By Charles Hallman
Fixing U.S. schools must be a top priority, says award-winning singer-songwriter John Legend, who spoke last week at the Fitzgerald Theatre in St. Paul in the second Minneapolis Foundation RESET Education event this year.
RESET is an acronym for “Real-Time Use of Data, Expectations not Excuses, Strong Leadership, Effective Teaching and Time on Task.” The nine-time Grammy Award winner is a strong education reform proponent and serves on several boards, including Teach for America and the Harlem Village Academies.
The singer asked the estimated 900 people who attended his nearly one-hour speech, including two groups of Minneapolis youngsters, why they would come to hear “a R&B singer” talk about education. “I’m a musician, not a [school] superintendent,” he said, strongly pointing out that the present educational system in this country is failing too many kids.
Amidst unanimous applause, Legend pleaded, “I’m passionate about educational reform. The number-one priority…is that every child has an excellent teacher in their classroom.
“Collectively we have the power to fix our schools,” he continued. “It doesn’t matter if you don’t have kids. We are all connected and joined together to invest in an education system today to create a better world for all of us to live in.”
He recalled a visit to Africa where he “saw what it’s like to live on a dollar a day.” After his return, Legend started his Show Me Campaign, an initiative that uses education to break the cycle of poverty in the U.S.
“A child’s ZIP code or their family income does not have to be a life sentence. Every child deserves a great education regardless of where they’re from or regardless of how much money their family makes. I know we can do better. We all need to join together to make this happen.”
Schools, whether conventional public schools or charter schools, “should make a concerted effort to hire, develop and retain highly effective teachers” and be not afraid to let go those who are not doing the job, proposed Legend. His list of educational changes included more effective professional development for teachers as well as better pay.
“I agree with him 100 percent,” admits city elementary teacher Angela Mansfield, who this fall will run her own charter school, Arch Academy, in South Minneapolis. As does Legend, Mansfield also wants to see change in education.
“I was tired of not seeing change happen at the rate I thought it should happen,” she said of her reason for wanting change. “I was tired of seeing kids that I had success with not having success across the whole city.”
Legend believes that elected officials probably will not initiate such change any time soon. “Many politicians talk about improving education but fail to take the action they need to take. They find it easier not to offend anybody and maintain the status quo. The status quo often is too hard to disrupt in a system that is too deep and entrenched.”
Educational reform should be nonpartisan, said the singer.
“Educational inequality is a real reality… This is a cause here in Minnesota and across America. Too many of our young people are running out of opportunities that they need to succeed in life, and I can’t sit back and let that happen without doing something to help bring about change.”
During a Q&A session, someone from the audience asked Legend why other musicians aren’t speaking out on education like he is. “I don’t think everyone is cut out for it,” he responded. “You can’t force them to be passionate and inspired…to speak out.”
After his remarks, Legend briefly performed on stage.
“I’m happy I came,” said 14-year-old Jada Richard of Minneapolis. She was among a small group of youth invited to meet the singer in a private gathering before his speech. “I like what he’s doing for public education,” she said.
“I thought tonight was exactly what we needed to hear as a community,” added Minneapolis Foundation Director of Impact Strategy Education Amy Hertel of Legend’s appearance afterwards. “It struck the perfect balance of being pro-kids and pro-teacher.”
America must do better in closing the income and educational gaps that currently exist, said Legend. “We still have families who are barely surviving. We still have far too many people who feel that the American Dream is little more than a distant fantasy. They are trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty.
“I truly believe that the single best way to help people break that cycle is to empower them to live a better life,” said Legend, adding that education is one way to do this. “Every child in every city, in every neighborhood, [must] have access to a quality education.”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to [email protected]
Photos by Keith Tolar