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'Think It Up' Special Offered Comedy, Music, and Education

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The "Think It Up" education fundraiser that aired on four major TV networks Friday night offered quite a few laughs, some popular music, and a spotlight on schools and education programs.

"We're launching a movement that will change lives," the actress Jessica Biel said in opening the high-energy, hourlong show that was broadcast on ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox. She explained the basic purpose of the Think It Up initiative of the Entertainment Industry Foundation.

"This is about giving students and teachers across America the tools they need to turn their biggest ideas into reality and change the way they learn every day," Biel said from the Barker Hangar in Santa Monica, Calif., which was packed with young people, celebrities, and lots of TV lights.

We learned that this could mean building a robot, or doing interviews for a history project, or writing a symphony. Viewers were encouraged to contribute to the Think It Up website, and the money raised will be used to fund such projects.

The hour was commercial free. Or at least free of traditional advertisers, but the sponsors of the initiative all received attention. Jason Bateman discussed the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's Teacher to Teacher Initiative. Taylor Lautner announced that Staples would fund more than 600 teachers' requests on DonorsChoose.org. And Terry Crews noted the involvement of ExxonMobil.

A number of celebrities paid tribute to the fact that their mothers were teachers. Matthew McConaughey, in a taped piece that had some of the flavor of his much-discussed Lincoln car commercials, talked about how his mom taught for 39 years. Jennifer Garner and Seth Meyers also paid tribute to their teaching moms.

[Below is the full video. The video segments about the five specific schools profiled during the show are linked to the school names below.]

The special was a TV show first, and it was entertaining and fast-moving. Justin Bieber, Kacey Musgroves, and Big Sean performed musical numbers. James Corden, the host of CBS' "Late Late Show," did his signature "Carpool Karaoke" bit with Stevie Wonder.

"Are you sure you're OK to drive," Corden said to the blind singer, who was in the driver's seat. "Because this is making me a bit uneasy." (They switched seats before leaving the driveway.)

The special also aired the "Teaching Center" segment by Comedy Central's Key & Peele, which got wide attention over the summer for envisioning a world where teachers were like sports superstars, complete with a draft, signing bonuses, and big-money trades.

Some of the comedic bits had some edge. Stephen Colbert, the new host of the "Late Show" on CBS, joked that Facebook wants to "keep you bored and unemployed so you spend all day on Facebook."

The ubiquitous actor J.K. Simmons joked that he didn't remember his high school chemistry teacher being like Walter White, the chemistry teacher-turned-meth lab operator of "Breaking Bad."

And the actor Joe Manganiello told the crowd that when he was in school, he studied Greek tragedies and appeared in Shakespeare plays such as "The Merchant of Venice."

"So, naturally, I ended up in 'Magic Mike,'" he said of his supporting role in the hit 2012 movie about male strippers. 

The heart of the telecast, though, was education.

There were short package reports highlighting a handful of schools around the country. The Polaris Charter Academy in Chicago was lauded for promoting a "Day of Peace" amid gun violence in that city. Changemaker High School in Tucson, Ariz., another charter school, was spotlighted for promoting the value of empathy.  IDEA College Prep in San Benito, Texas, part of a network of charter schools, was highlighted for its participation in the National Math and Science Initiative.  At Lafayette High School in Lexington, Ky., students take charge of their own learning with the Literacy Design Collaborative. And a segment focused on Tehachapi High School in Tehachapi, Calif., a traditional public school, for its prowess in robotics and other areas stressing math and science.

There was no major emphasis on divisive education policy issues. (A musical tribute to the controversial Common Core State Standards would have been interesting.)

Meanwhile, the actress Jessica Williams donned a funky space suit and took the to sidewalks of some unspecified U.S. city to talk to passersby about American high schools.

She introduced the idea of the XQ Super School Project. We had to wait until later in the broadcast to learn from Halle Berry that the project "is an open call to rethink and redesign" the American high school. (We know it was a live broadcast, because Berry, reading a Teleprompter, called it the "XO Project" at first.)

The Super School Project is an initiative of the XQ Institute, which is led by Russlynn H. Ali, a former assistant secretary for civil rights in the U.S. Department of Education.

The project will accept proposals over the next few months to rethink high school. "We will partner with winning teams and provide them expert support and a fund of $50 million to support at least five schools over the next five years to turn their ideas into real Super Schools," the XQ website says. 

(It wasn't made crystal clear in the broadcast, but this is not where the money being raised for the student and teacher projects is going.)

The Think It Up telecast did not seem to get a lot of mainstream media attention before it aired on Sept. 11. But the Hollywood Reporter had an interesting story last week about how the project came about.

The trade magazine said the Entertainment Industry Foundation made education its next priority in 2008 after a successful initiative called Stand Up to Cancer.

In November 2013, the foundation gathered experts that included Ted Mitchell, then the head of the New Schools Venture Fund and now the under secretary of the U.S. Education Department; John E. Deasy, then the head of the Los Angeles Unified School District; David Coleman, the president and CEO of the College Board; as well as various high-ranking Hollywood executives. 

There wasn't even a consensus of which direction the effort to help education should take, EIF board chair Sherry Lansing told the Hollywood trade magazine. Eventually, the foundation decided to partner with DonorsChoose.org to raise money for the student and teacher projects. 

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