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Education Reform Is Becoming A Celebrity Cause

Whoopi Goldberg spoke out against teacher tenure during an episode of <em>The View.</em>
John Shearer
Whoopi Goldberg spoke out against teacher tenure during an episode of The View.

Celebrities are becoming a prominent fixture in the debate over K-12 education.

This week Whoopi Goldberg used her platform on ABC's The View to speak out against teacher tenure.

"To me, bad teachers don't do anybody any good. So the union needs to recognize that parents are not going to stand for it anymore," she said.

Goldberg followed up with a YouTube video, responding to the backlash she'd received after making those statements. Her mother, she notes in the video, was a teacher, and Goldberg describes herself as "all about teachers."

"I like great teachers. I don't like bad teachers, so I don't think bad teachers should be given the gift of teaching forever — badly," she says.

Goldberg follows Campbell Brown, the former CNN anchor, into the tenure debate ignited by a California lawsuit. David Boies, the high-profile trial lawyer known for his role in the legal challenge that overturned California's gay marriage ban, also recently joined Brown's group, the Partnership for Education Justice.

The Celebrity Anti-Common Core Caucus

And it's not just teacher tenure. Hollywood is lining up on both sides of the Common Core, too.

Comedian Louis C.K., who now boasts more than 3.6 million Twitter followers, used his account to blast the academic standards, long a punching bag for some conservatives and now a growing number of liberals too.

"My kids used to love math," he tweeted."Now it makes them cry. Thanks standardized testing and common core!" And he didn't stop there, following up over the next few days with a string of tweets trashing the standards.

On David Letterman's show in May, Louis C.K. elaborated, noting that he's the parent of two young girls: "The tests are written by people that nobody knows who they are. It's very secretive. ... A lot of the year is about the tests. Teaching to the test, they called it."

Other celebrities joined in. Singer Regina Spektor, for example, was among those who tweeted their agreement.

While Louis C.K. has led the charge against the Core, there has also been some under-the-radar support for the standards. Actress Eva Longoria's and singer John Legend's foundations have each put money toward a TV ad supporting the Core, according to Politico.

And NBA Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas wrote an op-ed in support of the Common Core.

Comic Louis C.K. is one of many celebrities to come down hard on the Common Core academic standards.
Eric Leibowitz / FX
Comic Louis C.K. is one of many celebrities to come down hard on the Common Core academic standards.

"There has been a lot of misinformation lately about the origin and purpose of these standards," he wrote. "The facts are simple. The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need to be college and career ready in the 21st century."

The Latest Cause Célèbre

It's long been part of the celebrity career path in Hollywood for stars to burnish their images — and their credentials as serious artists — by taking on an important issue. Think Bono and Africa, or Angelina Jolie and human rights.

Education offers a natural fit, and famous people can bring a lot of attention to a seemingly dense policy debate.

"For those of us who are education nerds, we're talking about this kind of thing all the time," says José Luis Vilson, a math educator and the author of This Is Not a Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class and Education. "But it isn't until a lightning rod comes into a situation that it gets more attention."

Celebrities, Vilson explains, are powerful "beacons" for education issues.

"People weren't analyzing Common Core that well until [Louis C.K.] stepped in. The general population either said, 'Hey, Common Core is gonna be around,' or they didn't know about Common Core," he says.

But, Vilson points out, that's very different from doing the hard work of education reform.

"They can highlight something as far as dialogue," he explains, "but they're not actually going to move policy the way people on the ground who have no face or name can move policy."

Before Louis C.K.

If Louis C.K. has become the new poster child for the celeb-critique of standardized testing, Matt Damon is the old guard.

His motheris an expert on early childhood education and professor emerita at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass. Damon has long followed education, though his main advocacy area is the push for clean and safe water.

In 2011, Damon spoke at the "Save Our Schools" rally in Washington, D.C., and his passionate remarks against standardized testing went viral.

"I don't know where I would be today if my teacher's job security was based on how I performed on some standardized test," he told the crowd. "I sure as hell wouldn't be here, I do know that."

And Damon's involvement showed once again that, when celebrities talk, people listen.

He returned to the issue again this spring,taking questions on Reddit's "Ask Me Anything" section, where he again blasted standardized testing.

"Far too much emphasis has been put on these tests," he added. "You're going to get teachers teaching to the test, and you're not actually giving them the leeway to do their jobs."

Does It Matter?

So, does any of this publicity actually matter in the debates over the future of education?

Diane Ravitch, a former assistant secretary of education and education historian argues that it does.

Louis C.K. and his celeb comrades in arms, she argues, have changed the terms of the Common Core debate.

"Don't underestimate what Louis C.K. accomplished," Ravitch — who has become an outspoken opponent of the Common Core — wrote in a blog post.

Louis C.K., she wrote, "was able to break through the carefully crafted narrative that had been spun by Arne Duncan, Jeb Bush, Michelle Rhee, and other advocates for the new standards."

His celebrity gave him a platform, she added. "His standing as a parent of public school children gave him credibility."

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Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.