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Education Nation, 2013: Will NBC News Use the Gates Foundation’s Facts Again? Or Can We Get a Real Dialogue Going?

By Anthony Cody — September 04, 2013 6 min read
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NBC News will be presenting, for the fourth time, several days of programming focused on education. Education Nation will take to the airwaves from October 6 to 8, broadcasting from the New York Public Library.

NBC News states the purpose of this project in this way:

Education Nation" seeks to create a thoughtful, well-informed dialogue with policymakers, thought-leaders, educators, parents and the public, in pursuit of the shared goal of providing every American with an opportunity to achieve the best education in the world. These discussions cover the challenges, potential solutions and innovations spanning the education landscape.

Once again educators are asking, “Will the full story be told? Will this news department feature the very real debate over the future of public education?”

Two years ago, Brian Williams opened Education Nation’s Teacher Town Hall event with an interview with Melinda Gates, saying:

Gates Foundation, one of the sponsors of this event, and the largest single funder of education anywhere in the world. It's their facts that we're going to be referring to often to help along our conversation.

This statement set the tone for the event. And it was in line with the previous year’s Education Nation, which heavily promoted the “stars” of “Waiting for Superman,” including Michelle Rhee and Bill Gates himself. That year, NBC went so far as to block me and others expressing differing views from the Education Nation Facebook page, though that was eventually lifted.

Education Nation has occasionally acknowledged the presence of different opinions, chiefly in the Teacher Town Hall. The panels of experts, however, are noteworthy for the absence of some of the leading voices questioning the central tenets of 21st century corporate education reform. At Education Nation 2011 there was a notable exception to this pattern, when Diane Ravitch was given the chance to debate Geoffrey Canada for thirty minutes. However, this year, the only invitation Ravitch has received is one to sit in the audience.

In two short weeks, Diane Ravitch’s new book, Reign of Error, the Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, will hit the stands and mailboxes. In this book, she systematically debunks what she calls the “hoax” of reform. If Education Nation is a genuine news program, it should not simply feature facts provided by the Gates Foundation. Many of those facts are not facts at all, as Ravitch’s new book will document.

If Education Nation is to deliver on its promise of a thoughtful, well-informed dialogue, it should feature both sides of the debate raging over the central issues in education. But Diane Ravitch has not been invited to participate, except as a member of the audience. Other experts with views differing from the Gates Foundation’s agenda have also been left out.

Here are some of the issues and independent experts that ought to be featured in a real dialogue:

Is closing schools in African American and Latino neighborhoods the path to success? This should include representatives from these communities who can speak about what is happening there. From Chicago, student Asean Johnson, community leaders like Jitu Brown, union leaders like Karen Lewis. Parents, students and educators from Philadelphia, where the governor has cut $1 billion from the schools.

What is happening to teacher evaluations when they are tied to test scores? How are the systems put in place as a result of Race to the Top working out in places like Hillsborough, Florida, Memphis, Tennessee, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. How about having Linda Darling-Hammond report on her research. Have teachers speak about their experiences.

What can we expect from Common Core assessments? Teachers, students and principals from New York should be heard from. The researchers at FairTest have been studying the new Common Core tests, and could share their views.Carol Burris, New York’s principal of the year, would be a great choice. Or Peter DeWitt, another great principal from New York.

Should special ed students be required to take the same standardized tests as others, as Secretary Duncan insists? Should their schools and teachers be evaluated based on their scores?

What is happening to Early Childhood education? What do the Common Core standards and associated curriculum and tests expect of young children? Nancy Carlsson-Paige could offer some insights, along with kindergarten and first grade teachers who have been implementing the new programs.

Online Schooling: Innovation or Money Pit? Take a closer look at the virtual charters that are receiving thousands of dollars per student in public funds. Are they delivering results? Interview Gary Miron, who has done the research to find out.

Challenges for Charters: Are they delivering on their promise? What is the story with attrition and selective admissions? Researchers Julian Vasquez-Heilig, and Bruce Baker could offer some insights on the results they are seeing.

The School to Prison pipeline: Are schools with “zero-tolerance” discipline policies putting students in jeopardy with the criminal justice system? What is the effect of exit exams and other high stakes tests? What are the alternatives to suspension being explored in some systems?

A critical look at Teach For America as it enters its 23rd year. This summer a debate opened up within the organization - let’s hear from Gary Rubinstein and some of the alumni of the program, as well as researchers who can tease apart the effects of teacher turnover and attrition, and the impact of alternative entry programs like TFA.

Veteran teachers: Treasures or Liabilities?
This recent post by Steven Singiser reveals that in many schools, teacher turnover is actually seen as a positive thing, and veteran teachers are viewed with suspicion. Is the veteran teacher a treasured source of expertise? Or an expensive albatross?

I would not expect the individuals I mentioned to be the only voices heard. NBC News has promised a dialogue, and that is what we should have. The Department of Education should be represented, as should the Gates Foundation and the many organizations they sponsor. A panel about the challenges facing Teach For America should include that organization’s leaders and corps members. Discussions of school closures in Chicago should include representatives of Rahm Emanuel. The debate over the Common Core should include supporters as well as critics.

Education Nation is a magnificent concept, and always has been. But so long as the very FACTS that guide the discussions are drawn from the Gates Foundation, and Gates grant recipients are the chief experts featured, we do not have a true dialogue, a real debate about the future of education in America. We have instead a showcase for test-driven school reform, with some cameo appearances by real educators who sometimes are allowed to strike a note of skepticism.

I sent a somewhat shorter version of this post to several representatives of NBC news yesterday, but have not heard back. Education Nation’s Facebook page is here. They are on Twitter as well. Perhaps if they hear from some of us we might be able to help them balance their program a bit better this year.

Update 1: NBC News has posted the full list of panelists for Education Nation. It does not include Diane Ravitch or any real representation of those of us challenging the status quo of corporate education reform.

Update 2: Here is a letter from Indiana parent Cathy Fuentes-Rohwer, challenging NBC for their one-sided presentation of the issues facing public education.

What do you think? Is Education Nation going to yield frustration for educators again?? Or can we turn this into a true dialogue over the future of public education?

Continue the dialogue with Anthony on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.