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Recording Artist & Philanthropist John Legend To Bill Maher: "You're Wrong On Education"

CJW, September 14, 2010 9:13 AM


Prev. Published by The Daily Riff 3/18/10

Retaliates Against Maher's "New Rule" To
 "Fire The Parents, Not The Teachers"

By C.J. Westerberg

The Daily Beast delivers a retaliatory letter from recording artist and philanthropist John Legend to Bill Maher, in response to Maher's prescription for saving education to "fire the parents, not the teachers".   Maher is the provocative host of HBO's "Real Time With Bill Maher."  To view Maher's video rant w/related story, link here to previous The Daily Riff story or check out video below.

Maher has met a formidable opponent on this one since Legend has done some amazing extensive work in education and is not just an arm-chair observer.  The Daily Riff covered Legend's most recent high-profile visit on Morning Joe with "Scarborough & Brzezinski Zero In On Excellence" with link here, with story surrounding the success of the Harlem Village Academies.

It's usually entertaining to watch Maher, and while his parent rant had some truth to be imparted to parents, with Maher's typical smart-snark-style, which he pulls off most of the time (can't say that for most snark).   With that being said, his no-holds-barred rhetoric illuminated our culture's tendency to blame one constituency over another, when in fact education won't work without a collaboration between parents, teachers, students, administrators and communities.  

Last week Newsweek pointed a singular finger to bad teachers on their recent cover.   Later in the week, Maher rails into parents.  In reality, attempts to lay blame for all the problems on one of the "silos" only creates more of a rift between them, which serves no one, especially the kids (remember them?).  As we talk about collaboration as a critical 21st Century skill in business and a skill that needs to be promoted in classrooms,  maybe education insiders can act less silo-like?

John Legend's letter, as featured exclusively in The Daily Beast, presents his (snark-free) argument without equivocation. We highly recommend reading the entire letter with link here.  A few excerpts:

Hey Bill,

You know I deeply respect you and the issues you cover. I'm a big fan of your show. I really enjoy being a guest there and would love to be invited back sometime. Now, I'm hoping this letter won't close the door to that.

So, from one man without children to another, I think you were pretty off base in your closing monologue about education on Friday. . .

We should not be afraid to say that some well-meaning individuals are simply not effective teachers. If a teacher cannot help students learn, he or she shouldn't be teaching.

You were right about some things: Parental involvement really matters. Parents should turn off the TV, encourage reading, talk with their kids about their day, help with their homework, hold them accountable, and get involved in their education.

However, a child's academic success does not only depend on parenting. Parents control what happens at home.  .  .

. . . A recent study showed that a student scoring at the 50th percentile, who spends two years in an average school with an average teacher, is likely to continue scoring at the 50th achievement percentile. However, if that same student spends just two years in a "most effective" school with a "most effective" teacher, he or she rockets to the 96th achievement percentile. . .
 . . . THAT is what good teachers can do. Those students didn't get new parents; they changed schools and got new teachers. Our school systems need to learn from these successes and replicate them. Our current system often does not support the right teachers and it protects the bad ones . . ."

"Recording artist, concert performer, and philanthropist John Legend has won six Grammy awards and was named one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people. In 2007, John Legend launched the Show Me Campaign (, an initiative that uses education to break the cycle of poverty. He is a co-chair of the Harlem Village Academies Founder's Council, an advisory board for a group of charter schools in New York City. He was awarded the CARE Humanitarian Award for Global Change in June 2009 and received the 2009 Bishop John T. Walker Distinguished Humanitarian Service Award by Africare.

Video below:


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Interesting that Maher and Legend are talking about opposite results from studies trying to find the answer to the same problem. Those are studies for you. For each one that says yes, there is a counterpart. Do teachers have that great an impact on learning achievement? My gut tells me I make a difference in the what my students learn, compared to other students under other teachers. However, I do not get to reach every child. Not every child in the class will learn as much as some of the other students, because some were really interested in learning, some were somewhat interested in learning, and some were just in school because there was no other place to be at. (Guess which two-thirds I'm devoting most of my time and energy to?) The truth of the matter is it's not just the teacher's talent; it's not just the parent's parenting; it's also that each kid is an individual, and there is not any one-size-fits-all learning style. Teachers can help, parents can help, injecting funds for learning aids can help, but these will NOT help EACH and EVERY child. There is no point for myself in pointing fingers at an unsuccessful child's parents. That parent would just probably point right back at me. In the middle of the finger pointing is the child. The one who needs to decide if it's time to study and learn, or if this entire exercise is really meaningless to the life being lived.

Why doesn't anyone ever blame the ADMINISTRATORS!
They are the leaders who fail, they get the most compensation.
Administrators are the most responsible, fire them all.
Then hire teachers to do their work.

That said you are right:
" With that being said, his no-holds-barred rhetoric illuminated our culture's tendency to blame one constituency over another, when in fact education won't work without a collaboration between parents, teachers, students, administrators and communities. "

Right you are that school leadership is often the last factor to be brought up as a central issue. You may like our recent post on this subject where BOTH Jim Collins "Good To Great" and principal Mike McCarthy zero in on hiring the right people as critical or as Collins puts it: "getting the right people on the bus" and getting off the ones who aren't.
That among other things - C.J.

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