Sending NBC's 'Education Nation' Back to School

With NBC airing a second “Education Nation” special that resembles an infomercial for charter schools and online learning, the media watchdog group FAIR held an event Tuesday to clear the air.

The panelists at the MisEducation Nation forum in New York City said the coverage offered by NBC was, at best, misguided—a noble but seriously uninformed effort, said Leonie Haimson, a New York City public school parent and leader of Class Size Matters, which advocates for reducing the number of students per teacher.

At worst, “Education Nation” is a sounding board for the corporate education “reform” movement driven by the billionaires’ agenda, said Brian Jones, a Brooklyn teacher.

Jones is the co-narrator of “The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman,” a documentary that showed what the "Waiting for Superman" film left out. Davis Guggenheim’s “Superman,” a notably pro-charter and anti-teacher union documentary, was released last year.

The goal of Tuesday’s event, according to FAIR, was to offer a more reasonable conversation about public education than the corporate-interest perspective featured in “Education Nation.” The event was moderated by Laura Flanders of GritTV.

The central themes of the evening were anchored by the experiences of Diane Ravitch, an education historian and prominent critic of corporate education initiatives, in her recent trip to Finland.

She noted that Finnish schools have small class sizes, teachers who are trusted and treated as professionals, and free education through college. Less than 4 percent of children live in poverty (compared to the United States’ 22 percent). No child is given a test, except for teacher-made assessments, until the senior year of high school. Most importantly, Ravitch said, the stated purpose of public school in Finland is “to develop the humanity of our students.”

Brian Jones, an educator who began teaching in Brooklyn this year after more than six years in Harlem, spoke from his experience: Educational opportunities are diverging within the same public school system, let alone among different countries.

Resources matter, Jones reaffirmed. Kids who are well-fed and have basic needs met fare better.

Teacher union reformers have said part of the equation is turning teacher unions toward a social-justice model that understands building coalitions of parents, students, and community organizations to create high-quality schools is not only the right thing to do but also the best way to protect union members’ interests.

Pedro Noguera highlighted the different treatment that children and families living in poverty experience in our schools. Noguera is chair of the board at the State University of New York that authorizes new charter schools through SUNY.

The only contentious moment occurred when a teacher from the audience confronted Noguera about his role on the SUNY charter board. A parent, Karen Sprowal, whose son was kicked out of a SUNY charter school, asked how Noguera would hold the school accountable. Noguera responded that public schools push kids out, too, and that his board tracks their schools’ attrition rates.

As the audience voiced its disagreement, Noguera said SUNY schools are the top-rated charters in the country. He neglected to recognize that charters schools also serve fewer children living in poverty and fewer students who receive special education and English-as-a-second-language services.

Panelists noted that the corporate reform movement is undermined by its own failures. Several studies have shown that charter schools have not developed a magic formula. One-sixth do better than public schools, Ravitch said, but one-third do worse.

Ravitch called for diverse and practical solutions for our schools which acknowledge that poverty must be addressed in tandem with education policy.

The panelists agreed on the evening’s major theme: NBC’s “Education Nation” is misguided to focus almost exclusively on teacher quality.

Instead, they emphasized the need for more parent and community engagement. As Haimson said, we know very well what a good school looks like: small classes, rich curriculum, respected and trusted teachers. You know, the sort of place Bill Gates would send his kids.



Julie Cavanagh is a special education teacher in Brooklyn and is active with the Grassroots Education Movement, a group that educates and mobilizes teachers, parents, and students.