What Do Students Need to Know? World Languages or the Arts or Personal Finance?

In 2017, I was part of a ‘listening tour’ of voters in my rural, northern Michigan county. We asked our neighbors what their most pressing issues were—what things happening right now in the nation, or locally, worried them most. Our opening query: What keeps you up at night?

Surprisingly, this was a hard question for many people. Typically, after a half-minute of thinking out loud, they’d say that life was pretty good.

So we had follow-up questions to suggest potential avenues for concern. Are you worried about the economy? Political dysfunction? Immigration? Human rights? Education?

One evening, my partner and I were invited into the neat-as-a-pin home of an elderly gentleman, who clearly wanted to chat. He told us—first time we’d heard this–that education was his number one issue.

I asked if he’d been a teacher. No— he’d worked as a farmer, but was a father, grandfather and great-grandfather (he was in his 90s, according to our voter information file). And what was going on in the schools right now was an absolute travesty.

I was prepared to hear about the lack of discipline or new-fangled computer learnin’—but what was keeping this nice old gent up at night was curriculum. Did you know they’re not teaching woodshop or metal shop at the high school anymore?

He shook his head. They’re not showing kids how to work with their hands—to do household repairs, use tools, or put up a simple garage. He said he’d always handled his own home repairs, from wiring a ceiling fan to repairing a leaky toilet. He’d just installed a new dishwasher. And what about students who wanted to go into the trades? What good did Algebra do for boys like that?

(Hey. He was ninety-something. Cut him some slack.)

I thought of him when I learned that Michigan has just signed into law a bill requiring every HS student to take a half-credit class in Personal Finance, in order to graduate. The requirement begins with this year’s eighth grade class, giving schools time to figure out how to incorporate yet another new requirement into an already overstuffed schedule.

I’m all for inculcating a better understanding of how to manage money. Stories about predatory lending alone should make us all more knowledgeable about credit, budgeting, and setting healthy spending and earning goals, especially in young adults.

But I’m not exactly sure that a half-credit course in high school is the ideal setting for that learning. You could read and regurgitate lots of personal-finance content, at age 16, then promptly forget what you memorized, when the knowledge would actually be useful—say, when you got your first big-boy job. Like so much of what we ‘learned’ in secondary school, until you apply the knowledge, it’s more or less inert.

Here’s what bothers me most about adding curricular requirements: Folks are fond of talking about what should be taught in school, but haven’t a clue about the absolute fact that there are only so many slots in a typical secondary school schedule. At the moment, the (also-required) Michigan Merit Curriculum has control over nearly all those slots. What will this new course replace? Because something’s got to go.

Every teacher and school leader has been over this territory endlessly. And every Joe Citizen has a personal opinion about what students should be required to master before leaving school, from economics to penmanship.

Education thinkers tend to talk, at this point, about big-picture skills and perceptions—the development of judgment and discretion and analysis, via subject matter content. It’s the heart of teachers’ professional work.

The curricular canon has shifted since the early 20th century, when Logic, Rhetoric and Latin were considered essential competencies for the well-educated—proof that context matters, and values change over time.

It would be great to use this (and dozens of similar suggestions—like axing social studies and arts courses in favor of STEM) as a kickoff to a deep, statewide conversation on re-thinking credits, standardization and student choice.

It would be an ideal opportunity for discussing the purpose of public schooling. Should students study the natural world and the humanities? Or is moving toward a narrow, commercially-focused curriculum—a secularized prosperity gospel– our goal for students?

For legislators, the go-to in policy-making is concrete mandates: At the discretion of local school boards, the course could fulfill a half-credit in math, world language, or the arts. Currently, the Michigan Merit Curriculum requires four credits in math, two in a language other than English, and one in visual, performing, or applied arts. The Legislature also is considering a separate bill allowing computer programming to count for world language credit. Both measures have strong backing from business groups that say they’re interested in a more skilled workforce. 

Well, there you have it. Job training.

One wonders why fluency in another language, or artistic expression, is so devalued. Aren’t those also desirable skills in the 21st century world of work? As the old man we interviewed said, we no longer respect working with our hands.

Or our hearts, or our voices. The things that make us most human.

Are Christians to Blame for the Political Mess We Find Ourselves In?

Schoolkids were traditionally taught—at least I was—that the United States was founded because the Pilgrims were seeking religious freedom, an escape from persecution. This incomplete and sanitized declaration dovetailed nicely into the development of formal American schooling and curricula in the 19th and 20th centuries.

It was part of our national creation myth, positioning the original ancestors as men who braved the dangerous ocean journey in order to worship their God in the way they saw fit in this wild, free new land. (Plus their wives and children, of course. Who would naturally be worshipping in the same fashion, and following the laws the men devised.)

Nary a mention of their rapacious commercial interests, let alone the people who had already lived here for a thousand years.

Since the Pilgrims arrived—merely one group of colonizing settlers, albeit one that got lots of airtime in history class—waves of folks with different religious beliefs and heritage, born here/brought here/immigrated here, have shaped the trajectory and norms of livin’ in the U.S.A.  

Educators and civic leaders have adapted to changing mores over more than a century, lurching along and stepping in deep controversy over religious practice—well, all the time. (Think: Scopes Trial.)

Arguing over religious beliefs is our real national heritage. And the separation of church and state is the tool we use to distinguish what is appropriate at home but not at school. The new SCOTUS ruling that permits private (Christian) prayer on public school occasions as long as it’s not required, is another chunk out of that wall of separation. And any veteran teacher will tell you that bringing personal religious beliefs into the classroom is a recipe for disaster.

Contrary to Fox News commentary, good educators are not part of a century-long conspiracy to brainwash little kids about the moral framework of life in community. In my 30+ years in the classroom, most everyone skirted around explicitly talking about religion for fear of violating The Wall of Separation. In some classrooms—the aforementioned history class, for example—discussion of religion is inevitable. Music class, as well.  And literature. And science.

In fact, learning about religion and its impact, positive and negative, on the history of the only world we have, is one of the central reasons to offer public education. But learning about religion is entirely separate from practicing religion, or proselytizing.

The message always needs to be: Religions have existed forever. Religions and sanctified beliefs have caused wars and genocide. Religion has the capacity for both great good and bad—and a whole lot of judging about which is which, and spurious reasons for grabbing power.  Nonetheless, wherever we find extended civilization, there are religious practices.

Lately, the Christians have seemed to be ascending, in terms of political power.   It may have something to do with existential uncertainty of life during the pandemic, or the former President using certain Christians for his own purposes. Or the spate of SCOTUS decisions dragging the nation backwards against social progress, led by a Catholic majority.

Adam Serwer: Given the unholy alliance between conservative politics and conservative Christianity, it is no surprise that right-wing extremists on the Supreme Court prefer to read theConstitution the way evangelicals read the scriptures. That is, selectively, and with a preference for American mores and jurisprudence of the nineteenth century. When men were men and all others were second-class citizens, if not property.

As Garrison Keillor said: Righteous indignation is the easy part of the Christian faith and the hard part is forgiveness.

I would add—‘and also having a sense of humor.’ I’ve seen a lot of social media talk smacking down Christians as a class, blaming them for cruel and regressive policy-making. I know Christianity’s failings better than many, but it seems like we have not outgrown the need for considered values, or the good that religious organizations, Christian and otherwise, have done, for centuries.

Freedom of religion, won at some cost in this nation, has allowed us to safely poke at literal and metaphorical sacred cows and speak freely about what we believe—and dismiss as foolishness. Respecting diverse religious beliefs is a very difficult thing, but if we can’t accept diversity of religious practices (or lack thereof), we are betraying the very story of our founding.

So maybe lighten up on the anti-Christian (or anti-any faith) talk? Or be careful whom you’re sweeping into the category of Harmful and Dangerous while letting other organized groups completely off the moral hook?

Robert Reich: G.O.P. extremism is fed by resentment against the very things that truly make America great — our diversity, our tolerance for difference — it cannot be appeased or compromised with. It can only be defeated.

In  The Ministry for the Future, an awesome book about possible futures (Kim Stanley Robinson), the chair of the Ministry and her trusted associate discuss this question:

What would it take to get the entire planet to commit to necessary sacrifices that could, once and for all, turn climate change and equitable civilization around, practices that would save us all? Mutual assured survival, even mutual thriving?

A new religion, her aide says. A newly conceived religion, based on environmental equity, justice and peace, adopted globally.

My friend Fred Bartels put it this way: God is a personalization of community.

Food for thought. Or prayer. Take your pick.

Tutoring Our Way to Excellence?

Back when I was in ed school—undergraduate and masters-level, in the 1970s—one of the seminal truths we read about and discussed at length was ‘individual attention:’ Why class size matters, how to reach students personally, and the superiority of one-to-one tutoring in knowledge acquisition.

No better way to learn than to have the undivided attention and expertise of a single teacher. If, of course, the family can afford private tutoring, and that tutor is a content expert, skilled in teaching techniques. And also—big point– compatible with the pupil. Tutoring is ideal, in other words, except when it isn’t.

I remember a band-director colleague telling me that in order to play in his select high school band, students were required to take weekly private lessons. He was working in a well-heeled suburban district, and many of his students were studying privately with members of the Detroit Symphony.  

It wasn’t clear how he was getting away with this demand—it wouldn’t fly in my school—but it was a dazzling thought: All of students’ technical issues, solved, on the parents’ dime, by explicit and targeted outside instruction. All he had to do was put these elite student musicians together with high-quality music, then conduct. Easy-peasy.

That’s not exactly right, of course—there’s much more to learning and playing music together than individual skills. In fact, learning, in every subject and in every classroom, depends on a stew of cooperation and community, in addition to dealing with diverse understandings, talents and proficiencies, led by the—caring, one hopes—person in charge.

There are, to put it succinctly, lots of things that cannot be precisely measured, when it comes to learning. The idea that we can accurately  diagnose what students have learned/not learned, and confidently prescribe the best of three strategies to ‘catch them up’ is folly. Student learning is not a statistics problem or a disease, where the correct number of ‘high-dosage’ tutoring sessions will guarantee a return to normal. Whatever that is.

That doesn’t mean that tutoring isn’t a useful strategy. It certainly is. There are plenty of stories about kids who struggle with something academic, then connect with a tutor who helps them over the hump—learning to read fluently or solve equations or whatever.

A friend’s son initially got mediocre scores on his ACT test, meaning he wasn’t going to be accepted at any of the colleges he was aiming for. The son’s English teacher recommended a local woman, a former teacher, who had created a business tutoring students through the college application process.

The boy was unenthused, but met with the tutor four times, then re-took the ACT, gaining nine points, more than enough to expand his college options. On the ACT writing test (now optional), he earned a six, the highest score.

My friend was grateful for the targeted assistance–her son’s self-concept as capable student improved enormously, as well. But she asked me—Why didn’t he learn to write an excellent essay in school? What did he learn in four hours that had not been conveyed in the previous 12 years?

There are lots of differences between working with a private coach vs. learning in a class of 30 or more. Motivation, for one. Privacy—not exposing a weakness in front of peers—is another. In the end, it’s the same stuff we talked about in my ed classes: reaching students on an emotionally neutral, personal level and a class size of one, where feedback and re-dos are immediate.

There have been bursts of enthusiasm around auxiliary tutoring for public school students in the past. Free tutoring was a part of No Child Left Behind’s efforts to help kids in schools that did not make Adequate Yearly Progress, and were deemed ‘failing.’ We are all familiar with commercial ‘learning centers’ in strip malls that promise success in radio ads, before even meeting your child.

Michigan is now considering using $280 million in federal COVID recovery monies for tutoring to get kids ‘back on track.’ And I wish I saw this as a viable option for all children who have missed a lot of in-person schooling during the pandemic.

But the first thing I thought about when I read the Governor’s plan was: If we don’t have enough qualified teachers to fill our classrooms—where are all those skilled tutors going to come from? Because all the research on tutoring, while generally positive, is clear that small groups and expert tutors are essential.

I also remember the NCLB tutoring—private tutoring vendors scrambling to use federal money to set up yet another government-funded after-school program to fix kids who weren’t reading at grade level or were lacking the credits to graduate. The lack of oversight—or coordination with schools—made a lot of those programs useless.

So—who’s going to monitor these new tutoring programs? You guessed it:
It’s not clear what standards the state program would use to evaluate tutors or identify tutoring programs.

“It is a state responsibility to provide leadership and ensure that best practices are followed in this new effort,” said Jennifer Mrozowski, director of communications for Education Trust-Midwest, a nonprofit advocacy group that has called for an expansion of tutoring services. “The state also should have a plan in place to see to it that the dollars are actually being spent on best practices and districts are held accountable for the work.”

Of course. Districts are now supposed to locate and hire suitable tutors, set up programs, provide materials, find transportation, then evaluate student progress. Because, despite all their best efforts during a pandemic, students have ‘fallen behind’ benchmarks set by federal and state policy. The phrase ‘actually being spent on best practices’ is particularly insulting.

A lot of the literature and articles around tutoring refer to an Annenberg study on ‘recovery design principles.’ When you see the phrase ‘high-dosage tutoring’ in a ‘recovery’ plan, someone’s been using the Annenberg research to support a plan for additional instruction. The study is actually useful—it lays out the factors necessary for tutoring to have real impact:

One meta-analysis found that high-dosage tutoring was 20 times more effective than low-dosage tutoring in math. In reading, high-dosage tutoring was 15 times more effective than low-dosage tutoring. Simply providing students with access to tutoring is unlikely to be effective for all students. Paraprofessionals and volunteers may be better suited to one-to-one tutoring because they are less likely to have developed the skills in behavior management and group instruction that are needed for working with multiple students. Tutoring interventions often are not successful when there are no minimum dosage requirements, little oversight, and minimal connections with the students’ schools. A key element of successful tutoring programs is being able to establish a rigorous and caring culture.

It turns out that the most effective tutoring happens three or more times a week, at school, in very small groups or one-to-one. And the most effective tutors are trained educators familiar to students. Which takes us right back to what we have always known about instruction—small class sizes and individual attention from a trusted teacher work best. No surprise at all.

Social. Emotional. Learning.

What a difference a few years—and a pandemic and an insurrection—make.

Remember when a ‘growth mindset’ was all the rage among reformy types?

In addition to teaching kids about malleable intelligence, researchers started noticing that teacher practice has a big impact on student mindset, and the feedback that teachers give their students can either encourage a child to choose a challenge and increase achievement or look for an easy way out. For example, studies on different kinds of praise have shown that telling children they are smart encourages a fixed mindset, whereas praising hard work and effort cultivates a growth mindset.

Speaking for all the experienced teachers who were introduced to the ‘growth mindset’ concept and its promotion as silver bullet teaching practice: Would that it were so easy. And researchers are just now noticing that teacher practice has a big impact on what students are thinking? Seriously?

And what about grit? The desirable persistence, an ability to pursue goals in the face of discouragement, the thing that underachieving slackers in public schools didn’t seem to have inculcated? They weren’t dumb (or hungry, scared, exhausted or neglected). They just lacked grit. Right.

Both of those things, packaged as programs, were embraced by professional developers, as part of a suite of soft skills that could be used to enhance student performance. There are plenty of other terms veteran educators have run into: Character Development. Restorative Justice. Conflict Resolution.

They all fall under the general category of encouraging the social and emotional welfare of students, giving them tools to manage their emotions and relationships—so they can learn. Also: (unspoken but obvious) so their test scores will go up.

Social-emotional learning (SEL–the reality, not any official program) is just a rather random collection of ways that school staff has always made students (who have all kinds of reasons for feeling anxious and off-balance these days) comfortable enough in a school setting that they can settle down to learn.

Different SEL programs have different foci: Positive behaviors. Making friends. Sticking with tough tasks. Being more thoughtful, less aggressive. Every time you hear a teacher say ‘Use your words’ or ‘What would you like to say to Jason?’ or ‘Take a minute to calm down’—they’re riffing on SEL ideas.

In a good column at Curmudgucation, Peter Greene says that SEL is a real thing, all right, but he can’t defend SEL programs which are now taking a beating from parents. These are, one has to assume, the same parents who thought grit was just the ticket for kids who were living in their family’s car, or that telling certain kids they were smart could cause their heads to swell and spoil them for the workforce.  

A whole lot of the murkiness around what SEL is, and how it relates to Critical Race Theory (CRT)—spoiler: it doesn’t—comes from masterful manipulation of language.

A year after a terrible incident at a local HS, where students of color were put ‘up for sale’ on Snapchat, some parents here still think that systemic racism doesn’t exist here in Traverse City. Some of them saw the incident as simple bullying, no big deal, and others thought it was a matter to be handled by police rather than the school board, although the idea started and was centered among HS students. All of them seemed to think addressing it would cause even more divisiveness.

Why wouldn’t you want teachers, using developmentally appropriate strategies and language, to address emotionally sensitive issues? If students don’t have these conversations in school, under the watchful eye of an adult (especially an adult with the skills to help them process their feelings and social challenges), where will they learn to keep a lid on? To distinguish truth from foul lies? To learn the art of cooperation? Restraint? Respect?

Where will they learn to use THEIR words, instead of picking up a gun?

The interesting thing to me is that none of this is new. Twenty-odd years ago, I was recruited to be part of a video series produced by the Annenberg Foundation, called The Learning Classroom. I had a film crew in my classroom (and my office) for an entire week, capturing footage around how I used social-emotional learning to teach more effectively.

I prepared lessons designed to engage my middle school band students emotionally, by learning Ashokan Farewell, the music Ken Burns used to great effect in his Civil War series, then tying the plaintive tune to the letter that Major Sullivan Ballou wrote to his wife in 1861, a week before being killed in battle. We talked about how many of the recruits at the end of the Civil War were no older than the boys sitting in the band room, how bloody the war was, dividing families.

The filmmaker wasn’t looking for a lesson that used emotion to drive home learning (something that teachers do all the time, by the way, from reading great literature to the exploding mysteries of the baking soda volcano). She wanted to see stormy outbursts from middle schoolers.

Your classroom is like Mayberry, she told me. Everyone is friendly and nice. I desisted from telling her how long it took (speaking of grit) to build a community of 13 year-olds who worked together. I did not say that there were, in fact, days when the emotional temperature of the room was not so pleasant.

While the film crew was there, one of my students returned to school from a month at home recovering from surgery and treatment for testicular cancer. The other kids were happy to see him, and the film director asked me where he’d been. Oh, wow, she said, when I told her. Let’s use this in the episode.

I was aghast. Absolutely not, I said. Not everyone knows why he’s been out—only that he was ill. It would be a terrible violation of his personal privacy. He would never trust me again. He is so fragile right now—how can you even suggest something like this?

The next morning, the film crew was gone, two days earlier than planned, leaving my office filled with dirty coffee cups and discarded papers. I didn’t hear back from the production company, and never got the complimentary set of videos I was promised—so I never saw myself trying to teach using social-emotional learning. Whatever that is.

Last week, when I was doing some reading on SEL, I accidentally found the Learning Classroom series, and the video where my students and I were featured. If you’d like to see it, our part starts about 15 minutes in.

Seeing the video again made me realize that my students displayed more emotional intelligence than the filmmaker. There’s another lesson there.

That Infiniti Commercial

Several years ago, I wrote a blog entitled “I Hate American Idol” for Education Week. EdWeek changed the title to “Music Teacher Hates American Idol”—lest they be accused of trashing one of America’s iconic entertainment boondoggles—and it drew thousands upon thousands of readers and a whole array of nasty comments, which could be summarized thusly: Grow up, whiny music teacher.

Here’s the lede:
I hate American Idol. I really do.

I think it’s an insidious and destructive force on the American media culture (which– let’s be honest–needs all the help it can get), an omnipresent televised influence causing Americans to believe that unless your voice and public persona meet some amorphous standard of style and quality, you should just shut up and stop singing.

Or maybe I should just lighten up. But still.

Everyone who can speak can sing. Really. Singing is just extended, rhythmic speech. Singing is a great gift–a fun, wholesome activity that builds community, expresses joy, sorrow and humor, entertains and binds us together in life’s transitional moments. There is no activity that is not made richer or better illuminated by music.

Community singing around a campfire got ragtag groups of settlers across the prairie, and singing has comforted those who remain behind, bereft, when lives are lost. Music releases emotion far more effectively than words. While it’s wonderful to listen to exquisite vocal harmonies, nothing is more satisfying than actually singing yourself. It’s what we were meant to do as human beings.

And that’s what I tell my students– they are born singers.

If you watch television, you’ve seen the Infiniti commercial where Rich White Lady inexplicably drives her luxury vehicle into a tiered room where children are filmed simply holding—often incorrectly—orchestral instruments. There is a soundtrack marked by significantly scratched tone and seriously out of tune chords, unpleasant to the ears of 21st century consumers who are used to perfect (and often auto-tuned) music. RWL rolls up the window, shutting out the sound, lowers her seat, adjusting the rear view mirror so she can see her adorable daughter, who later rides home in the back seat.

Message: Owning the right car will shut out the cacophony of life. Including the disgusting sounds your children make.

Music teachers universally hate this commercial. Many took time out of preparing for spring concerts, the school musical and recruiting musicians for the 2022 marching band (something everyone in the bleachers on Friday night expects) to comment. There’s plenty to say.

For starters, the piece the students are pretend-butchering is Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, a tone poem based on a literary work by Friedrich Nietzsche, which incorporates the idea that God is dead. So there’s that.

There’s also the fact that the children portrayed are not actually playing the piece (something that’s obvious to instrumental music teachers)—or even attempting to play an instrument. Shots of cute children incorrectly holding musical instruments are commonplace in advertising (see below).

It’s this ‘cute’ angle that’s most annoying. Children, as previously noted, are born to make music—to sing, to move, to create. Teaching them to appreciate a delicate instrument, to persist through the difficult challenge of making good sounds, learning to work together to create something magnificent—isn’t this the critical essence of authentic education?

I found the commercial insulting to my life’s work.

 And I’m wondering:

What if RWL had rolled up her window and ignored her little soccer player, averting her eyes in embarrassment because he was running, knock-kneed, toward the wrong goal?

What if she was scrolling on her phone while her daughter was on stage at a dance performance—unable to watch because the dancing was so painfully inept?

What if she told her 4th grader that her artwork—on display at the school’s art show—was ‘amateurish?’

Parents who reject their children’s efforts at anything because those efforts are clumsy, childish or hard to hear are doing damage. Telling your child that they shouldn’t do something unless it comes easily or can’t be done perfectly is personal vandalism.

I’m not suggesting kids be praised when praise isn’t warranted. I have had literally hundreds of parents joke about their kids’ early efforts at playing an instrument: Moose mating (low brass). Geese honking (oboes). Pigs squealing (clarinets). If accompanied by encouragement and tolerance, these moments can be light-hearted.

One parent remarked: I have sat through a lot of kid concerts and some of them were painful. Let’s face it, when kids are learning, they often do suck.

Nope. That’s the response of an adult who misunderstands the role of persistence and effort. If it’s ‘painful’ to listen, imagine the pain of a child whose parent shuts out their first steps in any endeavor by rolling up the metaphorical window.

Another comment, from a fellow musician: In my band directing days, when parents and staff would joke or complain about the first beginners concert, I’d tell them it was my absolute favorite concert. Four months ago, they didn’t even know how to assemble their instruments. They might not even have known what instrument it was. And now we’re making music.

The first concert was my favorite, too. All six notes, and all the shining faces.

And pretty soon—with time and effort—they can sound like this, taking those skills and friendships into the adult world. No matter what kind of car they’re driving.

Because we’re all born to make music.

Good Times, Bad Times. Public Education.

I should start by saying that while there were occasionally some very Bad Times indeed in public education in the last century or so—the folks who are in the classroom at this moment are undisputed champions of working through the mind-bending challenges and crises coming at them.

It’s been chaotic even in the best-run schools, a kind of perfect storm of global pandemic and political upheaval, for more than two years. And we’re going to pay for it, down the line, in loss of professional staff and community goodwill. When I say ‘we’—I mean all of us: teachers, parents, and especially students.

You can’t beat good people up ad infinitum; no matter how dedicated they are, teachers eventually tire of trying to balance the rewards with the downside: underpaid, disrespected. And lately, exposed to a dangerous virus and not trusted to teach their own subjects.

It’s easy to tire of ‘Why I’m Leaving’ articles, but this one caught my eye: Teacher Job Satisfaction Hits an All-Time Low:

‘Past research suggests that many of the people who indicate plans to quit won’t actually do so. But experts warn there are negative consequences from a dissatisfied teacher workforce. Research shows that when teachers are stressed, the quality of their instruction, classroom management, and relationships with students all suffer. And students tend to do better in schools with positive work environments.’

Let’s pause here, to say: Duh.

“What people want is to be able to teach and teach well, and if they can’t do it because they can’t afford to do it or because they have a toxic work environment, that discourages them from acting as teachers who are learning and growing and getting better and increasing their commitment to the work,” said Susan Moore Johnson, a Harvard University professor of education who studies teachers’ working conditions and satisfaction. “That’s the side of satisfaction we need to pay attention to—it’s not just keeping people in their positions.”

‘Also, the low satisfaction levels of teachers already in the classroom may impact the pipeline of future teachers. Enrollment in teacher-preparation programs has declined by about a third over the past decade, and experts say that is likely in part due to the perception of teaching as a low-paid, thankless career.’

Low paid. Thankless. And eligible for food stamps, in some states. What’s not to like?

In the linked article, there is a graph showing the percentage of K-12 teachers who say they are ‘very satisfied’ with their jobs, beginning in 1980. There’s a big dip in 1984 (down to 33%). Beginning in the early 90s, there’s a steady upward climb (to 62%) around 2005 or so, then a downturn, a slippery slope to where things currently stand: 12% of our teacher workforce is very satisfied with their jobs.

Educators aren’t happy.

Remember the famous Santayana quote–Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it? There have been terrible times in education before—segregation and gross inequities, pre-Brown Decision in 1954, and the shameful reaction to it, for example. School funding crises and hot-button issues bubble up periodically.  Hard times are not new.

I actually remember that dip in the early 80s. There was a serious economic downturn, and oil prices shot up. I worked in the suburban outer ring around Detroit, and the financial crisis hit the auto industry, where lots of our parents worked, particularly hard. For the first time, the district lost students, and families.

I remember waving to a tenor sax player, leaving with his school-owned instrument on the day before spring break. He didn’t come back—and his family’s house went into foreclosure. The family left, and took the sax. We waited for a request for records from a new school that never came. There was no internet to cross-reference serial numbers. Bye-bye, Selmer tenor.

I used to think those were bad times. I was wrong, by orders of magnitude.

It’s not a hopeless situation. Here’s a short list of some ‘just for starters’ things we could do to engender a turnaround.  The first two are about a major increase in salaries, and loan forgiveness for those who commit to teaching. So basic, and so essential.

What’s your metric for generating good times in public education?

What Music Teachers Do in the Summer

Scrolling through FB posts from teachers these days is an exercise in sorrow. There’s no other word for it. What’s happening is deliberate damage to the very heart of public education, and most of it is highly politicized nonsense.

I follow an Elementary Music Teachers FB page, filled with suggestions for the Spring program, quick lesson plans for tomorrow and advice for any number of classroom management issues. I just skim through it, admiring the teachers who are digging in, paddling and paddling through deep and stormy waters.

Today, someone said they’d signed up for Orff Training Level One (a summer program to teach an elementary music method that uses keyboard percussion, among other techniques and instruments)–and discovered the training was two weeks long.

What followed was 41 comments from other teachers encouraging everyone to take all three levels (that’s six weeks, in the summer, folks) because it was fabulous. Even though there was homework every night, and six hours of classes in the day. It’s great, person after person said–I use what I learned every day. Take the training!

We got all the way down to the 42nd comment, before someone said: Hey. Does your district pay for this?

Nope. Nope. I get $100 year for professional development. I asked the PTA for a scholarship. Nope. District has a policy not to pay for professional development unless they select it. Nope, nope, nope.

So. It’s April, and music teachers are encouraging each other to sign up for useful summer professional development, on their own dime. During a pandemic.

I don’t know whether to be proud that I’m a music teacher, or angry that there isn’t enough money to send teachers to summer programs (let alone pay them for going).

Shout out to music educators everywhere, who spend their summers working.

The Glorious Adaptability of Music Teachers

Teachers are my favorite group of people on the planet. There’s been a lot of scare-baloney lately about how much schooling has been missed, learning lost blah blah blah—but a pandemic that’s cost us over a million lives is no joke. And teachers have reliably been heroes, showing up to teach, in spite of a firestorm of unsubstantiated criticisms.

I want to offer a special shout-out to music teachers, my super-super-favorite people. And I want to make a prediction: As awful as the pandemic has been in damaging long-standing gold-star music programs, the net effect could be a useful re-thinking of traditional music education.

I joined the Michigan School Band and Orchestra Association in 1975, as a newbie instrumental and vocal music teacher. In subsequent decades, I was a district and statewide officer, festival host and adjudicator.

The organization existed, in large part, to organize and run festivals. I played the game, attending hundreds of meetings, festivals and conferences, some years with as many as four performing groups. I followed their rules. And in my 40+ year association with the MSBOA, not much changed.

This is not a criticism, by the way. Lots of organizations stick with what worked in the past.

But this year, the MSBOA—wisely—changed their previously rigid festival requirements. They listened to their members’ pandemic teaching woes, and eliminated a couple of technical challenges that might keep school bands and orchestras from participating. They tried, in other words, to increase access to the good things about performing for critique, and made the process more flexible. The new rules are set to expire in three years, unless members choose to keep them permanent—or change them again.

We typically teach secondary music through performing ensembles, and award-winning programs are usually run by teachers with student populations and resources that allow them to cherry-pick talent and supplement instruction with outside lessons and coaching. There was some grumbling about ‘lowering standards’ with the new festival rules from some of these directors (don’t call them teachers). But I saw this as a giant leap forward for music education.

For the past two years, I have marveled at how adaptable music teachers are—teaching from home, using brand-new technologies, holding classes outside or in tents, jerry-rigging masks and sharing information on bioaerosol emissions, something none of us studied in college. I have seen some utterly amazing and ingenious things. Standing-ovation dedication and creativity.

But I also understand that the pandemic has had hidden consequences for music teachers. A small urban program that usually has 45 kids in the HS band has only 23 this year, as students have to re-take classes they failed online, rather than a 3rd or 4th year of band. A choir teacher has become the in-building sub for teachers out with COVID, as her three select choirs are combined into one class. A novice middle school band teacher lost her job in 2021, because her beginning instrumentalists were unable to perform at the Honor Assembly in June, having spent months learning online, instead of playing as a group.

Wondering about all those cast-of-hundreds bands and choirs that inspired you from those little online boxes? Why couldn’t school bands use technology like this?  (Click on it—you won’t be sorry.)  

Unless you’ve access to some advanced recording and mixing equipment, the skill to use it, and reliable broadband for all your students–you’re not going to be doing a lot of detail work on rigorous traditional literature. In fact, the person who works magic in those little-heads recordings is the engineer, not the conductor or the individual students. Not to mention—someone taught every one of those 1400 musicians how to play before putting a microphone on their music stand.

I think ‘lost learning’ is total fallacy for all students and subjects, but especially for music. It doesn’t really matter when students (or adults) learn to master an instrument, or start singing with a choir. Music is a life-long skill and pleasure. Introducing competition, benchmarks and timelines into music instruction is almost always counterproductive.

It’s occurred to me that the slower pace and greater individuality in learning might lead to stronger musicians overall, students who will play for enjoyment long past school contests. When live performances have been pushed into the background, there is also time to focus on other aspects of music education: history, culture, elements of musicianship, improvisation and composition. Maybe even fun.

Also: relationships, the heart of all learning. I hear from teachers that kids are quitting because practicing is no longer possible at home. How can we make it possible for those students to continue making music with their friends, when school is the only place that can happen?

Can use what we’ve learned teaching online by setting up computer-based instruction for kids who can’t fit band into their schedule? Or develop alternative music classes to bridge the gap between the advanced orchestra playing Shostakovich and more basic music-making?

Maybe we decide to be music teachers, not competitive ensemble directors. That’s not all bad.

It’s a matter of creativity and flexibility, something music teachers have in spades.

Freedom’s Just Another Word

Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose
Nothin’– it ain’t nothin’ if it ain’t free…

Remember free schools? They were all the rage, back in the day—long, long ago—when those folks protesting the error-filled ways of public education were hippie types, not scripted, Republican-funded moms with time on their hands.

Often educated in public schools themselves (where they learned to craft logical arguments and read great books), these lefty parents did not want Moonbeam’s schooling to consist of straight rows, workbooks and bells. They wanted the freedom to discuss Real Issues and pursue personal growth.

But as always, the times they are a-changin’.

In a brilliant essay in the NY Times, GWU Professor Elizabeth Anker describes how ‘freedom’ has morphed from the Bill of Rights model I learned about in one of those straight-rows public schools, to what she calls ‘ugly freedoms:’

Today, more and more laws, caucuses, rallies and hard-right movements use the language of freedom as a cudgel to erode democratic governance and civil rights; these laws expand the creep of authoritarianism. One Jan. 6 insurrectionist insisted, “I’m here for freedom,” when describing his participation in the attack on the Capitol. Mask mandate opponents have cited “health freedom,” even if their refusal to mask denies freedom of movement to immunocompromised people and makes communities more vulnerable to Covid.

Freedom, Anker says, has been co-opted.

I can name dozens of other words that no longer clearly mean what they once did: Unconstitutional, for example. Anti-Fascism. Illegal. Forensic Audit. Critical Race Theory. Moms, for Liberty. Election integrity. You can justify putting any number of formerly well-understood terms in scare quotes, these days.

Language, over time, does—and should—morph, as societal norms and technological advances change the way people think and behave. That’s why those 1960s ads with doctors lighting up a Camel to ‘relax,’ are so hilarious.

But I really hate losing freedom, as a political and educational concept. I especially hate knowing that Republicans have weaponized something valuable and politically distinct, turned it into a well-funded, election-winning grievance.

Freedom is a complex idea. Freedom without responsibility is moral adolescence—a phenomenon we have seen played out endlessly during the pandemic, by anti-mask abusers, phony accusations of ‘tyranny’ and a focus on individual rights rather than the common good—during a public health crisis, no less.

As a music teacher, I wrestled with the concept of freedom every year, and shared those dilemmas with my students. Why is every composition on our required festival list written by a white man—can we break free of that?  In a largely white, largely Christian town, should we be representing all winter celebrations in our music, or just having the expected Christmas concert? What are the roots of the music my students are listening to—and is it my responsibility to help them dig into that history?

My career was all about the freedom to teach music in untraditional but deeper ways. And I was incredibly lucky. I never had to deal with rigid standards or statewide assessments, and seldom had parent complaints. I was, far more than other teachers, free to craft curriculum, performances, travel and materials to fit my students, few questions asked.

What I’m reading now is alarming—the heated School Board meetings, book banning, legislated gag orders and threats over what can/cannot be taught. If you only read the news, you might think that public educators have been so thoroughly intimidated that every bit of color and usefulness will be leached out of learning.

But I have doubts about the long-term impact of this astro-turf, give-me-liberty movement. I think raging against diversity and inclusion by silly law-making is destined to fail—especially when you look at recent CNN survey data:

While parental choice has become the subject of frequent political controversy, the CNN Poll found that most Americans reject the idea that the primary responsibility for what happens in the classroom belongs either to parents or to teachers and school officials. Majorities said both groups should have an equally important role in school-related decisions ranging from Covid-19 precautions to the way various school subjects are taught.

Only about one-fifth of Americans (19%) said parents should be the main decision-makers on mask policies, with 17% saying the same about virtual learning and 16% on teaching about racial issues. Just 7% thought parents should have final say over how to teach math. About 1 in 8 Americans, or 12%, said parents’ views should have the most sway over which library books are on the shelves and how American history is taught, while roughly twice as many said teachers and school officials should have more influence on those areas. Respondents split equally over how issues regarding race in America are taught, with 16% saying parents should have more say, 16% teachers and school officials, and 62% saying both should be equally important.

These are pretty small numbers, for a so-called movement. Glenn Youngkin may have ridden parent disapproval over school policy to a governorship, but I am far from convinced that there’s a voting majority in all states to swing elections based on book-banning, faux CRT hype and other curricular issues.

When you look at the numbers, it’s easy to see this as another cycle of school-parent communication, where schools that listen to parents and work cooperatively with them for the good of all their students, are doing the best job of navigating a global pandemic and political warfare based on the Big Lie. Major challenges, indeed.

One of my former students sent me a note expressing her frustration over the screaming matches at the local school board meetings. I know these people, she said—they live in my neighborhood. And they’re not even parents of school-aged kids. For them, this is political gain. For me, this is about protecting my child.

One of the local Liberty Moms came to her door and asked, ‘Aren’t you worried about how your boys will vote, when they’re adults?’ Actually, she wasn’t concerned about that at all—they won’t be voting for many years, and there are a lot of math facts and swimming lessons and trips to the library that needed to happen first—safely. But there is no clearer example of just what her neighbor is really worried about.

It isn’t freedom. It never was freedom. It was about winning.

Thirteen Songs

The headline made me laugh: Is Old Music Killing New Music?

The news, it seems, is dreadful:
‘Old songs now represent 70 percent of the U.S. music market, according to the latest numbers from MRC Data, a music-analytics firm. Those who make a living from new music—especially that endangered species known as the working musician—should look at these figures with fear and trembling. But the news gets worse: The new-music market is actually shrinking. All the growth in the market is coming from old songs.’

I find this interesting, as a musician and sometime music scholar. I spent many years doing lessons with my middle school and high school musicians, pointing out that centuries went by with human beings presumably making music that we can only guess about now—and lots more centuries went by where we have written scores, but no audio confirmation of what folks were listening to.

The earliest wax cylinder recording of music dates back to 1888, Arthur Sullivan’s ‘Lost Chord.’ Upon hearing his own composition played back, Sullivan said he was ‘terrified at the thought that so much hideous and bad music may be put on record forever.’ Well then.

Commercial radio has been around for about 100 years, accompanied by lots of argument about the best and highest uses of broadcasting. Records—discs, that is, spun at varying speeds and available to the general public—have also been available for about a century.

I am presuming that the ‘old’ music that is slaying new music does not include that vast sweep of music-making prior to the 20th century, even though it’s a pretty large, um, catalog. Also—and this is a simple math problem—doesn’t the growing body of archived music necessitate that newly created music will represent a smaller portion of the whole?

In other words, while I am a strong supporter of music creation, I don’t think the popularity of old music (defined as something released more than 18 months ago) threatens the human compulsion to generate new music. I think it means that music is that rare thing—something that can be experienced repeatedly without growing old or worn out.

This blog was inspired by two things I ran across lately: A thread on Anne Helen Petersen’s Substack, Culture Study which asked readers to name a ‘perfect’ album. And a post from my friend Bill Ivey wherein he suggests his readers ‘create a playlist/compilation album that would be your autobiography through song.’

This is the kind of thing I love to do—I keep a folder on my computer entitled My Songs where I dump recordings that move me, and notes about music that I want to hear again, and again. It’s a mixed bag, pages and pages long, going all the way back to medieval chant, the first stuff that was written down. It’s comfort food for my inner life.

And lately, I have needed some comfort. My husband and I lost a good, good friend a couple of days ago and I needed to wallow in the (old) music that has been the soundtrack of all my life events and friendships.

As I was listening, rambling through the list, simultaneously wiping my eyes and laughing at shared memories, I thought that this might be that autobiographical playlist. Heavy on the sad and the spiritual (not religious, but metaphysical). But also about love. Which never gets old.

So—thirteen songs.

Gathering of Spirits (Carrie Newcomer)

There’s a gathering of spirits
There’s a festival of friends
And we’ll take up where we left off
When we all meet again

I cannot remember who introduced me to Carrie Newcomer, but her entire catalog, IMHO, is something close to genius.

Into the Mystic (Van Morrison)

Hark now, hear the sailors cry
Smell the sea and feel the sky
Let your soul and spirit fly
Into the mystic

I played this once, on my flute, for a funeral—but it’s not about the tune, which is kind of pedestrian. It’s about the words and it’s about Van Morrison. I know Van has been a jerk lately, but his gypsy soul is still present in his music.

Dimming of the Day(Richard & Linda Thompson)

You pull me like the moon pulls on the tide
You know just where I keep my better side

A song about love and need and fractured relationships that is both tender and ineffably sad; a once-good thing gone bad. I listened to a half-dozen covers (The Corrs, Bonnie Raitt, Alison Krauss), but settle, always, on Linda Thompson’s pleading original.

I Know You by Heart (Eva Cassidy/Nelson & Harrison)

We were like children, Laughing for hours

The joy you gave me lives on and on

‘Cause I know you by heart

Oh, Eva. Gone way too soon. Her ‘Over the Rainbow’ makes an entirely new song out of Judy Garland’s version—but I like this tune best.

The River Jordan (May Erlewine)  Jordan River, Michigan

When you fall in, baptized of all your sins
Oh we all take a swim on the River Jordan
From what I understand they say the promised land is on the banks of the River Jordan
And I must agree I’ve never felt so free
As you, me, the river and the morning

May Erlewine is a northern Michigan singer with a broad range of vocal styles and great songwriting chops. This is one of her older songs, often requested—but that hasn’t stopped her from writing many more and exploring new musical turf. So there.

The Parting Glass (The Choral Scholars @ University College Dublin)

Of all the money that e’er I had
I spent it in good company
And all the harm I’ve ever done
Alas, it was to none but me

And all I’ve done for want of wit
To memory now I can’t recall
So fill to me the parting glass
Good night and joy be to you all

This one dates back to the 17th century. I played this at another funeral (there should always be music at a memorial service). The local Ancient Order of the Hibernians were there to sing, and needed a pennywhistle to keep them ‘on the tune.’ I came into their rehearsal room to run through it—a large group of men in green sport coats and ties. I introduced myself–I’m Nancy Flanagan—and their leader said ‘Sure you are…’ and they all laughed.

God Only Knows (Beach Boys)

I may not always love you
But long as there are stars above you
You never need to doubt it
I’ll make you so sure about it
God only knows what I’d be without you

My favorite Beach Boys song. What’s amazing about this song is that there are so few words, but so much musical depth and infectious vocalizing.

Drift Away (Dobie Gray)

Thanks for the joy that you’ve given me
I want you to know I believe in your song
And rhythm and rhyme and harmony
You’ve helped me along
Makin’ me strong

Oh, give me the beat boys and free my soul
I wanna get lost in your rock and roll and drift away

When I die, this is the song I want played at the funeral. (I want a funeral. Not everyone does.)

In My Life (Sara Niemietz, vocals; W.G. Snuffy Walden, guitar/Lennon & McCartney)

There are places I’ll remember
All my life, though some have changed
Some forever, not for better
Some have gone and some remain
All these places have their moments
With lovers and friends I still can recall
Some are dead and some are living
In my life, I’ve loved them all

Everyone knows the Beatles version. I picked this one to highlight the way a great, subtle guitar sketches the harmonies, which are the soul of this otherwise simple tune. The vocalist is superb, too.

Shovel in Hand  (Amy Grant)

Life can change in the blink of an eye
You don’t know when and you don’t know why
“Forever Young” is a big fat lie
For the one who lives and the one who dies

I’m not really a big Amy Grant fan—although I love her husband, Vince Gill. This song, however, is personally important to me. For reasons.  And it always, always makes me cry.

For a Dancer (Jackson Browne)

Keep a fire for the human race
Let your prayers go drifting into space
You never know what will be coming down

Perhaps a better world is drawing near
Just as easily it could all disappear
Along with whatever meaning you might have found

Don’t let the uncertainty turn you around

This song is proof that Jackson Browne’s best work was his earliest work, mostly for the craftsmanship of the lyrics.

Say Hey (I Love You) (Michael Franti)

It seems like everywhere I go
The more I see, the less I know
But I know one thing–that I love you
I love you, I love you, I love you

I saw Michael Franti play in Grand Rapids and it was more like a religious experience than a concert. He came out with members of the band as we were waiting in lines in the hot parking lot, holding lawn chairs, and entertained us.

One Love (Koolulam/Bob Marley)

One love, one heart
Let’s get together and feel all right
Hear the children crying (one love)
Hear the children crying (one heart)
Sayin’ “Give thanks and praise to the Lord and I will feel all right”
Sayin’ “Let’s get together and feel all right”

It would be hard to pick a single Bob Marley song, but this recording (at the Tower of David in Jerusalem, with a beautifully diverse crowd singing their hearts out) never fails to move me.