Education Nation Kicks Off With Questionable Sponsor, New Teacher Survey

NEW YORK -- Hundreds of players in the education debate hunkered down in a tent staked over Rockefeller Center's ice skating rink this week for NBC's multi-million dollar, three-day panel fest "Education Nation."

This year marks the second iteration of Education Nation, which launched in 2010 on the heels of "Waiting for Superman," a popular documentary that increased the focus on education policy, while also drawing criticism for presenting charter schools as the ultimate solution. Some condemned last year's Education Nation conference for siding with the education reform movement, for excluding teachers and for presenting shallow content.

"This year is about going a little bit deeper and exploring some new areas," Steve Capus, NBC News president, said in an interview. "We did an hour and ten minutes on early childhood education rather than doing 20- or 30-[minute] long panels."

Education Nation kicked off Sunday with a "teacher town hall." Anchor Brian Williams polled various teachers and audience members about their work and the policies that affect them. The summit included a film premiere and panelists such as former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, several governors and former President Bill Clinton. Celebrities such as Jennifer Garner and LeBron James were on hand to voice their perspectives. The event also provided an opportunity for some major schmoozing, with refreshment rooms and cafes that rarely closed.

While some lauded the increased balance and depth at this year's Education Nation, retired New York City teacher and Grassroots Education Movement member Norm Scott gave Capus an earful on Tuesday. "People see an absence of the word 'class size' in these debates," he told Capus.

"This notion that somehow we're skewed too close to the reformers, I just don't buy it and completely disagree," Capus responded.

"How did a guy like Jonathan Alter end up as an expert on Sunday night's panel?" Scott asked. He was referring to the Bloomberg columnist and MSNBC contributor who has taken hard-line stances on charter schools and teacher evaluations.

"We had Jonathan Alter and 300 teachers," Capus countered.

Meanwhile, some harder-line reformers grumbled that this year's events were too soft.

"There's an incredible amount of passion around these subjects," Capus conceded. "Some people come at it for a point of view, and they're going at it to push their agendas."

Education Nation's panels focused on the importance of learning and college attainment. But one of the event's main sponsors has been accused of having different motives. The event took place in a tent whose central outside decoration was the logo of the for-profit University of Phoenix.

The University of Phoenix has 200 campuses and online degree programs. An ABC news investigation found that the school routinely makes promises about work eligibility that it can't deliver on, resulting in students mired in debt without the benefits of a degree.

A U.S. Senate committee investigation found that 66 percent of associates degree students and half of bachelor's degree students at the school withdrew after beginning their programs. About 22 percent of University of Phoenix students defaulted on their loans during 2008, while the school's owner, the Apollo group, devoted 22 percent of its spending to marketing.

Capus defended University of Phoenix's sponsorship of Education Nation.

"We have about seven decades worth of experience of building a dividing line between the ... commercial sponsorship side and the reporting side of NBC News," Capus said. The Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation and State Farm also sponsored the summit. "They don't shape the editorial content," Capus said.

But a University of Phoenix representative introduced the governors' panel that Williams hosted, saying he was proud to make Education Nation happen.

"If you want to view it from a conspiracy theorist point of view, we couldn't possibly meet all their concerns," Capus half-joked before adding, "The University of Phoenix has been subject to some tough news stories on NBC News."

Another major sponsor, the Gates Foundation, used the summit to release a first glimpse at its own survey results.

The Gates survey polled 10,000 teachers, asking their opinions on how to improve education.
The survey found teachers considered only 63 percent of their students who graduate high school to be prepared for college. More than half the teachers surveyed said they saw an increase in students with behavioral problems, more poor students and more English language learners since they began teaching.

When asked to list the ingredients key to academic achievement, teachers cited family involvement, supportive administrators and high-quality curricula.

While increasing teacher pay was a major focus of Education Nation, the Gates survey found money was not the most important incentive for good teaching. On a list of 15 items presented to teachers, it ranked 11th. Only 16 percent of teachers said merit pay measures help retain good teachers.