What Will John Legend's Education Reform Legacy Be?
His legend in education will show a man who supports kids bubbling in scan-ready sheets rather than notes for the keys to their own lives.
Last Wednesday, Huffington Post Education’s Twitter feed tweeted this out:
In the pithiest attempt at a response, I said, "From what?"
After a more thorough read on all the school board races around the country, I noticed a disturbing trend of pundits funding their favorite candidates in influential districts. Places like Chicago, West Sacramento, and Los Angeles started getting funding from people like Michael Bloomberg, Michelle Rhee, and, yes, John Legend.
John Legend's presence in this debate particularly disturbs me because of the allure and seduction of having a musician stand side-by-side with the very people who condemn poor children, colored or not, to an artless, factory-inspired sense of schooling. Bloomberg's distaste for public servants and their unions is well documented, as is Michelle Rhee's bobbing and weaving over cheating allegations, both masterfully playing mainstream media to look like vanguards and radicals. I expect as much from them.
John Legend is different, though. Since my last letter to him, he's gone further past original thought and more into neo-liberal think tank mode. A line like "If we think demography is destiny, we will allow our school system to confirm that belief" sounds like a Washington lobbyist read up on Deepak Chopra and tried to apply his tweets to education reform.
To make matters worse, he probably still ends arguments with a mini-concert, just to keep the less informed seduced, uncritical, and grateful for his presence, even as he openly plots to destroy communities.
More importantly, the culture around his opinions makes me wonder why anyone would equate celebrity with expertise, but education seems to be the only arena where songwriters and billionaires have better leverage in what happens in the classroom than the actual practitioners and partners in our children’s education, namely teachers and parents. His two to three lines of reasoning, often in the form of "But I know a school that…," hold too much weight in the improvement of our schools. The research rarely backs him up.
I'm not in the camp of folks that say "Only educators should have a voice in education," but I am in the camp of "If you’re going to have an opinion, read up."
Anyone who's known me for a while might question how I can come for John Legend's neck when Matt Damon was the feature face at the Save Our Schools March that included Diane Ravitch, Linda Darling-Hammond, Jonathan Kozol, and me. If you take a listen to Damon’s speech, however, two things come to the fore: he's not telling anyone he’s the expert in education and he ends his speech by introducing his mother Nancy Carlsson-Paige, an actual educator.
John Legend, on the other hand, lends his face to countless programs, yet never relinquishes the expertise to someone who knows better than he. Instead, the magic comes from within him and his own ideas, really the corporate reform slate cleverly disguised in a black musician. He might in fact mean well, but he seems to have stayed the course, an often dangerous proposition for anyone who opines so openly on a field with all the wrong voices in charge.
The list of famous folk who prescribe to this reform slate doesn't start or end with him, but he's put himself in the spotlight. Sadly, John's legend in education will show a man who supports kids using pencils to bubble in scan-ready sheets rather than notes for the keys to their own lives.
A version of this post appeared at The Jose Vilson
Photo via Wikimedia Commons