Blog: The Educated Reporter

Education Nation: Are You Tuning In?

NBC News is in the midst of a massive experiment in public engagement. Now in its second year, the “Education Nation” summit began Sunday and runs through Wednesday in New York City, with a combination of live forums, panels and town hall discussions. There are also multiple online resources for participants, from quizzes to measure parental engagement to rebroadcasts of exclusive interviews with big names such as Education Secretary Arne Duncan and billionaire philanthropist Warren Buffett.

One of Monday’s spotlight interviews looked at Akron, Ohio, where reform efforts are focusing on making sure students are proficient in reading by the third grade. There have been some troubling studies suggesting that students who are below grade level when they start the fourth grade have little chance of catching up in their academic careers. This interview was of particular interest to me (and not just because it also featured LeBron James). I recently spoke with David Berliner, an educational psychologist and Regents Professor of Education at Arizona State University. He noted that many states are following Florida’s example of holding back students from the fourth grade if they aren’t proficient readers. But Berliner warned that there is plenty of research evidence to suggest that might actually do more harm than good. That’s why I think it’s interesting that the Akron program focuses on helping students the summer before they start the third grade. I’m curious whether the program will result in fewer kids being held back.

In an op-ed piece promoting Education Nation, former NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw described waking up early one morning in South Korea in 1996, and being on a rooftop with a view of a junior high school. “At first light every morning the yard was filled with students reading by flashlight, waiting for the doors to open in another hour. I could not imagine a similar scene in my own country.” Needless to say, South Korea’s top scores in the recent PISA results led President Obama to call it “our” Sputnik moment, referring to the turning point in American education when the nation’s leaders realized America might lose the space race to the Russians. Today’s impressive programming roster includes a debate between Harlem Children’s Zone founder Geoffrey Canada and education historian Diane Ravitch. We’ll also get to hear “Voices of a Generation” Students Speak Out” and a one-on-one conversation between NBC News anchor Brian Williams and President Bill Clinton. I’m curious as to who is watching, and whether the tone of the conversation will actually shift in any way as a result of NBC’s attention to the topic. These are difficult things to measure, but I do believe the network deserves credit for at least trying to move the debate beyond the standard two-minute segments on the evening news.