Critics–and Questionable Sponsors–at NBC’s Education Nation

There’s an interesting piece at the Huffington Post (9/27/11) by Joy Resmovits about what some critics of the corporate-backed NBC Education Nation conference are saying. Even though some are crediting NBC for a more balanced program than last year, not everyone’s ready to give the network a passing grade:

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 [NBC News president Steve] 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.

Alter has long been one of the most vitriolic critics of teachers unions in the media–which would seem to be the only reason he’d be invited on a panel in the first place. (Teacher-bashing is one of the fastest paths to becoming an education pundit.)

But his presence on the stage wasn’t the only area of criticism. Among the sponsors of the event, the controversial for-profit University of Phoenix:

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.

Given the media’s general tilt in favor of corporate “reformers,” it’s hard to imagine that Gates, Broad and the rest would need to intervene. Clearly they’re happy to put their names on something that aligns with their views on education. (NBC‘s Brian Williams has acknowledged how deference to Gates was shaping his network’s coverage of the summit, saying that “it’s their facts that we’re going to be referring to often to help along our conversation”–Answer Sheet Blog, 9/26/11.)

University of Phoenix, on the other hand, probably could use some good publicity. (Greenwashing isn’t just for oil companies.)

As proof of their independence, Capus said: “The University of Phoenix has been subject to some tough news stories on NBC News.”

Not many. Take this one from last year (Today, 9/29/10)–where the NBC anchor tells a company executive, “Good for you, helping young people”:

ANN CURRY, anchor:

Welcome back to Learning Plaza, part of NBC‘s weeklong Education Nation. And most educators agree that personalized learning improves student performance. Well, joining us now is Rob Wrubel. He is the executive vice president for University of Phoenix and creators of the learning assessment test, which can be found on the Education Nation website.

And basically, the key is to find out what kind of learner we are, right, Rob? Good morning.

ROB WRUBEL (executive vice president, University of Phoenix): Yes, because each of us have different learning styles. Some of us are more visual, some of us are more auditory and we listen to things and learn. So by finding your learning style you can really optimize and personalize your learning outcomes.

CURRY: In fact, you’ve got a list of seven different kinds, and physical, as you say, aural, solitary, logical, social, verbal, visual. And by going to this Web site that you’ve created, people can take a test, and in just a few minutes they can find out what kind of learner they are.

WRUBEL: Right. You can go through this, it’s 21 questions. And the kinds of questions they are ask you–just a range of questions about your activities, how you do things. Are you a good listener, do you do–do you talk with your hands. And then when we use our program we can give you a quick profile of what are your different types of learning styles.

CURRY: Mm-hmm.

WRUBEL: Sometimes you have a dominant learning style; sometimes you have a whole mix of different styles.

CURRY: But it would seem that it would be so important for, especially, parents of young people who may be, in fact, those young people may be having trouble in school, and may be showing some signs of having difficulty sitting still in class, that they go and maybe help their kids take this test, it would seem. The place you go is

WRUBEL: Yes, that’s it.

CURRY: All right.

WRUBEL: And it is a very simple test. And for kids who are really trying to find a new way to learn, maybe they need more physical activity, it’s a very successful tool to help parents find out what their learning style is.

CURRY: Good for you, helping young people…

WRUBEL: Right.

CURRY: …this way. Congratulations, Rob Wrubel.

If you’re in the New York area and you’d like to hear a conversation about education with a different point of view, come to FAIR’s Miseducation Nation forum tonight at 7, at Manhattan’s School of the Future.

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.