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Four Days IN Education Nation

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I've spent the past four days immersed in public education. First in Texas, where I spoke with and listened to superintendents and school board members; then at Education Nation, a day-and-a-half event put on by NBC and sponsored by the University of Phoenix and some major foundations, and finally at the annual dinner where the McGraw Prize in Education is awarded.

Remember that classic western, "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly?" Just like the movie's title, I'm starting with the good. That would be the McGraw Prize, an annual black tie event I hadn't attended for five or six years. Last night three educators who are making a huge difference were honored, men who are challenging the status quo by demonstrating better ways to educate Americans of all ages. They spend their time lighting candles, not cursing the darkness. You can read more about Larry Rosenstock of High Tech High, Bob Mendenhall of Western Governors University, and Chris Cerf of Between the Lions here (and I hope you will).

PBS's Chris Cerf has been helping kids learn to read, and helping their parents learn along with them. He's poised to take the many hours of "Between the Lions" to the next level, meta-tagging the elements of every segment so that teachers will be able to call up exactly what they need when they need it. If a teacher wants her kids to see the 30-second animated bit that shows how sounds blend ('w' and 'et' is the one we saw last night), bingo, there it is. Great work, becoming even more influential.

Larry Rosenstock has already taken High Tech High to scale; it's gone from one successful school to nine, plus teacher training, in just a few years. If all goes well, the honor Larry's work received last night will enable him and his talented colleagues to do even more. Heaven knows we need it.

Ditto for Bob Mendenhall and WGU, created from scratch nine years ago. It has already graduated 20,000 students. WGU is truly education's "Field of Dreams," demonstrating the truth of "Build it, and they will come." WGU is an online university that makes quality higher education available to the millions who cannot afford the time or the money to come to campus. At WGU time is the variable, knowledge and skills the constants.

Now to Texas: While there's good stuff happening in some Texas schools, I heard mostly bad news there from superintendents and board members who are feeling incredible financial pressures. At a session with the state commissioner of education, leader after leader stood up and basically pleaded with him not to cut program X or to keep program Y for just a few months longer. Their frustration over the state's political stance against aid from Washington was palpable -- they need the money.

At one point in my speech about 'marginal' versus 'meaningful' education I referred to the seven major rivers in Texas that have more than 4,000 miles of strong running water. I suggested that high school science classes anywhere near one of those rivers should go there regularly and measure speed, water level, acidity, detritus, et cetera. Then they should share the data with every other high school class for common analysis. Meaningful work like that -- so different from most of what happens in high school classrooms -- might keep more kids in school.

Afterwards, a friendly superintendent told me it was a great idea but a non-starter. "I guarantee," he told me, "everyone listening immediately thought, 'how would I pay for that?'"

One potentially ugly story I learned about in Texas has to do with politics and unintended consequences. In an effort to raise standards and increase the number of graduates going to four-year colleges, politicians established new graduation standards and three variations of the high school diploma. The top two diplomas qualify graduates for colleges and universities, while the third-tier diploma means community college, at best. To get one of the top diplomas, students must take four years of math and science. So far so good, right?

Unfortunately, many (perhaps most) districts don't have enough math and science teachers. So many students will not be able to take the required four years. What may happen, thanks to this well-meaning rule, is that more kids will end up with a diploma that only qualifies them for community college. That's the exact opposite of the intended consequence.

Which brings me to Education Nation, the extravaganza hosted by NBC and broadcast on NBC and MSNBC. It had it all: good, bad and ugly.

You probably know the basics: a huge commitment by NBC to cover 'the crisis in public education.' Everyone got into the act: Matt Lauer and the President on the Today Show, David Gregory on Meet the Press on Sunday, and Brian Williams on NBC Nightly News.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan seemingly dropped everything to be on hand. On Monday he participated in a long one-on-one live broadcast about teaching as a career with Tom Brokaw with cutaways to correspondents on four university campuses. He announced a new federal loan forgiveness program (eerily similar to one that existed in the 1970's). On Tuesday he took part in the final wrap up session with governors, US Representatives, Mayors, school principals and teachers and even one student.

All good so far, right? Who can be against public discussion of education's importance?

Usually the devil is in the details, but in this case the devil was right there in the basic skeleton and structure of the event. This wasn't even remotely a search for truth or an exercise in journalism. It was pretty much Johnny One Note, with no room for depth or dissent.

The message was pretty simple: We have an education crisis because we have bad teachers who are protected by evil teacher unions, and the solutions are good charter schools and great teachers. That sounds suspiciously like "Waiting for 'Superman,' " and so you won't be surprised to learn that one of the opening events of Education Nation was a screening of the movie. (I missed that because I was flying home from Texas.)

I kept hoping that someone would be even a tiny bit skeptical about our test-score driven schools. Wouldn't just one person wonder whether we should stop asking 'How intelligent are you?' and ask instead 'How are you intelligent?' (Never happened, not in any session I attended.)

With the awful truth that 6,000 kids drop out every school day staring them in the face, wouldn't someone question the wisdom of extending both the school day and the school year? I mean, what are these dropouts leaving behind? (Never happened, far as I heard.)

People on the stage moaned about the antiquated (agrarian) calendar and the fact that schools still look and act as they did 50 or 75 years ago -- and then suggested that what our kids need are more hours and days of this!

When the details of the event were first announced, the blogosphere lit up with protests about the lack of teachers. NBC responded immediately and recruited perhaps 50 teachers, bringing them to New York all expenses paid (the Waldorf!). Some were asked to present 'mini-lessons' at the beginning of sessions, and the ones I caught were lively and challenging.

When some thoughtless soul at NBC named the session on New Orleans "Does Education Need Another Katrina?" the blogosphere erupted again, and that session was promptly renamed.

Unfortunately, NBC never did respond to calls for diversity of thought, and respected folks like Diane Ravitch were excluded (despite her willingness to participate, from what I heard).

Education Nation was basically a series of panel discussions. I paid particular attention to the moderators because I do a fair amount of that sort of work. Brian Williams gets an A in my grading book. He was beyond good. He was well informed, funny, provocative and fair.

And now to ugly. The one panel that had some real diversity of opinion was ruined by inept moderating by Steven Brill, who brought to the table his own strong views about unions and didn't even attempt to be fair. It's fine for a moderator to be skeptical -- I believe that's part of the job description -- but it's essential to spread that skepticism around evenly. Mr. Brill kissed up to the side he favors (Geoff Canada and Michelle Rhee) and jumped all over Randi Weingarten of the AFT and Dennis Van Roekel of the NEA. What could have been a powerful conversation about contracts, seniority and tenure turned into an embarrassing food fight. Mr. Brill gets an F, but so does whoever at NBC chose him in the first place.

So why wasn't Education Nation set up to be real journalism? Was it the sponsors, The University of Phoenix and the Broad and Gates Foundations? I have had grants from those two foundations and have not found them to be interfering in our journalism, even though both have agendas. Did it on this occasion? I don't know. Why on earth would NBC accept the sponsorship of an education event from a for-profit education organization that is under investigation for some of its practices?

Some critics of Education Nation are finding the silver lining, saying things like, "A national dialogue is a good thing."

Well, I'm looking hard for signs of a dialogue, but what I am finding instead are lines hardening between two camps. Scarily, it reminds me of the abortion/choice battle. Right now it's in the naming stage. Those who were excluded from Education Nation are calling their opponents 'anti-teacher' and 'anti public education,' while the Education Nation crowd is labeling its antagonists 'defenders of bad education' and 'protectors of inept teachers'. Naturally, both groups are working hard to wrap themselves in 'pro-children' garments.

It's hard to see much good coming out of this, frankly. I wish everyone would emulate the three McGraw prizewinners. I'm sure all three of them had to fight battles to triumph over complacency, inertia and hostility, but I doubt that any of them ever declared themselves to be the forces of good, battling evil. That's what I think may be happening out there in Education Nation.

NBC says it's going to do this again next year. Let's hope so. There's certainly room for improvement.

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John Merrow's new book, Below C Level, is now available on Amazon.
He blogs regularly at Taking Note, where this post originally appeared.