NBC Gears Up for Education Nation 2011
Network's second year agenda promises more substance.
Last year’s Education Nation Summit, NBC’s weeklong dive into education issues, was a revelation just in its sheer reach. A network turning its attention to the issues of teachers, charters, and inner-city students for such a sustained broadcast period was unheard of. The event had star power, including Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and provided lots of face time for players like Harlem Children’s Zone founder and CEO Geoffrey Canada and—in the familiar role of defending teachers—AFT president Randi Weingarten. Waiting for Superman was on the cusp of release, and education was the hot news subject.
Flash-forward a year. As NBC gets ready for the second incarnation of Education Nation, much in the education world has changed. Teachers and their unions have come under attack in some states, while cheating scandals have been revealed in districts across the country. Although education debate continues to occupy everyone from President Obama to mayors of major cities, agreements and solutions seem farther apart than ever. NBC News president Steve Capus took some time in the hectic run-up to the event to talk about improvements to this year’s summit and why NBC remains so committed to education. This year’s program will run September 25–27 in New York City. Sessions can be streamed live or on demand at educationnation.com .
What’s going to be new at this year’s event? How do these changes reflect what you learned last year and during the network’s education tour?
Capus: Last year was about planting the flag and doing something big. It was an awfully big undertaking. We had an ambitious agenda and great panelists. We tried to shoot very high. We probably tried to cram too much in. This year, we want to expand the amount of time for panels and reduce [the number of] panelists to get to deeper, more nuanced points instead of just skimming the surface. We didn’t have enough on early childhood education and community colleges last year. We want to get into a few more things: brain research, international education (beyond Finland), and the connection between race, poverty, and education.
The first summit was a launch pad for a yearlong discussion of education issues. The road show, which stopped in Chicago, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia, was incredibly fulfilling and inspiring. While on tour, we heard directly from [school leaders and mayors], the challenges they face—budget, political, efforts to bridge public and private. I like that grassroots feedback.
For a while, it seemed like everyone was looking for “the answer” to education. Is part of the purpose of this year’s event to try to find common ground among disparate groups?
Capus: There’s no single answer to improving education. There are incredibly complex issues, and political climates are different, including federal, state, local, or just classroom issues. We want this summit to be a little less theoretical and more practical in scope. We’ll bring in terrific people on the front lines. That’s our marching orders: stimulate a rich conversation. I’m not naïve. I don’t think it’s going to be fixed [in these two days]. We want dialogue that is of the moment, that is real, not behind the times, but on the leading edge of as many issues as we can possibly address. We’re the facilitators; we put a spotlight on important issues. The best interviews you see go a little deeper and don’t follow a predictable path. [Our moderators] have to be well versed on what discussion they are leading, the starting points and what panelists are likely to say to be able to guide them into different directions. We don’t want it to be a series of monologues without connections being made by panelists. It would be awfully nice if people see some learning go on.
Talk about the inspiration you draw from watching teachers and school leaders doing their jobs so well.
Capus: The level of commitment and dedication [from teachers and school officials] is inspiring. They persevere through political battles and time commitments, and our country is better for it. We need people that dedicated. Our country owes a tremendous amount to people who make this their life’s work. Ask [people] about their greatest inspiration and it’s always an English or science teacher. There’s so much at stake here.
With education undergoing massive changes in practice, as well as an infusion of new technology tools such as tablets, is this an exciting time to be trying to reshape the future of learning?
Capus: I can’t tell you how many people have stopped me over the last year to say thank you for having this, for committing resources to covering education. I think these are pressing matters all across the country. I’m curious that other news organizations haven’t made this type of commitment. The timing is right. The issues get bigger with every passing month. I like that it has become part of NBC News now.