NBC News is planning a special week of programming and other activities late this month to draw attention to the challenges in U.S. education and how to address them.
The centerpiece is being billed as a 2½-day, interactive “summit” at Rockefeller Plaza in New York City with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the governors of Delaware and Minnesota, New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, and civil rights activist Al Sharpton, among others.
Organizers describe the weeklong effort beginning Sept. 26, dubbed “Education Nation,” as seeking to foster a “national conversation” about education.
“We believe that the time is now to put a focus on this issue,” said Lisa Gersh, the president of strategic initiatives at NBC Universal. “It feels like there’s a moment in time where we can have a discussion, where the public seems ready to be engaged,” she added, citing as an example the policy changes sparked by the federal Race to the Top competition.
Asked why NBC News was hosting a summit, rather than playing the traditional media role of covering such events, she replied: “To be a little glib, no one else was doing it.”
Among the “partners” identified for the initiative are the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, which are two leading philanthropies in the education sphere, as well as Scholastic Inc. and American Airlines.
Education Nation, Ms. Gersh said, will tackle education from early childhood and K-12 to college and beyond.
“We’re looking at education as a whole, where we are, and what’s working,” she said.
“Anybody who can bring more attention to the issue and get people more aware of the problems is welcome,” said Christopher T. Cross, an education consultant based in Danville, Calif., who was an assistant U.S. secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush. “The question is, with the two-day summit, what do they expect to have come out of it, and is it just another two days of talking?”
He cautioned that trying to cover all levels of education may not bode well: “To cover that whole territory means you’re going to be skipping lightly over the surface.”
This won’t be the first education “summit.” There have been a series of such events over the years, including the 1989 meeting of governors and business leaders in Charlottesville, Va., convened by the first President Bush. Additional summits of governors and other education leaders took place in 1996, 1999, and 2001, though by the time of the 2001 event, only 15 governors actually attended. (“States Urged to Keep Eyes On Education,” Oct. 17, 2001.)
A more recent example was the 2005 National Education Summit on High Schools, co-sponsored by the National Governors Association and Achieve, a Washington-based nonprofit founded by governors and corporate leaders. The keynote speaker was Bill Gates, the software magnate and co-founder of the Gates Foundation. (“Summit Underscores Gates Foundation’s Emergence as Player,” March 9, 2005.)
Ms. Hersh said a number of governors are expected to attend the NBC meeting, though she declined to say how many. So far, only Gov. Jack Markell of Delaware, a Democrat, and Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, a Republican, have been noted. NBC press materials indicate that more than 300 “big thinkers” in government, politics, business, and technology—as well as school administrators, teachers, parents, and students—will participate. A final list of attendees will be announced after Labor Day.
The Gates and Broad foundations have also been involved in other efforts to draw more attention to improving education.
In 2006, the Gates Foundation spearheaded a campaign called Stand Up, kicked off with a big plug on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” aimed at spurring Americans to demand changes to address what organizers described as a “crisis” in the nation’s public high schools. The Broad Foundation later signed on as a partner. (“Campaign Seeks Buy-In for High School Reforms,” April 19, 2006.) A year later, Stand Up was transformed by the two philanthropies into Ed in ‘08, a campaign more specifically focused on ensuring strong billing for education in the 2008 presidential election and mobilizing the candidates and the public around key reforms to improve schools. (“Funds to Push Education as Election Issue,” May 2, 2007.)
(Editorial Projects in Education, the publisher of Education Week, receives grant money from Gates and is a past recipient of Broad grants.)
NBC has offered few details so far about the thrust of its initiative. A press release says: “Through the ‘Education Nation’ Summit and multimedia programming, NBC News explores the greatest challenges, highlights solutions, and examines innovative ideas in education today.”
Ms. Gersh promised a week of daily attention to education across a variety of platforms, from the “Today” show to “The NBC Nightly News” and the cable news channel MSNBC.
Asked if NBC saw itself playing an advocacy role, she said, “I think we’re advocates for focusing attention on the issue ... and holding our leaders accountable.”
Meanwhile, NBC News isn’t the only network launching an education initiative this fall.
The Cartoon Network is gearing up to unveil an anti-bullying campaign in October that will include both on-air and online components. CNN, another channel within the Turner Broadcasting System, will include a series of editorial features on bullying to provide better understanding and response options for victims, bystanders, and adults.
Alice M. Cahn, the vice president for social responsibility at the Cartoon Network, said the campaign will kick off with a town hall meeting on “Anderson Cooper 360°” on CNN.
Ms. Cahn said the idea for the campaign emerged from ongoing research the Cartoon Network conducts with a panel of young people. Bullying was one of the frequent issues mentioned.
“The one area that really stood out as someplace they wanted help with was in bullying prevention,” she said.
The Cartoon Network last fall assembled a panel of experts on bullying to advise it on the effort.
Ms. Cahn said the campaign would have staying power: “This is a long-term effort.”
A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 2010 edition of Education Week as TV Networks Ready Launch Of Campaigns on Education