Reflections on NBC’s Education Nation Summit
NBC is to be commended for its support of the third annual Education Nation Summit, a gathering of leaders from government, education and business in New York City this week to consider the challenges and future outlook for America’s public education system. And, to be sure, included in this year’s event were a handful of case studies of real schools and districts that are successfully addressing challenging problems and finding solutions that support student growth and success. For me, the most impressive and knowledgeable presenters about public schooling, student achievement and local realities were the educators themselves, who displayed a thoughtful, articulate approach to their work and provided practical, solution-oriented initiatives that are proving successful in meeting the needs of an increasingly diverse student population.
So, the good news is that the Summit featured impressive public educators and education researchers who provided real world information and experience to the event. On the down side, too many of the program presenters were people famous in other walks of life whose contributions to the education conversation provided little value. This is not to say that former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice doesn’t have a compelling personal story about growing up in the segregated South, yet knowing because her parents told her so that, “You may not be able to get a burger at the neighborhood Woolworth, but you can be President of the United States if you want to be.” Her personal story reminds us that parental expectations and supportive home and community are vital to individual academic achievement.
And Craig Barrett, retired CEO of Intel and Board chair of a chain of charter schools in Arizona (and newly expanded to Washington, DC), has achieved much in the business world with his love for and emphasis on competition as a driver of change and improvement. I have heard Mr. Barrett speak several times on the subject of public education and how bad it is across the land, and I will say that he is very consistent in his one note solution: Competition provided by charter schools that are free from union contracts, public policy and government oversight. While Mr. Barrett’s consistency is laudable if narrow minded, I have yet heard his strategy for serving those students whose competitive edge is insufficient to land a spot in one of his charter schools. Not a single panelist or moderator pointed out to Mr. Barrett that when public schools compete, the losers are always children.
But my major complaint is that too many of the high profile presenters framed their remarks in the unchallenged statement that “the American public education system is broken.” In fact, the success stories chronicled throughout the program are taking place in that exact system that was labeled “broken.” While there is much that can be done to improve the system, it does in fact work for many, if not most, of our young people.
Of course, the definition of “system” is unclear in this context. Too often during the course of my three days at the NBC Summit, the system was spoken of in a national context (the “system” only graduates 76% of its students). However, in the U.S. our public education system is local, and most of our local systems do a good job and graduate way more than 76% of their students. Sadly, in this country, where students live does affect the resources and human capital available for their educational experience. Not a single speaker introduced the reality of unequal funding sources, the existence of multiple governing entities or the role of the federal government into the conversation around school improvement for our most challenged and challenging students. When the issues are complicated, it’s not helpful to provide simplistic solutions from famous people who have never spent a full day, much less a professional life, working with students in a formal education setting.
The final eye-opener was the confessions of both Colin Powell and Tom Brokaw that while they were both products of public education, neither of them was a good student. In fact, Secretary Powell said the only way he was able to graduate from the City College of New York was that the school agreed to average his ROTC grades in his final GPA, so he could reach a 2.0. So much for high standards and no excuses. Perhaps, as we individually and collectively ponder ways to make public schooling work for all our students, we should be a bit more mindful of how paths to human growth, academic development and professional success take many forms. In the meantime, let’s spend more time listening to education professionals who are working successfully on a daily basis in our schools and learn from those heroes.
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- Best Selling Author Dan Ariely
- Family Engagement Expert Dr. Maria C. Paredes
The views expressed in this website's interviews do not necessarily represent those of the Learning First Alliance or its members.
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