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Education Nation's marketing challenge

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I have to offer marketing kudos to NBC for its Education Nation tour.

Philadelphia was the last leg of the three-city tour. The National Constitution Center served as the epicenter of a glitzy showcase of “solution-focused” discourse to address the education crisis ailing our country.

I attended the teacher town hall opening event on June 5. Fellow blogger Tamara Anderson from Examiner.com, provided an overview of the town hall. This road tour began May 7 in Chicago and will culminate in a summit in New York City on September 25.

I was intrigued with the activities after the town hall. I informally exchanged notes with Anderson and took a sneak peak at the “Education Nation Experience” exhibit. While touring the interactive exhibit, we bumped into Michael Chen, president of the strategic initiatives group at NBC News and Education Nation. Being the media literacy advocate that I am, I asked Chen, how does Education Nation balance its sponsors’ education policy stances and promotional goals with NBC News' content and editorial mission?

Chen reassured me that the sponsors of Education Nation--University of Phoenix, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Scholastic, and America's Promise Alliance--have no control over the content of its programming.

However, tensions between editorial and policy interests play out in interesting ways when “educational events” double as journalism projects.

Conflicts of interests are bound to arise, for example, if a major supporter of charter schools is also major sponsor for an education town hall. Or, say, a charter school supporter is the major sponsor of an educational documentary like “Waiting for 'Superman.'”

I don’t question Chen’s integrity when he emphasizes that a balance is struck to allow Education Nation to be commercially viable and still be driven by “unbiased” content. But as John Sheehan, a former vice president of the school board of Douglas County notes in an article reprinted in the book, Rethinking Popular Culture and Media, “education and marketing are like oil and water.”

So how do we move toward truth in advertising during educational news-events; should disclaimers be made? Diane Ravitch cautions that foundations like Gates promote vouchers, charters, online learning, test-based accountability, and the whole panoply of corporate reform strategies intended to weaken public education and remove teachers' job protections.

Sponsors may not control the content at these educational news-events, but their influence is without question: He who has the gold rules.

During the Education Nation town hall discussion facilitated by Ann Curry, Robert Mitchell, a 15-year veteran teacher from the Pittsburgh public schools, passionately described how the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers and the Pittsburgh Public School District embrace its “Empowering Effective Teachers” plan. The idea of collaboration resonated strongly with the audience. Did the Gates Foundation’s $40 million investment in Pittsburgh public schools incentivize effective teaching collaboration? How should foundations make clear their rationales for funding particular education work or education journalism?

I commend Chen and his Education Nation news-event team for taking on this real-world education and marketing challenge. We need to have more of these tough conversations to address the complexities of educational reform. We also need to have transparent disclosure of the policy agendas of Education Nation's sponsors.  Caveat emptor … let the buyer beware! 

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