Two national education reform advocates encouraged about 100 attendees at an Urban League luncheon Thursday to advocate for institutional changes in the school system or "watch your city disappear."
Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children's Zone in New York City, and Grammy-award-winning R&B musician John Legend participated in an hour-long discussion moderated by local television journalist Neil Heinen.
Canada said Madison leaders need to allow more educational innovation, such as charter schools, if it wants to raise achievement for low-income and minority students.
"You've got the cancer, but no one's allowed to do any research," Canada said. "If you care about this city, you're going to end this (achievement gap). There is no future in allowing large numbers of your citizens to fail."
Canada described the problem as a system where schools are trying to get low-income students caught up with affluent peers, but can't fire teachers, can't have a longer school day and can't have a longer school year. All students who attend charter schools Canada runs in New York are expected to attend college, not just graduate from high school.
Legend encouraged allowing principals to treat their schools like a business with the ability to fire ineffective teachers.
"If you don't have authority to hire and fire, to control human resources every day, then you can't reform the school," Legend said.
MTI executive director John Matthews did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
State Rep. Brett Hulsey, D-Madison, left the luncheon early because he didn't like what he was hearing from the presenters.
"What they're saying, I don't know what it had to do with making our schools better for our kids," Hulsey said. "We need to invest in our schools to hire more teachers, not talk about firing more teachers."
The one area on which Canada and Legend disagreed was the influence of popular culture on student behavior with Canada criticizing a hip-hop culture that glorifies gangs, drugs and violence, and Legend defending rap artists as reporting on what has long existed in their communities.
In general both reinforced a message Urban League of Greater Madison President Kaleem Caire has been promoting for the past two years as he tried unsuccessfully to win Madison School Board approval for a controversial charter school geared toward low-income, minority students.
Proceeds from the $500-per-plate luncheon are helping fund a new Urban League after-school program for low-performing students and an ACT preparation class.