In an event that commingled star power and the power of the federal government, President Obama’s Education Secretary and soul singer John Legend visited Howard University Wednesday as part of a national teacher recruitment campaign aimed at making America’s teaching ranks as diverse as the nation’s students.
“There’s a growing imbalance between what our teachers look like and our students,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said at the TEACH campaign event, a national effort that features speaking tours and a website—TEACH.gov—meant to attract more students to the field of education.
While the discussion focused largely on raising the esteem of the teaching profession, it also heavily touted the need to get more individuals from minority groups, particularly men, to become teachers, especially in areas of education where such groups are typically underrepresented. The Education Department says, while African-American and Latinos represent 17 and 21 percent of the student population, respectively, they each represent only 7 percent of the nation’s teachers.
“Our young boys, young boys of color, need great role models,” Duncan said. “Not just at the high school level but the elementary level.”
Wednesday’s event drew about 300 or so students and faculty to the auditorium in the Howard University School of Business. Many came to just catch a glimpse of singer John Legend.
The chart-topping artist didn’t use his smooth and silky voice to hit any notes but rather to amplify the Education Department’s message about the role that teachers from diverse backgrounds can play in boosting student achievement.
” If you choose to become a teacher, I know we will be much closer to the ideal society that we should be living in,” Legend said in a brief talk in which he decried inequalities that he said were being “perpetuated and institutionalized” in America’s classrooms.
“Many of our schools are literally and figuratively crumbling, and we’re not giving our kids, especially low-income and minority kids, the chance to succeed,” Legend said.
The love song singer also covered a variety of topics that ranged from what research shows that makes the most difference in student achievement to the relevance that the lyrics of socially conscious music artists of old still hold today.
“Research shows that an effective teacher is the single most important factor in boosting student achievement,” Legend said. “It’s more important than classroom size, dollars spent per student, or money spent on textbooks.”
Legend said in working on his latest project—“Wake Up!”—in which he teamed up with the Philadelphia-based rap band The Roots—he discovered as they redid many socially evocative songs from the ‘60s and ‘70s that the songs address conditions that still persist.
“We truly have come a long way in this country,” Legend said. “But for all the progress we’ve seen, when the Roots and I began recording our album, I was amazed at how relevant many of the lyrics are today.”
“We’re still fighting overseas under dubious premises. We’re still unwilling to deal with the environment,” Legend said, recalling songs such as Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” and “Wake Up Everybody” by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes.
Though the impact of Legend’s speaking tour as well as the public service announcements he did as part of the Education Department’s TEACH campaign remain to be seen, Wednesday’s event, which also featured talks by D.C. Public Schools interim chancellor Kaya Henderson and award-winning D.C. Public Schools physics teacher Angela Benjamin, seemed to strike a positive chord with students.
Omore Okhomina, 26, an education major at Howard who plans to teach in elementary education, urged Duncan to bring the Education Department’s recruitment efforts to the high school level the same way as the Department of Defense.
” When I was in high school, I saw my Army recruiter every day,” Okhomina said. “But you don’t see the same thing with teachers.”
“I think you’re hitting the nail on the head,” Duncan told Okhomina, adding that TEACH.GOV would seek to engage students at the high school level.
Afterward, during an interview with Diverse, Okhomina said he thought the TEACH campaign would likely have an impact.
“I think it’s very valuable to see celebrities speaking in favor of education, and I like the fact that this is more of an intimate setting where you can get your point across,” Okhomina said. “In terms of recruiting, I think it was a great event.”
Brandon Harris, 20, president of the Howard University Student Association, also viewed the event as positive but was guardedly optimistic about its overall impact.
“I think it has the potential to make a difference,” Harris said. “Campaigns are good to create cultural change, but, if there’s nothing tangible to back it, it won’t last.”
Along those lines, the TEACH campaign is more than just message. The Education Department says it also includes coordinating resources to help prospective teachers find federal, state and local incentive packages to teach.
And many students’ faces lit up when Duncan noted how students who enter the teaching profession can get their student loans forgiven after 10 years of service.