Blog: The Educated Reporter

‘Ted Talks Education’: A Sneak Peek of Tonight’s Television Debut

TED Talks makes its first foray into television tonight, and the decision to focus on public schools wasn’t a tough call, said Chris Anderson, curator of the nonprofit organization that built its niche showcasing inspirational speakers in a variety of live and online formats.

“Re-imagining education is a topic we love at TED because we think figuring it out will be the key to a more hopeful future,” Anderson said. (You can read my full Q&A with him here.)

Co-sponsored by WNET and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (as part of its American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen campaign), “TED Talks Education” is hosted by musician John Legend, taps well-known innovators such as Geoffrey Canada (CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone), and author Sir Ken Robinson,’s most-watched speaker. I had the opportunity to watch the program being taped in the theater of the Brooklyn Academy of Music: Mixed into the marquis names are teachers and students who share their own experiences and lessons from the trenches of the nation’s public schools. Among them is Rita Pierson, a veteran Texas educator who was taught at every grade level, primarily with kids living in high-poverty neighborhoods.

With many of her students arriving for school often years behind grade level, Pierson found a novel approach to offering encouragement without masking the reality of the hard work ahead:

“I gave a quiz: 20 questions. Student missed 18. I put a plus-2 on the paper and a big smiley face. He said `Ms. Pierson, is this an F?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘Then why you’d put a smiley face?’ And I said, ‘Because you’re on the road. … Minus-18 sucks all the life out of you. Plus-two says, `I ain’t all bad.’” 

Pierson balances her positivity with pragmatism. There are going to be difficult days and difficult students but it helps to realize “the tough ones show up for a reason – it’s the connection, it’s the relationship,” Pierson said. “Is this job tough? You betcha … but it is not impossible. We can do this.”

For those who watch Pierson and wonder whether there’s a way to replicate her brand of teaching, consider Bill Gates’ contribution to the program. He delivers a succinct explanation of the ambitious Measures of Effective Teaching project undertaken by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. As part of the project, video cameras were placed in classrooms across the country to record teachers at work. The foundation’s research team used a wealth of data, including assessments, interviews, and observations, to identify successful instruction.

Gates tells the audience that “everyone needs a coach” — he confessed he has one for bridge — but that most teachers get “almost no systematic feedback.” He pointed out that until the recent wave of interest in developing teacher evaluation models swept the country, most teachers heard only one word: Satisfactory. And even in districts that are currently revamping evaluation policies, too few of them connect those to giving teachers meaningful feedback on how to improve their performance, Gates said.

The MET project found that “teachers that did well on observations had far better student outcomes,” Gates said. “That tells us we’re asking the right questions.”

In his TED talk, Gates estimates the cost of a nationwide investment in teacher feedback to be $5 billion. (Feel free to insert your own joke about asking Gates to look for that under the cushions of his sofa.) In reality $5 billion is not an insubstantial sum, particularly given the federal sequester and cuts being made to core programs serving the neediest students. But Gates also contends that $5 billion represents less than 2 percent of what the nation’s schools spend on teachers’ salaries. Better feedback could translate into improved instruction, better student learning, more teachers staying on the job, and a reduced need for expensive remediation programs. Given those possibilities, that $5 billion starts to look like a bargain.

There have been some good-natured spoofs of the earnestness that permeates many TED Talks videos —  but that’s actually one of the things that can make them so affecting. Is it a bad thing to feel inspired, even if you don’t believe the glow lasts long? At the same time what, really, is the usefulness of these sorts of exercises? Is there a way to measure the TED Talks impact beyond online views and conference attendance?

Here’s how Anderson answered that question when I posed it to him in an email:

“Powerful ideas, shared the right way, lead to action. Period. Many who watch TED Talks have their own story about where these ideas have led them. Often at their core is an expanded sense of possibility and a determination to play a more proactive role in shaping the future. But a talk’s impact might take years to make itself evident. A changed mindset is for life.”