John Legend: Bill Maher, You're Wrong on Education

In a Daily Beast exclusive, singer and education philanthropist John Legend responds to Bill Maher’s recent attack on President Obama’s education policies, and explains why he believes bad teachers—not parents—are at fault when kids fail.

03.16.10 1:11 PM ET

In a Daily Beast exclusive, John Legend responds to Bill Maher’s recent attack on the president's education policies, and explains why he believes bad teachers—not parents—are at fault when kids fail.

In a monologue Friday night, HBO Real Time host Bill Maher criticized President Barack Obama’s decision to support a Rhode Island superintendent who fired every single teacher at a failing high school, forcing them to reapply to their jobs. “New Rule: Let's not fire the teachers when students don't learnlet's fire the parents,” Maher said, arguing that teachers are scapegoats for the failings of society. “Isn't it convenient that once again it turns out that the problem isn't us, and the fix is something that doesn't require us to change our behavior or spend any money?” he asked, alleging, “According to all the studies, it doesn't matter what teachers do.”

Now, in a Daily Beast exclusive, education philanthropist, singer, and longtime Obama supporter John Legend is hitting back, alleging that Maher—on whose show he has appeared—fundamentally misunderstands the issue.

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. But parents do not control what happens at school where students spend a large portion of their day being educated. Parents don’t determine whether the books are woefully out of date, whether the school and surrounding neighborhood are safe, whether there are too many kids in the classroom, and whether the teacher leading the classroom knows what they are doing. Individual parents can’t always influence those factors, especially when they themselves may be struggling in poverty or working double shifts just to make ends meet.

It's up to us as a society to make sure our schools are doing their part. From a public-policy perspective, we have much more ability to affect school and teacher quality than parent quality. And it is absolutely appropriate for the president and Education Secretary Arne Duncan to be intently focused on doing just that.

For a very long time, the U.S. education system led the world in almost every measure. We used to be in first place in graduation rates. But, by 2006, we had slipped to 18th in high-school graduation rates and 14th for college completion. Our national high-school dropout rate is a shameful 30 percent and is much worse for minority and low-income students; for African Americans and Hispanics, it’s about 50 percent. Simply put, our schools are not serving the needs of a lot of students. Our students (and our country) deserve better.

Many of those students in poorly performing schools have great parents who are very concerned about their children’s future. I’ve seen parents who are distraught when their kids don’t get into the only good school in their neighborhood. These parents cry when their kids don’t win the local “school lottery.” And, yes, the schools actually have to use lottery machines to ensure the applicants are chosen at random. Imagine a kid watching a little ball rolling around in the drum, his or her future being determined by the luck of the draw. Most of those good schools that families vie to get into accept only 10 to 20 percent of the kids who apply. So it seems to me that we have more concerned parents looking for decent education opportunities for their kids than the reverse.

Bill, I’m glad you’re sticking up for teachers. There are world-class teachers everywhere who deserve more credit and better pay. They aren't to blame for much of what’s wrong with our schools. But we do know that having a quality teacher in every classroom is the single most important tool we can use to improve student learning. It can override other challenges in a way that no other factor can.

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.

Another study showed that if black students had four consecutive years of top-quartile teachers, the black-white testing gap would vanish. Studies showing similar results keep popping up. The consensus is that good teachers make a huge difference.

But, as any teacher or administrator can tell you, being an effective teacher is not easy. We should hire teachers who are hard working and passionate about education and we should do everything to properly train, compensate, and support them. It’s our responsibility to provide teachers an environment where they can thrive, their needs are met, and their voices are respected.

But we also need to measure student performance and hold teachers accountable when their students aren’t learning. 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.

A recent New York state estimate showed that, between the legal and other expenses, it costs the school system about $400,000 to remove a bad teacher. An L.A. Times investigation described the same problem. School systems can’t afford to go through the hassle of removing poor teachers and wind up deeming teacher incompetence as a problem they simply have to put up with. The end result is that too many mediocre and truly terrible teachers are allowed to remain in classrooms.

Holding teachers and schools accountable for their results is not an “anti-teacher” position, as some try to paint it. Come with me sometime to the Harlem Village Academies and ask those teachers how it feels to be empowered to teach, learn, focus on student achievement, and be their best without many of the constraints—or protections—of traditional public schools. I’ve heard comments like…"I’ve learned more in my first five months here than in all my five years teaching. I like that I’m always pushed to do better, to keep refining.” This is at a school where, on average, the students enter in the fifth grade four grade levels behind, yet 100 percent of eighth graders passed the state science test, 96 percent passed social studies, 100 percent passed math, and 92 percent passed reading.

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.

Bill, you joked in your “New Rule” that we should fire the bad parents, not the bad teachers. Of course, we can't do that. But we have to make sure every student in America receives quality teaching, and that means some teachers will have to be fired, and many more will have to be better trained and held accountable for their students' results. We can't accept any less than that. Our nation's kids don't deserve any less than that.

And, as you suggested, the only time the TV needs to be on is Friday nights at 10 p.m. on HBO! I’d love to come on the show and talk with you more about this sometime.

Your friend,
John Legend

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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.