The education of John Legend
For someone who was home-schooled for a number of years, it’s interesting that singer and six-time Grammy award winner John Legend spends what spare time he has reforming America’s public schools. He is especially devoted to Deborah Kenny’s Harlem Village Academies, a group of three charter schools in Harlem, New York.
Like many celebrities these days, Legend wants to — and does — leverage his success for a worthwhile cause. His introduction to education reform came from retired Giants running back Tiki Barber, who is a Harlem Village Academy board member. Ever since Legend met Kenny and visited one her schools, he was hooked.
“I was inspired by the success,” Legend says. “It’s very attractive to deal with schools that are defying the odds and succeeding, and I wanted to see what I could do to create an environment where more of this can happen.”
Legend now co-chairs the school’s board with News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch who made a surprise donation of $5.5 million to the school last year. While Legend’s and Murdoch’s beliefs might fall on different ends of the political spectrum, their co-chairing shows that educational issues can extend beyond politics and that education shouldn’t be a political matter.
Both Legend and Kenny believe that the way to break the cycle of poverty is through a quality education — and access to it. Kenny’s schools, which educate more than 700 children, focus on teaching and teachers. Kenny thinks teachers are the key to school reform and developing successful students.
“A lot of time when they talk about school reform they talk about teacher quality and solely in terms of whether or not the kids can past the proficiency tests, which is important, but that’s not the only thing that matters,” Legend says.
Kenny, he says, realized that the success or failure of the school depends upon the individuals that are running it — the teachers, the principals: “You have to arouse passion in them and allow them autonomy and the ability to be creative and really do the best for their kids.”
Legend characterized the public high school he attended, and graduated from, in Springfield, Ohio, as a “drop-out factory” since only 230 out of about a class of 500 graduated in 1996.
“A lot of our schools around the country, particularly in working class and poor neighborhoods have really low drop-out rates,” Legend says. “And America continues to fall behind in our high school graduation rates compared to the rest of the developed world, so it’s an issue we have to figure out.”
Legend puts some of the blame on teachers’ unions and their efforts to make sure all educators are treated the same, regardless of their skill or record of success.
“In trying to create teacher equality to protect our teachers we end up treating them like assembly line workers, factory workers, instead of creative knowledge workers,” Legend says. “In treating them like they’re the same you ignore the worst but you also ignore the best. It doesn’t foster creativity and excellence.”
Instead, Legend wants to spread different ideas about school reform and create a collaborative work environment. While there is a plethora of charter schools to work with that have different ideas about how to improve our education system, Legend says there are a lot of things in common that are working like fostering creativity and individuality in teachers and students that can be spread in a scalable way.
“Even though there are a lot of individual success we don’t have to treat them as exceptions,” Legend explains. “Teacher quality, data on tracking students’ progress, tutoring, more hours in school, a culture of high expectations — we know these things are working in a number of schools in a numbers of states around the country.”
To accomplish all of these goals, Legend has started advocating for a lift of the cap on charter schools in New York state and advocating to improve regulatory environment so more charter schools can be created all over the country.
“I didn’t want this innovation and success to only be in a few isolated incidents. I want it to be all over the place so I began to advocate for that to happen,” Legend explains.
One way he is advocating that message is by releasing a brand-new album with the Roots called Wake Up! One of the songs on it, “Shine,” is featured in the new film, “Waiting for Superman,” which documents the education crisis in our country. Legend says this project allowed him to unite his passion for music with his passion for activism.
So, what’s next on Legend’s agenda after he wraps-up his album promotion tour?
“I’m going to continue speaking out on behalf of all the kids in our country,” he says.