Shut the Hell Up, John Legend.

At a Teach for America event on black boys and education here in NYC, a panel of academics, education professionals, and  a bizarre, pointless collection of celebrities (Eric Snow, Common,  and John Legend) discuss education reform.

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.

Quick, someone ask Musiq Soulchild what he thinks about the Obama administration’s plans to restore the marginal tax rate to Clinton-era levels!!!!

And for God’s sake, WHERE IS JA?!?!?!!



Gene "G.D." Demby is the founder and editor of PostBourgie. In his day job, he blogs and reports on race and ethnicity for NPR's Code Switch team.
  • Val

    It could have been worse, Beyoncé could have been invited to attend.

    • this is some pretty inspired B hate. 5 stars.

      • graduate level hate.

        • a Player Hater Degree.

          • Am I really going to have to mount a full-fledged defense of Beyonce on our little slice of the Internet? Because I will.

  • LOL @ Where’s JA?

    John Legend is Ivy League-educated (Penn), which I’m sure has a lot to do with his skewed perspective. Although he’s impressively knowledgeable about world issues for a musician, he’s not an educator.

  • John Legend I can understand, he attended an Ivy League school. But Eric Snow? Really?

    • so the simple fact of his attending an Ivy League school gives him standing?

      (this is where someone points out that the person who authorized the universally loathed No Child Left Behind law — that is, George W. Bush — has two Ivy League degrees.)

      • Scipio Africanus

        John Legend’s acceptance to Penn was a result of nepotism too?

        • again: John Legend’s Penn attendance gives him authority to speak on this stuff?

          Since we’re using this logic, can you let me know what the parameters are? Should we give credence to any celebrity with a degree from a top-25 university talking about public policy? Because I really want to know what Natalie Portman thinks about healthcare reform.

          • Scipio Africanus

            I was only respnding to the GWB association. GWB is an idiot whose Ivy League ceredentials were practically forced on him. That’s not the case with JL. Yours was a bad analogy there.

            • you’re making my point here. “Ivy League credentials” don’t mean any particular thing. It’s not as if getting into an Ivy requires a brilliant student/thinker; there’s a reason the student bodies at Harvard/Yale/Princeton look so much different than those @ Northwestern. And it’s not like Ivy League students of middling academic talents weren’t graduating with honors because of grade inflation.

              • Scipio Africanus

                I’d agree with you if we knew nothing about either GWB or JL, but that’s not the case. By all accounts JL really did earn his spot at Penn, and GWB is the beneficiary or nepotism, which brings me back to my first reply/question to you.

                • In a nutshell: I don’t think the fact of his Penn degree is indicative of anything re: this issue.

                  Let’s agree to disagree, homie.

          • Scipio Africanus

            To your second point/question (which isn’t even what I was talking about in the first place, but whatever) either you believe in trying to inlcude celebrities who might be able to contribute thoughtfully, or you don’t. If you don’t (which I’m guessing is the case for you) then there’s nothing more to talk about with this issue, right? But if you do believe this can work, then it’s up to the judgment of the people running these events to get someone who will be a good panelist.

            Criteria? Maybe educational background? Maybe views expressed in past interviews? Maybe content of their art or whatever their product is? Maybe the work or efforts they’ve gotten behind in the past? If they choose someone who’s probably not really that coherent/intelligible/thoughtful (I’m looking at you, Mos Def) or someone who’ll say something that will have the entire audience in an uproar, then who’s fault is that?

            Btw, I’ve got a funny feeling Natalie Portman probably does have something thoughtful to say about Healthcare Reform. Another bad example.

      • With you on this. If I had a nickel for how many completly useless Ivy grads I’ve run through in my career I’d be long retired by now.

  • keke

    So should John Legend Shut the Hell up because he is a musician? or because you don’t agree with him?

    • you don’t think his (and Com’s) inclusion on this panel a little arbitary?

      • Scipio Africanus

        I probably wouldn’t have done it, had I been co-ordinating the event, but I get what they were going for by including them. JL is perceived as smart and having his head on straight, and Common is perceieved as conscious and, something else good, I guess.

        Are either of them ever going to be up for the next chairmanship of the Economics Department of Oxford? No. But their inclusion was not arbitrary. The point was to invite well-known celebrities who would hopefully have something thoughtful to contribute to the discussion.

        They weren’t supposed to be taken as ouright experts or scholars.

      • UJ

        So it seems Legend was there b/c of his work with the charter schools in Harlem. Common has apparently started the Common Ground foundation that (i THINK) works with kids. Snow’s connection was most ambiguous of 3 when reading the program, but he actually came off sounding a lot smarter than the rest. He had a decent moment when he talked about how when visits schools kids often ask him questions like: Can you dunk? Where’s Lebron? Whats your ride? etc etc and he wanted kids to be asking him things like: Where did you go to college, etc etc.

        I also recall look like he was processing what was being said by his co-panelists as if he was thinking and speaking for himself rather than waiting for a moment to jump in with something he had prepped to talk about.

        Noguera was my fave of the night. But he always is. He led the conversation down a path of what it would mean for us to re-think masculinity in the same way that femininity was re-invested in the 20s.

        • UJ

          and when I say Snow seemed smarter than the rest I just meant compared to Legend and Common. He didn’t come close to Hill or Noguera

  • Grump

    Eric Snow funds a scholarship for minority students at Michigan State.

    I always wondered how many people truly know the roles that charter schools play. Do the masses know that charter schools can regulate who they accept? Do they know to what extent they can do this? In Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood, there are charter schools that do not accept neighbprhood children. What part of the game is that? You’re in one of the worst neighborhoods in the city and you’re NOT going to allow neighborhood kids to enroll?

    • right. it’s called “skimming,” which means that their effectiveness is inflated because they take the best/least difficult kids from public schools.

    • quadmoniker

      In some charter school’s defense, they don’t all do this. Some of them have lottery application processes, and the only requirement is that you live in one of the communities the school means to serve. So while many charter schools are highly selective, some of them try to be random.

  • all you students take yo tests like this / work your pencils, don’t stop, don’t miss (c) khia

    • ajuaorangemoon

      That made me laugh so hard that tears came to my eyes.

    • bytwenty8

      BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! (Same @ajuaorangemoon.)

  • E

    Plus, John Legend was homeschooled for much of his education. He went to high school at 12 and to the Ivy League at 16! I don’t want to hear what he has to say about education. You ain’t “ordinary people,” John Legend.

  • I sort of understand where Legend is coming from. I’ve heard critiques of standardized testing all my life, often from black parents, and as someone who’s excelled academically since grade school they are largely incomprehensible to me. Part of the problem, I think, is that I don’t fully understand what is being advocated. What is supposed to take the place of standardized tests? But a more significant problem lies in the broader message sent by switching assessment standards for students who can’t pass the exams as they are now. Aren’t we in effect telling both our children and the rest of society “we’ll just push you through this alternative route since you’re not quite sharp enough to do it the usual way.” Kids aren’t stupid—they pick up on these sorts of signals.

    What this comment is really about is asking what the key objections and alternatives to standardized testing are. I’d genuinely be interested in hearing them. There’s just something that viscerally bothers me about the implication that black kids aren’t smart enough to reach the same levels of educational achievement through the same channels as others. And even though I’m pretty sure everyone here knows that’s not true, I have something of a knee-jerk bias against all policy proposals that even seem to suggest it.

    • long-ish response TK.

  • UJ

    Ok – so I was at this event. My personal take on this: Legend came off as though someone had prepared talking points for him and not as though he actually knew what he was talking about. He also solidly stuck to his pt about standardized testing and quite frankly it felt that he did not b/c he actually had given it some thought, but b/c someone had fed him some lines and rather than revise his opinion on the stage of lincoln center he kept going with it. One of my favorite Legend-Hill moments of the night was when Legend talked about how schools had made the mistake of cutting arts education programs. Hill quickly jumped in and said it had been done to prep kids for these crazy standardized test! HAH!

    Legend also became frustrated as the night went on and I’m pretty sure dropped the F bomb. At the end of the night each of the panelist were given the opportunity to give a final 30 second closing statement. Rather than using the time to leave us with something inspiring, Legend chose that moment to say something like “I know I wasnt the most popular panelist tonight, but I do make some good music, so I hope you all still like me after this.” REALLY? Thanks a lot buddy.

    Speaking of being fed talking points – someone forget to give Common his. He was silent for most of the night. Though at one point a young boy went up to the mic and asked the panelist what they recommended to stop bullying in his school. He said that the school had assemblies about it but he wanted to know what they could really do. Common offered to go to school with the kid and really no one on the panel offered the kid anything of substance. There was a bit of a pep talk in explaining that the bully isn’t right within and that’s why he bullies – but no one told the kid how to actually handle the situation. Disappointing. To be fair, the format of the Q&A was a bit disjointed b/c A- they were fielding 3 questions at a time and B- every person asking a question spent 6.5 minutes on their own personal soapbox and sometimes after finishing their rant, didn’t ever actually pose a question. My pt being – the kid’s question sorta got lost in the shuffle. But not really.

  • getthesenets

    For a lot of professions, a person has to take and pass some form of standardized testing.
    We live in this country and have to compete,eventually, with people from different backgrounds.

    People who prioritize education will generally have children who do well in these types of tests(regardless of socio-economic backgrounds). By hook or by crook…

  • getthesenets

    Common (and Andre 300) are pretty clueless in interviews despite being high level, world traveling artists. On more than one occasion I’ve had to cringe when a microphone was placed in front of one of these guys and there was no beat playing.

  • “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.”

    I guess I’m an elitest Black snob, becuase I don’t disagree.

    I’m a parent. I’ve got a six year old son. I want him in a school where excellence is the standard, parents are involved, and teachers are qualified. I think everyone reading this blog wants the same things and when it comes to YOUR child/children, all of these abstract ideals being expressed here go out the window.

    You do what you’ve got to do to get your kids in the best learning environment you can. You’ll use your parents or friend’s addresses, your work address, or get a PO box that has an actual address in the district you want your child to attend. Charter, magnet, private, whatever – if it means that your kids are learning and not vegging while the teacher spends the day restoring order in the classroom, or improvising his or her lesson plan on the fly, then that’s what you’ll do.

    This is my school district – ain’t no way in hell my son was going to end up there…

  • getthesenets

    “by hook or crook”

  • First, I think it’s crazy that they invited John and then got upset about his opinion and because of his educational background he has more reason to be there than a lot of the other named artists.

    Second of all I agree. The issue is not that we should not have standardized tests.
    Will I dont agree that testing a child’s ability is not the same as standardized testing, the two are not mutually exclusive and I do believe that both must and should be used.

  • Seth in LA

    While being famous doesn’t automatically make you an expert on something, it also doesn’t disqualify you from having a valid opinion. If Legend had attended Penn and achieved the same degree of success in another less-celebrity laden career, he could have sat on a panel as an intelligent educated person and nobody would question his right to express this opinion.

    I think Legend is smart enough to know that the audience he was speaking to might not like all his ideas. He went there and said them to make a point, not to win fans.

    So, why exactly should he shut up?

    • quadmoniker

      That’s not true. There are plenty of Ivy League grads who don’t sit on panels, and they certainly don’t sit on panels on a subject for which they have no expertise.

  • Becky Smith

    It sounds as if people were just upset that John Legend didn’t agree with their point of view. I was a wannabe teacher with a desire to work for the “urban” community. Thankfully, I’m not anymore. (Folks are firing new teachers left and right in California.) John Legend did have a point. Students SHOULD be able to pass these very basic tests. I don’t think children should be TAUGHT to the test, but they should be educated to the point where they are proficient.

    There seems to be a lot of negative press regarding charter schools. Not all of them work the same way. The reality is many parents are unwilling to participate in their child’s education. Not only does this cause their child to be unprepared, but there is no supplement nor reinforcement. If there was an environment where I knew parents and students were willing to work hard to ensure a modicum of success, I would gladly work there than in some school with bad ass kids, disrespectful parents and inept administration.

  • Ash

    I’m gonna agree with Becky and dfreelon on this. John Legend is right (even if he isn’t “qualified” to speak on this issue). Even if the tests are flawed, if other kids can pass these tests, why can’t black kids? Firing teachers and closing schools can only do so much when so many students don’t have the support system they need at home. It seems these forums and panel discussions are nothing but excuses for these so-called education professionals to reaffirm the same talking points they make every year. Nothing ever changes because alternative opinions aren’t even given consideration.

  • treva

    where’s ja? hahaha love this!