NBC hosting education summit in September

American students rank 25th in math and 21st in science on a list of 30 industrialized nations
American students rank 25th in math and 21st in science on a list of 30 industrialized nations

NBC News is convening its own summit with education and political leaders next month to talk about ways to improve schools in light of statistics showing the U.S. lagging in student achievement.

The two-day “Education Nation” event in New York will be carried online and is part of a week of programming concentrating on education issues on NBC News broadcasts such as “Today” and “Nightly News,” as well as the MSNBC, CNBC, and Telemundo TV networks.

It’s also a chance for NBC to promote some of its education technology products, including a news quiz and historical archives of NBC broadcasts available to schools—something that ethics organizations will be watching closely.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, the governors of Minnesota and Tennessee, MIT President Susan Hockfield, and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg have all said they would attend, NBC said. It will be held on the week of Sept. 27.

“I say this as a parent,” said NBC News President Steve Capus, “I think we’re tired of accepting the status quo and having America show up in the middle of the pack when it comes to the education of our children.”

Two-thirds of American eighth graders cannot read at their grade level, and most of these students never catch up, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress—commonly referred to as the Nation’s Report Card. The Strong American Schools analysis of data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development said that American students rank 25th in math and 21st in science on a list of 30 industrialized nations.

Education is one of those issues that doesn’t receive the attention it deserves from the mainstream news media, said Lisa Gersh, president of strategic initiatives at NBC.

“If you talk to most people, they will tell you they understand the issues involving education but that their school is just fine,” she said. “And that’s just not true.”

Other news organizations are welcome to cover NBC’s event, Capus said.

The education summit is a step up for the occasionally activist approach to news that NBC has taken recently. The network held a “health week” earlier this year to emphasize stories on better eating.

For a few years, NBC has had twice-a-year “green weeks” to emphasize environmental issues, events that some critics suggest are partly done to burnish the image of parent General Electric Co.

“Education Nation” brings newsmakers to New York to put the issue of education in the spotlight—an approach from a news organization that many people are going to appreciate, said Kelly McBride, ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute think tank.

“Part of what the public is frustrated about with the news industry is that we present the problems, but they don’t lead to solutions,” McBride said.

Capus said it was “an entirely appropriate move for a news division. We make decisions every day about where we’re going to place emphasis, and why not place emphasis on this coverage and create the forums where we hope to have some dialogues? We’re not going in with preconceived ideas.”

NBC will build a “learning plaza” at Rockefeller Center where the public can see examples of interactive classroom technology and new teaching approaches. Among the products featured there will be NBCLearn.com, where educators can buy access to video clips on historical events from the NBC News archives, and ICue, a news-based online game.

Capus said those businesses have quietly become an important part of the news division, but he said the products will be a “tiny fraction” of the summit. “This is not a sales exercise,” he said.

McBride said that hawking the news products is a “minor conflict” that would only be a concern if it appeared that a major focus of the event was product promotion. Still, it’s an issue that is likely to come up in the future as struggling news organizations develop niche products in an effort to help their bottom lines, she said.

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