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John Legend and the Well-Meaning Corporatists

by Jose Vilson on March 13, 2013

in Jose

Davis Guggenheim, John Legend, Michelle Rhee

Davis Guggenheim, John Legend, Michelle Rhee

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 of 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.

Jose, who is happy he has his own space to publish this in …


How Much Superman Knows About Pedagogy

by Jose Vilson on September 21, 2010

in Jose

Waiting for Superman

Pardon my snark, but what does Superman really know about pedagogy? Really, I’m not sure why Davis Guggenheim, John Legend, Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee, or anyone else think this superhero should be the face of education reform when a) he probably wants nothing to do with this mess b) kids aren’t asking to be “saved” for an episode c) Lex Luther has more in common with the aforementioned club than Superman does in regards to educational policy, and d) he’s fictional, much like the reform these guys promise. For that matter, I don’t see Superman ever teaching other kids how to be Supermen and women in their own right to empower their communities so he doesn’t have to run around like a madman wondering where the next disaster might occur. Plus, I’m pretty sure Superman is equal parts community non-profit organization as much as superhero, i.e. I’m pretty sure he makes his money off the public good. That side-job at the paper doesn’t make ends meet.

Plus, I can’t imagine that teacher prep colleges work towards building Superman from all of us. Superman is a one-dimensional demigod whereas teachers are required to be multi-dimensional humans. Teachers are people who don’t get celebrated in the public, but in private quarters, in pair-like conversations, and places where the public has enough compassion to remember that teacher.

Then again, I’m an alien, and I got a school to leap in a single bound tomorrow.

Jose, who finds this top-heavy conversation without any teachers, parents, or kids really bizarro …


Firing Teachers

Believe it or not, 2009 is the first year I started using a highlighter for reading a book. Maybe it’s a sign of aging, or my acclimation to getting information fed to me rapidly and succinctly, but my difficulty with concentrating on anything larger than a paragraph has led me to the magic neon-saffron marker. So you can believe my surprise when John Legend, who doesn’t have a leg to stand on in education discussions, forwarded this piece from the New York Times to his fans / followers. New York Times’ contributor Steven Brill perpetuates the idea that the New York Times continues its march to the educational right of center.

Take a look at this selection from Brill’s slanted piece:

On one side there’s the Harlem Success Academy, a kindergarten-through-fourth-grade charter with 508 students. On the other side, there’s a regular public school, P.S. 149, with 438 pre-K to 8th-grade students. They are separated only by a fire door in the middle; they share a gym and cafeteria. School reformers would argue that the difference between the two demonstrates what happens when you remove three ingredients from public education — the union, big-system bureaucracy and low expectations for disadvantaged children.

On the charter side, the children are quiet, dressed in uniforms, hard at work — and typically performing at or above grade level. Their progress in a variety of areas is tracked every six weeks, and teachers are held accountable for it. They are paid about 5 to 10 percent more than union teachers with their levels of experience. The teachers work longer than those represented by the union: school starts at 7:45 a.m., ends at 4:30 to 5:30 and begins in August. The teachers have three periods for lesson preparation, and they must be available by cellphone (supplied by the school) for parent consultations, as must the principal. They are reimbursed for taking a car service home if they stay late into the evening to work with students. There are special instruction sessions on Saturday mornings. The assumption that every child will succeed is so ingrained that (in a flourish borrowed from the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, a national charter network) each classroom is labeled with the college name of its teacher and the year these children are expected to graduate (as in “Yale 2026” for one kindergarten class I recently visited). The charter side of the building spends $18,378 per student per year. This includes actual cash outlays for everything from salaries to the car service, plus what the city says (and the charter disputes) are the value of services that the city contributes to the charter for utilities, building maintenance and even “debt service” for its share of the building.

On the other side of the fire door, I encounter about a hundred children at 9:00 a.m. watching a video in an auditorium, having begun their school day at about 8:30. Others wander the halls. Instead of the matching pension contributions paid to the charter teachers that cost the school $193 per student on the public-school side, the union contract provides a pension plan that is now costing the city $2,605 per year per pupil. All fringe benefits, including pensions and health insurance, cost $1,341 per student on the charter side, but $5,316 on this side. For the public-school teachers to attend a group meeting after hours with the principal (as happens at least once a week on the charter side) would cost $41.98 extra per hour for each attendee, and attendance would still be voluntary. Teachers are not obligated to receive phone calls from students or parents at home. Although the city’s records on spending per student generally and in any particular school are difficult to pin down because of all of the accounting intricacies, the best estimate is that it costs at least $19,358 per year to educate each student on the public side of the building, or $980 more than on the charter side.

Let’s dissect this for a second.

#1 – If charter school teachers have to work 5-10% more time for 5-10% more money, is that really a raise? No. It’s more working, which renders his $41.98 extra per hour (what teachers call “per session”) inconsequential.

#2 – Can we define levels of experience? What’s the average amount of experience teachers in charter schools have versus public schools? Numerous studies have shown that charter schools suffer from higher levels of attrition rates than public schools do, and there’s multiple factors to that, many of which unions help to address.

#3, as a corollary to #2 – How does a teacher actually get better if they don’t get enough experience to stay in their school longer than 2-3 years?

#4 – Why does Brill keep referring to this contract as the “union contract” when two parties agreed to this and when our union made so many concessions over the last five years, I find it hard to believe the union “strong-armed” anyone into it?

#5 – How does the writer manage to find the appropriate estimate for what’s spent on children when things are so “difficult to pin down?” Isn’t it a logical fallacy on his end to suggest a huge discrepancy in money per student, and furthermore, to blame the discrepancy on a body that DEPENDS on how much money per student is used?

#6 – Cell phones? Car services? That sounds to me like there’s a few benefits we’re not discussing in depth.

#7 – He fails to mention the bi-weekly mandated staff meetings and the extra 40 minutes or so per day that not all principals have integrated into the school day.

#8 – I wonder how many students who don’t fit with the charter school’s “model” get pushed to the other side. Further, I find it deceitful to put a school with as many resources as the charter school right next to the public school. It’s a typical case of the haves versus have-notes.

The rest of the article reads like a 2010 communique to reformers, and that doesn’t bode well for anyone who wants to stay in the profession long-term. I don’t have a problem with parents sending kids to charter schools if that’s the choice they’d like to have. I just see the myriad of reformers falling into the gaping holes of their arguments.

By the time I got to page 9 of the article, I stopped highlighting anything; these are low lights in our profession. And Steven Brill is the prognosticator of the death of public education.

Mr. Vilson, whose between-the-lines literacy is at an all-time high …


Dear John: Where I Disagree With Legend

March 3, 2010 Jose
John Legend

Dear John Legend, Last night at the Avery Hall in Lincoln Center (NYC), you and Common headlined an awesome town hall between some of the brightest and influential Black / Latino men in education. The line-up read like a starting roster for a hypothetical NYC Black educator panel: David Banks of the Eagle Academy as […]

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