The Learning Curve: Notes on Music Education

Education UNVEILING THE UNSEEN

The Learning Curve: Notes on Music Education

An important investigation into why your kid is forced to learn to play the recorder.

I spend most of my time at VOSD looking into specific tensions or conflicts, then following those threads over time. That can mean zooming in on concussions, school foundations or graduation requirements. Focusing on narratives like these is a good way to understand systems in place and why problems exist.

Learning Curve-01But sometimes digging deeply into a single issue takes me out of the loop. I don’t meet as many new people. I don’t see as many schools or learn about new happenings. The Learning Curve is turning out to be a good way for me to learn more about the ways schools work.

Today, we’re talking about music. Let’s have at it.

Question: “Given the plentiful research that shows that music and arts support academic performance specifically in elementary school, why are these programs not consistently available in every single school?”  – Meridith Coady, San Diego Unified parent

First, you’re right, Meridith, findings from a number of studies have suggested music training supports academic performance. It can also sharpen the part of kids’ brains that processes language.

In short, music is rad. So why doesn’t San Diego Unified offer more of it?

The answer, unsurprisingly, is money. To address the question, I reached out to Mark Nicholson, a San Diego Unified instrumental music specialist in the district’s Visual and Performing Arts (VAPA) department.

The littlest kids – first-, second- and third-graders – are pinched the most. Some schools offer a kind of intro class that exposes them to musical concepts, and gets them ready for fourth and fifth grade, when they’ll have hands-on experience with instruments. But due to budget constraints, those intro classes aren’t available at every elementary school.

Still, Nicholson said, his department is more robust than popular opinion suggests. A couple years ago, when the district was looking at mass layoffs, VAPA was on the chopping block. But in the end, the department survived.

“We’re still here, we’re looking strong. And things are looking up,” Nicholson said.

At 40 schools, fourth and fifth graders have music class twice a week. These are the traditional kinds of classes where students have a music teacher and access to instruments.

About 60 schools offer an “exploratory music” program, where teachers rotate on a nine-week schedule. Each cycle, kids get exposed to a new kind of instrument, so by the end of the year they’ll have had access to brass, woodwind, strings and percussion. Every high school has a music program. Some have both band and orchestra.

That’s not to say Nicholson’s department is flush.

“The main thing that we desperately need are instruments for the kids. If we were able to put an instrument in every kids’ hands, we’d have a much stronger program,” he told me.

To address that need, the district partners with a nonprofit that collects and repairs instruments and hands them off to schools.

The underlying question that music departments face, and not just in San Diego, is whether the arts are extras or central to the core academic mission.

Bonus question: “Given that the recorder is the world’s most annoying instrument, why does SDUSD insist on offering this?”

Meridith was hesitant about letting me use her name for this question. She thought it sounded snarky.

But, c’mon. It’s objectively true that the recorder is the world’s most annoying instrument. Its dumb, flat whistle corrodes the soul. Of course, my negative associations might be related to the fact my sister used hers to beat me when I wouldn’t get out of her room.

Turns out there’s an actual reason schools encourage the recorder. Little-kid fingers aren’t all that dexterous. Because it’s a bit easier to play, it serves as a nice transition that gets kids ready for more complicated instruments like the clarinet, Nicholson said. Plus, they’re cheap. You can buy one on Amazon for about $10.

So it looks like the recorder might be here to stay. Lord help us.

The Local Ed Scene

At a Wednesday press conference, California lawmakers, along with members of California teachers unions, unveiled four bills they said would increase charter school accountability, transparency and unbiased access to all students.

You can read the text of each bill on the California Teachers Association website. They’re about completely separate topics, but here are few things they’re trying to change:

Ensuring due process to students who are expelled (and improved notifications to the districts they’re located in)

Changing the governance structure of charter schools and granting the public greater access to charters’ inner-workings

Tightening admissions and enrollment policies that critics say enable charter schools to “cream,” or accept only the best and brightest students

The California Charter Schools Association responded with its own statement that basically pointed out how current state law already provides for those protections. The gist: These are bills in search of problems.

One salient point CCSA made, and I’m paraphrasing here: Maybe if CTA spent a little less time worrying about charter schools and more about what they’re doing to improve academics, fewer of their students would leave for charter schools each year.

“These are unnecessary bills predicated on the assumption that these problems exist in the first place,” Myrna Castrejón, CCSA’s senior vice president of government affairs, told me.

It’s illegal for schools to cream, for example. If there’s evidence of that, it’s the job of the authorizer – the education board that originally approved the charter – to crack down.

Castrejón said many of CTA’s claims were misrepresentations. For instance, this part of CTA’s statement: “California’s 1992 charter school law created a cap of 100 charter schools. In such a short period of time there are now more than 1,100 charter schools and the law has not kept up with the rapid growth.”

But that cap refers to 100 new charters per year, Castrejón said, and charters have never exceeded that.

That’s relatively small potatoes, though, when we consider the implications. Essentially, the bills seek to make charter schools look and act a lot like traditional public schools. That may strike you as reasonable, but consider that charter schools were created precisely to do just the opposite: offer an alternative to the one-size-fits all approach taken by traditional public schools.

Ed Reads of the Week

The Worst State for Kids Up Against the Law” (The Marshall Project)

It’s settled. Florida is the worst state. On top of that, it’s the harshest state in the country for juveniles in the criminal justice system.

Florida law is among the most expansive in allowing prosecutors discretion to file juvenile cases in adult court. As a result, Florida transfers more kids to adult court than any other state. It also means 14- and 15-year-olds charged with nonviolent crimes could wind up in adult prison, subject to very adult threats – like rape and assault.

Hillary Clinton Caught Between Dueling Forces on Education: Teachers and Wealthy Donors” (New York Times)

You knew this was coming. Clinton can avoid any of the landmines that befell Barack Obama. He collected some scars for pushing Common Core and the Race to the Top initiative, which made states eligible for funding if they implemented certain reforms, like tying teacher evaluations to performance.

Without a strong challenger, Clinton still has time to make smart alliances. I don’t see teachers unions throwing their support behind Republican options Ted Cruz, Scott Walker or Jeb Bush anytime soon.

What Schools Should Teach Kids About Sex” (The Atlantic)

Brace yourself, parents. Just because schools aren’t teaching teenagers much about sex doesn’t mean they’re not having it.

In fact, Jessica Lahey points out, nearly half of all high schools students have had sex, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – 41 percent without using a condom.

If you remember the sex ed classes you had in high school, it probably looked a lot like what one author calls the global norm: “a smattering of information about reproductive organs and a set of stern warnings about putting them to use.”

When it comes to sex, what to teach, and how to teach it, is left up to local districts. In a shockingly high number of states (37!), there’s no law requiring that the information be medically accurate.

Lahey throws a curveball, too: Part of the reason sex ed may be so lacking is related to increasingly diverse student populations. At the risk of offending students – or their parents – many schools decided to simply avoid in-depth discussions about sex.

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