When singer John Legend agreed to talk on a Teach for America panel about his views on education, he probably thought he’d get a warm reception. After all, he supports charter schools, a longer school day, and vigorous standardized testing, all policies championed by the education reform movement Teach for America helped fuel.
But things didn’t go his way last night.
One of six panelists at the event, “Men of Color and Education: A Discussion on the Pursuit of Excellence,” Legend met with more criticism and more boos than he’d bargained for. At first, the audience of mostly black and Latino teachers — most of them TFA members — praised Legend’s support for putting good teachers in front of high-need students, but the cheers soon turned to boos when he advocated for testing.
“If our kids are failing them, it’s not because we shouldn’t be testing them, it’s because they’re not ready,” Legend said. “Frankly if you’re going to be an exceptional student and if you’re going be a leader in the world, you should be able to easily pass these tests. I believe that.”
Marc Lamont Hill, as associate professor at Columbia’s Teachers College, said the solution lay in assessing students’ abilities rather than giving them tests. They’re the same thing, Legend replied.
Executive Director of New York University’s Metropolitan Center for Urban Education, Pedro Noguera, jumped into the fray at the very end to counter Legend’s claim that charter schools admit the same students as district schools.
” The same public schools that are easy to attack are the only ones that accept all children,” Noguera said, adding that charter schools have succeeded only because they don’t admit as many high needs students.
If Legend emerged from the evening a little bruised (The Wall Street Journal said he turned himself into the evening’s bad guy), so did the city’s Department of Education.
Deputy Mayor for Education Dennis Walcott — who introduced himself by describing the tattoo of an equal sign on his arm — told the crowd that the city was intent on closing failing schools and opening new ones.
Though his comment was applauded, so too was Noguera, who told Walcott that the closing schools “are your failures.”
“There’s a lot of talk in New York City about failing schools and Dennis Walcott got up here and talked all tough about shutting them down,” he said. “Those are your failures. You’re in charge.”