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Notes from Education Nation: Three Important Lessons


Last year was a big year for Education Nation. Not only was 2010 the inaugural year for the NBC education news summit, it was also the year of Waiting for Superman - the Inconvenient Truth of education. Change, controversy and the urgency for reform pervaded the atmosphere of the event, and a veritable who's who in education took the stage to offer their takes on the immense task of reforming education. The summit ended with more than a few heated disagreements, but also a general consensus that something must be done.

Fast forward to September 2011, after the second annual Education Nation. Where are we now? In some ways, still in the same place we left off one year ago: some of the conversations and panels sounded like they were recycled verbatim. But some new, important points emerged, which, yes, add to the complexity of the education problem, but also surface factors that weren't on deck last year - and might just get us closer to a solution. Here are three important things I took away from this year’s summit.

1. "There is no Superman." 

Philadelphia Mayor Nutty (far right) said on a panel that there is no Superman for education

Last year the thinking was that education needed a Superman to come and save it. And many of last year's panels were devoted to figuring out who that Superman would be - teachers? Charter schools? More funding? This year, I heard multiple times on multiple panels that waiting for Superman is tantamount to waiting for Godot (spoiler: Godot never shows up).

"Superman was on TV and in a comic book," said Philadelphia Mayor Nutty in a panel on what cities can do for their schools. "There is no Superman." Rather, the city of Philadelphia has focused on things like offering education services to homeless and impoverished families and children through their Project H.O.M.E. program. 

On a panel about how a ZIP code dictates a child's education, Claudia Aguirre, principal of MS 247 in New York City, is taking matters into her own hands to get her students what they need. "I only allow [in my school] what is good enough to happen to my own children," she said fiercely. If her students come to school hungry, she figures out a way to get them breakfast. "We get kids what they need, and get them into class. […] We can’t wait for a superhero to save us. We just have to get in there and do it." 

Ralph Smith, executive vice president of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a charitable organization that funds programs that provide services to families and children in need, agreed that waiting for a Superman isn’t the solution. "We need a new [education] system, but we can’t build a system that’s dependent on heroes."

2. Poverty Matters 

Diane Ravitch, David Gregory and Geoffrey Canada at Tuesday's opening debate

"Poverty matters!" said Diane Ravitch, who worked in education policy during the Bush administration, during Tuesday’s opening debate session with Geoffrey Canada (of the Harlem Children’s Zone fame). This probably comes across as a "duh!" comment out of context, but at Education Nation the poverty problem was treated as equal to the education problem. In fact, the biggest question was which to fix first: poverty or education? And will fixing one solve the other? 

"School and society are not separate realms," said Ravitch. "It’s an outrage that American cannot afford decent education for every child in this country. Twenty percent of children live in poverty. Poverty matters! It drags kids down."

The poverty discussion continued through the panel on ZIP codes, where Colorado senator Mike Johnston cited a heartbreaking statistic on children in poverty: only 9% go on to obtain a college diploma. The senator asked us to imagine a room of 100 kindergarteners, and then take 91 out, because their economic status translates to pretty much no chance for them to make it to college. "That ought to be an embarrassment to the richest country in the world," said Smith, from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

But the education problem and the poverty problem will stay hand in hand, said Smith, "because if [parents of low-income kids] can’t provide for [their kids], we allow them to go to inferior schools and enter adulthood unprepared." Other panelists agreed that the poverty issue is not solely the concern of the poor. If America poorly educates and leaves ill-prepared its next-generation workforce, we cannot compete in a global economy.

"Obama has said education is the civil rights issue of our time," said Gail Christopher, vice president of program strategy from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. "This is a continuation of the legacy of denial of opportunity. […] We are still a segregated nation, and we still have segregated schools." Another panelist agreed: "50-60 years ago, the question was: can you sit at a lunch counter? 50-60 years later, the question is: can you sit in a classroom?"

3. Waiting for Miss Murphy

The Student Voices panel on Tuesday afternoon

I wrote before that a common mindset at Education Nation amongst panelists was that there is no Superman to save our schools. But on one particular panel, there was the thinking that there actually might be something close: every student having a Miss Murphy in their life.

This panel was a group of students – including a high-school dropout – who spoke about what they hope for in education. Their wish list included things like offering services that students are actually interested in after school; making education a national priority; including a student voice in education issues; bringing more technology and social networking into the classrooms; and teachers having students’ best interests at heart (even if it’s not to go to college).

Shadrack Boayke of Brentwood, NY, one of the student panelists, told a story about his eighth grade teacher Miss Murphy, the one he remembers most. Boayke remembered her because she was the only one who ever gave him positive feedback, and told him that his writing was great – he went on to win a writing contest because of her support. Stephanie Torres, a New York City resident and the high-school dropout, said that she dropped out because she never had a Miss Murphy to guide and support her.

Good teachers are undeniably a key ingredient in school reform and student success. And these kids pretty much said it all: we don’t need a Superman to come save our schools. We just need the Miss Murphys in this world.

Watch the student panel here (it was the only one I went to that received a standing ovation):

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You can watch video from all the Education Nation panels here.

What were your takeaways from Education Nation? Do you think we’ve moved closer to education reform, or further from it? (Or, are we in the same place we were last year?)

All photos courtesy of NBC Universal.