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National Educational Telecommunications Association (NETA)
Professional Development Conference 2015
Tampa, Florida

Paula Kerger, President and CEO, PBS
Session Remarks

 

Thank you for inviting me here today to join you.

I think it’s so important that we come together to discuss our educational mission.

It’s clear that we have entered into a new age of digital learning.

The lines in media between education and learning are blurring.

We are no longer alone in providing entertaining, inspiring stories, or in using the latest in technology for education.

I think this represents progress for our country, but it also sparks some deep questions for our system.

As Alicia Levi laid out at the Annual Meeting, this new landscape is forcing us to ask ourselves:

How do we continue to differentiate ourselves and our educational offerings?

How do we stay relevant in the public’s learning journey – from toddler to teenager, from college graduate to lifelong learner - without overextending ourselves?

How do we remain the most trusted, respected educational media brand in a world where there’s so many different companies offering their own versions of educational content?

We know we have an important role to play in education – but to what audiences, and in what markets?

Deciding how and where to place our energies and resources requires patience, discipline and courage.

We know that there’s even more potential for PBS LearningMedia to be a transformational and catalytic tool within your communities.

And while many of you are passionate about education and know its importance, you wrestle with how to leverage education to attract individual donors and philanthropic support.

I have heard from many of you that you struggle with connecting our work in early learning via PBS KIDS and our work in producing amazing general audience content, to our work in the classroom.

To develop sound answers to these questions, we are actively engaged in reimagining the very core of our educational value proposition.

We are asking fundamental, strategic questions of ourselves like how and where PBS can efficiently offer its unique content to formal and informal learners.

We have been working with our board, our stations, and education experts to develop the way forward, and I know that many of you have participated in these conversations already.

This is an ongoing process, and will be a major topic of discussion at our upcoming GM Strategy Meeting in December.

But I think that we have a head start, because we have been wrestling with these questions for a very long time.

When I first started my career in public television over twenty years ago at WNET, I was shown a video of Edward R. Murrow inaugurating the station, which was then called WNDT, for New Dimensions in Television. 

Sitting there before the camera in a basic studio – taped in black and white – the legendary journalist told the audience “The only thing this channel will sell is the lure of learning, the only product they will push is the node of knowledge.”

Today, the behemoth black-and-white cameras have been replaced by miniature HD wonders, and public stations are sending out multiple digital streams from automated master controls into the 500-channel universe, but Murrow’s eloquent words still guide us. 

Focusing our educational mission has been our guidestar for the last four decades.

NETA has been an important part of that focus, as a key partner in putting education front and center in our work.

And we have made some important impacts.

Studies show that access to PBS KIDS educational programs makes a measurable impact on children’s success in school, especially for those children most at-risk.
 
Preschoolers who watch SUPER WHY demonstrate significant growth on targeted early literacy skills.
 
And research shows that PEG + CAT's content helps build children's understanding of important math concepts.

A 2015 PBS LearningMedia Impact study shows that students outperformed national assessment norms by 10 percentage points and state assessment norms by 11 percentage points when PBS LearningMedia content was integrated into the curriculum.

56% of students participating in the research showed an increase in critical thinking practices from pre- to post-test when our content was integrated.

We conducted a meta-analysis of all the research on PBS content, which found that PBS content has educational effectiveness and a statistically significant impact on learning.

These findings remain constant regardless of the subject area covered; whether the learning took place using TV, video, tablet, games, or hand-held devices and other interactive technology; or whether students or adults learn at home, in school, or in the community.

And the research found that using our content across platforms improves learning.

These are some significant findings.

But I think it’s clear that there’s a lot more that we must do in order to stay relevant, and continue to lead the way in the educational media space.

The ways in which kids consume media, the number of for-profit companies providing educational media materials, the ways in which teachers use media in the classroom: all of this is evolving at record speed.

There are all kinds of statistics to illustrate this change: from the amount of venture capital money being thrown at educational solutions to the amount of screen time the average five year old watches.

But I think that in public media, we need to pay attention to a different set of numbers.

Consider this:

The Annie E. Casey Foundation recently released their “Kids Count” survey, and found that 54% of children nationwide do not have the opportunity to attend preschool.

54%!

They also found that two thirds of fourth graders are not proficient in reading.

And while explanations vary, one thing is clear: children with less access to resources are falling ever more behind in this country.

This should concern us for a number of reasons.

First, there’s the extraordinary economic cost.

We are losing out on a tremendous amount of human capital, because we aren’t educating all children to be able to succeed.

McKinsey & Company researchers found that if the United States had closed the racial achievement gap and African-American and Latino student performance had caught up with white students by 1998, the gross domestic product in 2008 would have been up to $525 billion higher.

That’s a lot of money.

As the Annie E. Casey Foundation said in their report “Race for Results,” “if America is to remain prosperous for generations to come, all children must have a fair chance to succeed. We are truly in a race against time to deliver better results for our kids.”

Then there’s the sheer number of children who are increasingly on the margins of our society, without access to resources that are crucial to success.

The number of children living in poverty has gone up since 2008 – there are now 16 million children living in poverty.

At least one out of every three African American, Latino and American Indian children in America lives in a household below the poverty line.

Nearly one-third of all children have parents who lack secure employment. One third!!

And 10.5 million children live in a family where the household head lacks a high school diploma.

As the Annie E. Casey Foundation put it, as these children attempt to climb the ladder of opportunity, many of them will fall through broken rungs.

Since our founding, we have been an important rung on that ladder for millions of people who have used PBS to help themselves build a better life.

And so even as we think about the new media landscape, let’s remember the purpose of our work: to serve as a resource for all Americans, especially those who don’t have access to other resources.

In public media we have a unique opportunity, and responsibility, to use our airwaves to reach all children, to make sure that all kids in this country have access to high quality educational materials, to role models onscreen who are genuinely curious about the world, and to informational content that’s accurate and that can help them participate in shaping the future of this country.

We were founded in order to use the power of our airwaves to serve ALL Americans.

And that mission is more important than ever.

We are not in the educational space to make money.

We are in education because we truly believe that we must harness the power of media to help all people in this country build a better future for themselves and for our country.

And so as we consider the challenges facing our system, and as we navigate what it means to be an educational media brand in the future, let’s not forget that mission.

And let’s not forget our responsibility to those children who are growing up without a whole lot of options.

For most of those sixteen million children in poverty, they don’t have a cable subscription, or broadband access at home.

But they do have a television.

And so they have us.

We can use our platforms to give those kids a leg up the ladder.

We can use our content to prepare kids for the jobs of the future, to teach them social and emotional skills, and STEAM skills, and literacy skills.

We can use our reach connect with teachers in the classroom, to become an ally for every educator who’s looking for new ways to connect with kids in the classroom.

And we can use our platforms to reflect and show the true diversity of this country, to give kids of all backgrounds and ethnicities a chance to see themselves on our television screen, to give them role models they can relate to.

We have been engaged in an important discussion across the system about how to serve America’s increasingly diverse children.

And certainly this is an important conversation, since we know that according to Census Bureau projections, by 2018, children of color will represent a majority of children. By 2030, the majority of the U.S. labor force will be people of color. By mid-century, no single racial group will comprise a majority of the population.

But I think that we can even think of diversity a little more broadly, when we talk about our unique value.

We recently received a letter from a mom whose daughter has “facial differences”:

“A few years ago, Taryn indicated she wanted to be a model. As a mother who had always told her she could achieve anything she wanted, I found an agency who could represent her. Booking a ‘job’ was secondary to the fact that she was on the website. She was able to see herself in a place she wanted to be. In 2009, she worked with Honda on a set and yesterday, she had the amazing pleasure of working with the Odd Squad crew.

“I really want to thank you all for casting with the diversity you do. While that might seem like part of the job, for this family it was a huge memorable moment which allowed this kid to build herself up even more.

“I wanted you and your team to know that sometimes, your work is more than just a job. Don't underestimate the impact of making a kid feel special, as a small gesture can make a huge impact.”

You know what’s amazing about that story? It’s that we didn’t just make Taryn feel special. For every child who watches that episode of ODD SQUAD, who might look a little different than everyone else, they will see someone like them on television.

And that power, that potential to make a kid who’s a little different feel special, will be multiplied hundreds and thousands of times over.

This is real learning, and a real impact on the lives of kids across this country.

I was reminded of how much our content can make an impact on families by another PBS fan.

When I first heard this story, I teared up. And while it may not sound like it’s directly related to education, I think that it’s central to illustrating our unique value.

She wrote:

“I was pregnant with Poppy this past January when we found out in an ultrasound that our baby girl has spina bifida.  We were shocked and surprised and, in those first few days, devastated.  The day after we learned of our daughter’s diagnosis, we stayed home from our jobs to be with our two children and absorb and grieve this new change.  We stuck to a familiar schedule for our children and turned on one of our favorite TV programs; Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. 

“It just so happens on that day, less than 24 hours after we learned that the fifth member of our family would have a life altering diagnosis, we saw your episode about Chrissie coming to play with Daniel and his friends.  Tears streamed down mine and my husband’s faces as we watched not only the animated segment, but the ‘neighbor’ portion in which two brothers play at the park. 

“One brother walked and functioned normally; however the other brother needed AFO’s and crutches to play.  We watched as the two brothers laughed and played together.  It was honestly a first glimpse at seeing what our lives could look like and that they could be filled with joy, rather than the pain we were feeling at that moment.  We were also able to use that episode to help us tell our two children about their sister and a little bit about her new diagnosis.  It was amazing to be able to have something to draw off of that they had just seen.” 

This kind of learning might not show up on a standardized test.

And it may not be measured by metrics or common core standards.

But to that family, and so many more, it matters even more.

And so as we seek to define our work in this new educational media space, let’s not forget the essential, unique, and compelling work we have always done, and will continue to do, by staying focused on our mission to use the power of media to educate, engage, and inspire.

We are here to serve all Americans, from every walk of life, every step of the way, as they strive to build a brighter future for themselves and for our country.

As we negotiate this largely undefined frontier, we are called upon to remember our time-honored responsibilities. 

As technology evolves and grows out in many directions, it is our duty to remember the people we serve.  In their interest, we must make an intense effort to remain true to our purpose. 

We cannot let new gadgets and the latest methods for delivering information overwhelm us or deter us from our collective mission, which is to deal with the public honestly, truthfully, sincerely, and fairly. 

Even as technology gives us wings, we must work hard to remain grounded, relevant and real.

Living in an age of revolution is tough.  It’s a constant challenge.  For everyone.  But especially for those of us who are committed to an enduring and timeless mission – like the one that Ed Murrow declared for us nearly half a century ago when our enterprise was in its infancy.

The great reformer, Vaclav Havel, a man who knew revolution all too well, said that “Either we have hope within us or we don't.  It is a dimension of the soul, and it's not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation...  Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed....”

The enterprise of public broadcasting has always been about that kind of hope.  Those of us who work in this business do so because it is good.  It is necessary.  And our country is better for it.  But I am confident that we will succeed as well. 

I’d like to close with just one more thought.

Along with so many other people, who gathered around televisions and radios to watch and listen to the Pope’s address to Congress, I was struck by the power of his humble speech.

He said:

“Let us seek for others the same possibilities which we seek for ourselves. Let us help others to grow, as we would like to be helped ourselves.”

I think that this is especially important for us in public media.

As we navigate the future, let us seek for others the same possibilities which we seek for ourselves.

We must not only build a strong and sustainable public media system, but a strong and sustainable democracy, where every child has the opportunity to grow up and achieve their full potential.

And as we work to educate the next generation, let us help others grow, as we grow our own reach and impact.

We must not forget the least among us, those children and families who are depending on us for the tools they need to build a better future.

And so it’s for them that I commit to you to work together with your stations to strengthen our service to the American people.

Thank you.