NBC's Education Nation Highlights

Since Sunday, NBC anchors Brian Jennings and Tom Brokaw, Melinda Gates, Arne Duncan, the University of Phoenix, Bill Clinton, and American public school teachers have all taken the stage at Rockefeller Center for NBC's second Education Nation conference.

Last year's event coincided with the relase of "Waiting for Superman" and focused, to some criticism, much on top-down education reform and the charter school movement. With this years event, kicking off with a Teach Town Hall, NBC and the co-sponsors seemed to have responded to their critics. The event, on going this week, has so far featured governor and mayor panels, teacher presentations, Lebron James, and a plethora of presentations. Here are our top three picks for stuff you may have missed and reactions:

Salman Khan, Tom Brokaw, and the Innovation Challenge

The founder of Khan Academy, Salman Khan, with good reason, has become a technology and education world celebrity. His interview here with Brokaw kicked off Education Nation's Innovations Challenge - bringing 3 groups (Class Dojo, Kickboard, and Truant Today) of education entrepeneurs to New York to compete for a $100,000 prize. While not maching the magic of Khan's TED talk, his interview, starting at the six minute mark, is an important example of the successful combination of traditional classroom teaching with technology, the data it can provide, and content based videos.

Teacher Town Hall and Melinda Gates

Bound to be more controversial than Salman Khan, Brian Jennings interviewed several teachers while fielding questions from the audience. In addition, he also interviewed Melinda Gates - perhaps, unfortunately, the most interesting aspect of the town hall. Gates addresses her, and her husband's, foundation's work to figure out what exactly defines a good teach both quantitatively and qualitatively. The foundation has spent about half a billion dollars trying to answer this question and turned up useful data and practices. However, Anthony Cody of Education Week felt Gate's interview here overturns some of the work's shortcomings and flaws. He writes, of Gates assertion that teachers cannot be quantified by their students' test scores yet the foundation's study still relies on identifying teaching practices that rase test scores, "The question she begs is 'what defines great teaching?' This is not answered by finding teaching methods associated with higher test scores. This question remains hanging over the entire school reform enterprise. Until we answer that question, we are devising complex mechanisms to elevate test scores assuming this will improve students' lives, when this is manifestly unproven." Check out Cody's piece and the interview to decide for yourself.

Click here for part II of Teacher Town Hall.

"What's in a Zip Code? A Look at Inequality Across our Public Schools"

Perhaps a panel that went under the radar, this was one of the more probing keynotes so far. A lot of the focus at Education Nation is on how we can improve our model of schooling - whether that be with reform minded charter schools, last year, or a revamped understanding of what makes a great teacher, this year. However, in this Brian Jennings led panel, NBC brought another question up, "Is it possible to fix education without first fixing poverty?"

John Merrow, of PBs News Hour and author of The Influence of Teachers, argued, on the Huffington Post, that we need a new narrative for education reform - a narrative that begins with this question. He writes, "I suggest a narrative that is tougher on schools but also closer to reality. It's this: For as long as anyone can remember, there has been close to a 1:1 correlation between parental income and educational outcomes, whether the parents were rich, poor or somewhere in between. On one level, that seems to mean that schools basically do not matter. Only money talks."

If Merrow is right, we now are dealing with a systemic problem that will be uncomfortable and difficult to answer. NBC may have sparked the focus of next years conference with this very video.

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