”

NPR Ed’s first big product at its launch last week was “The Best Commencement Speeches, Ever,” a searchable database of more than 300 such addresses, from TV producer Aaron Sorkin at Syracuse University to activist physician Zubin Damania at the University of San Francisco. (Yes, they were alphabetized by first name.)

The database went viral amid the recent debate over withdrawn invitations to controversial commencement speakers.

Since then, the blog has touched on topics including Mister Rogers, social media policies, and college rankings.

On Monday, the blog published the “Common Core FAQ,” a detailed “frequently asked questions” feature about the educational standards.

“So, what is the relationship between the Common Core and my kid’s math homework?” is one such question. The blog riffs off the comedian Louis C.K.'s recent diatribes against the common core, but it notes that the standards “don’t specify the use of curricula, textbooks, workbooks or lesson plans—let alone particular math problems.”

Drummond said that in addition to the common core, two other areas of focus for NPR Ed will be technology in the K-12 classroom, and the dramatic changes in the way higher education is being delivered in this country.

Listeners (or perhaps they should just be referred to as audience members) are increasingly coming to NPR not through the radio waves, but through the Internet, blogs, and mobile apps. One model is NPR’s Planet Money site, which focuses on the economy.

“We hope to build on those people,” Drummond said, “however they come to us.”

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