Three Years Ago

I wrote this three years ago, right after the shootings in Orlando. I was working, at the time, as pianist for Sunday services in a local church–a nice, friendly church a short distance from my home in northern Michigan. I had an experience there that rattled me–and I wrote about it, on Facebook. It was June, 2016–before the Access Hollywood tape, before the debates, before the dawning recognition that someone had welcomed Russia into our electoral process.

Facebook dished this up to me as a ‘remember when?’ option–and I was startled to see just how prescient it was. So I’m sharing it now, three years later:

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I have been thinking, all day, about something that happened yesterday. It’s been nagging at my consciousness as I read and watch coverage of the tragedy in Orlando. It’s not something I can put into a blog post, because it covers a wider swath than education. But it’s bothering me, a lot.

I live in a purple county in a purplish state. Among my true friends, the big discussion lately has been “Bernie or Hillary?” But among my neighbors, acquaintances and the organizations I belong to (and work for), there are lots of Republicans. Good people, I think–people who work hard, who care for their families and do good work in the community. People who are reasonably intelligent and trustworthy–people I respect and with whom I socialize.

It’s always been that way. I vote my conscience, based on information rather than personality, advertising or family tradition. I have never been a straight-ticket voter. And I have no partisan litmus test for the people I befriend.

I overheard a conversation yesterday, in the least likely place you can imagine, about the shootings and Donald Trump’s response to the tragedy. Four men, all sixty-ish (and all white)–pillars of the community, volunteers and grandfathers–were quietly discussing the events. One said “I’m worried that Trump’s going to say something he’ll regret.” (What? What more could he possibly say than the terrifying, appalling things he’s already said?) Another said “He needs to keep his mouth shut until he’s elected–then he can say things about Muslims and the gays and the Mexicans. But he can’t afford any mistakes right now, not while people are upset about Orlando.”

Mistakes? Mistakes!?

Their conversation continued on, these four “respectable” men– about how Trump would bring back the country they loved. How he’d restore the military, at last, and support small businessmen (no feedback on business women, alas). How their guns would be safe for four years (this is hunting country–the pro-gun bandwagon is big around here). How good it would be to have a man who believes in God (their God, the real God, not the Muslim God Obama worships) back in the White House. How very much they all loathed Hillary Clinton, see her as a criminal. They said these things. Out loud.

I was only a few feet away from the men, who weren’t exactly hiding anything, standing there with their styrofoam cups of coffee, kibbitzing. And it hit me like a concrete block upside the head: there are a whole lot of people who’d probably rather have Kasich or Cruz or Prince Jeb or Little Marco, but will vote for Trump in this election because he’s the one who will be on the ballot. He’s their only choice, as they see it. He may be a bigmouth or wrong on some things–but he’s the one they’ll vote for. And all of these men, trust me, are definitely voters.

It’s not as if I wasn’t aware these Reince Priebus-like people existed–but it rolled over me like an icy wave: People I know and like (or used to like) will be voting for Donald Trump. Not just moronic Tea-Party strangers, bellowing and threatening with misspelled signs at the rallies. Not just richer-than-rich capitalist predators with trophy wives. Not just feckless Republicans-for-life. But–people I know, people I attend services with, joke with at the post office. They’re Trump voters, whether they like him, or not. And they know who they can reveal their political preferences to–and who to avoid, when discussing him. They’re the people who will decide this election, too.

Seriously, it was a paradigm shift, one of those moments when you see your entire social environment in a completely different light. Organizations you found trustworthy become suspect. Core beliefs and principles are held up for examination. What happened in Germany in the 30s and 40s becomes plausible. The unfathomable–the national joke–becomes real.  (June 13, 2016)
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Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Education Policy Blunders

Here’s my theory of how Democrats can win the next election.

It doesn’t have anything to do with electability, because one man’s ‘electable’ is another woman’s ‘no thanks, old white dude.’ It also doesn’t have anything to do with one specific issue—because there are a dozen bona fide Hot! Burning! Critical! issues right now (the destruction of the planet, for starters) and nobody seems to be paying much attention to the one candidate who puts that at the top of his list.

We got troubles, right here in River City.

Fortunately for us, we also have at least a dozen pretty good candidates, probably more. And we have months of opportunity to hear lots more from each of them, to actually use the primary debates as a thoughtful winnowing, an in-depth national conversation on the full range of issues. We can not only pick a candidate, we can audition candidates for other Congressional roles, as potential cabinet members, judges and future political stars.

Unless Donald Trump doesn’t make it to the finish line— and even if the plug gets pulled mid-campaign— we are surely looking two old conservative white men as Republican opponents. While it may seem shallow and obvious to focus on demographics, Democrats can run a ticket that represents women, people of color and younger voters. If you put together women, POC and progressive youth as a voting bloc, that’s a considerably bigger cohort than 50%.  The trick is to get them excited about actually voting.

Which is why I was so disappointed to see educators—teachers! — going after Elizabeth Warren.

Not because she’s my top candidate. I don’t have a top candidate. In fact, I mistrust anyone who’s settled on The One. Because what that means is that you’ll start aggressively looking for flaws in the other candidates and focus entirely on your candidate’s virtues (real or imagined) and the narrow band of issues that mean the most to you. You’ll stop listening to negatives about your candidate (and they all have negatives).

You may actually start writing blogs about why you don’t like a potentially viable candidate, dredging up meh reasons that they cannot be trusted. You may throw around phrases like ‘hard pass’ and ‘no way in hell’ and ‘never liked her anyway.’ You may dig deep into things the candidate said decades ago, even stretch the truth, just a bit, to make your point and attract like-minded readers.

You can also start valuing things that don’t matter much, in the big picture: Which candidate publicly introduced an idea before the other candidates, for example. In building a coherent and comprehensive set of policy suggestions, first isn’t necessarily best. Nor is changing one’s mind a deal-breaker. I admire a candidate who looks at the evidence and then articulately shifts position.

Demanding that a candidate release a full accounting of his or her views on a particular subject RIGHT NOW is also foolish. Candidates deserve the right to listen to lots of potential voting groups and examine their own values before constructing a set of pledges and promises (which, as all adult voters, including MAGA types, know, are not guarantees).

So let’s talk specifics here: Charter schools—and Bernie Sanders vs. Elizabeth Warren.

I am ardently opposed to charter schools, based on the indisputable outcomes of a mature charter environment, the literal mountain of evidence that has accrued in my home state, Michigan. I’ve written about this at some length (here, here, here) and so has the local press (here).

Some of my former students teach in charters (because that’s the only place new teachers in MI can get jobs); people in my family teach in charters. It’s either that or don’t teach at all. They know how I feel—and mostly, they know what the evidence says. Charters, however—for worse, not ever better, are now deeply woven into the Michigan landscape, inescapable.

When I moved to the town where I now live, some 10 years ago, I joined the League of Women Voters and discovered they’d produced a paper in support of charter schools and choice in general. I was stunned. Didn’t they know what charters were doing to Detroit Public Schools—or why that mattered to them, ultimately?

I learned that the paper had been written when there was one mom-and-pop, hands-on learning/small class size/progressive curriculum charter in town. And some of the members’ grandchildren attended the school, happily. There was no evidence that the educational ecology had been negatively impacted.

That was then. Now, things really are different. There are more than enough data and school closings (and a local charter founder in prison for tax evasion). Anyone who’s paying attention can see what a terrible idea it is to give public money to privately—often secretively—managed schools.

But I understand that many states which have resisted charters, or maintained strong oversight and controlling legislation, are where Michigan was 10-15 years ago. Charters don’t seem like a big deal to some voters—not as big a deal as crushing student debt, the opioid crisis, climate change or the growing and dangerous gap between haves and have-nots. And alienating civic-minded, legislatively engaged parents whose children are in charters (or private schools, for that matter) is a politically unsavvy idea at the moment.

Deciding that one candidate—Warren– must be booted out of contention, simply because the woman who introduced her at a rally had ties to charter world feels nitpicky at best. Charging her with disloyalty because one of her education advisors got his start in Teach for America?

Well. I want to hear a lot more about Warren’s vision for K12. I want to hear what she thinks about rebuilding the teacher pipeline, using fully trained and qualified teachers (and promising to support better pay for important work), not two-year adventure teachers. But I refuse to judge any candidate on what amounts to skimpy, unspecific charges. Working for a non-profit or joining TFA out of college is not a full-throated declaration of principles.

Just as Buttigieg’s stint at McKinsey doesn’t mean he’s a raving conservative capitalist, and Klobuchar’s reputed binder-throwing doesn’t mean she’s abusive, and Harris’s record of doing her job as a big-city prosecutor doesn’t mean she lacks compassion—Warren’s staffers are not proof that she is anti-public education or anti-teacher. We all need to take a step back and look at the big picture.

We have several good, viable candidates. Let’s ask the hard questions. Let’s not pick our personal number-one and go after the others. Resist the lure of the all-American horse race, for once. Develop a list of five, rotating new faces in and out. Look for strengths, rather than inventing weakness. Allow for mind-changing (even for Uncle Joe Biden, and others whose records as governors and mayors are pretty clear). Waiting before pulling the trigger is almost always the best plan.

But what about charters? William Julius Wilson, in The Truly Disadvantaged, writing about policy, notes that the most popular and sticky public policies have benefits for everyone, even if their origin was around solving a problem for a specific group. Charter schools, at least rhetorically, were supposed to provide educational options, especially for those whose schools were not meeting their needs. Pretty quickly, they morphed into a back door for those who saw K-12 education as a giant, untapped market.

If Wilson is right, what we need is a system of schools that meet all children’s needs reasonably well. A plan to shut down charters through federal intervention will be neither universally popular nor sticky. We need to support all public schools—the suburban schools that are community centers, the urban schools with wrap-around services, the little boutique schools with unique curricula. We need to make public education so resource-rich and service-oriented—so popular and sticky– that charters can’t compete.

And we aren’t going to do that by trashing any of the Democratic candidates. That’s counter-productive.

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Learning Styles: Detrimental or Useful?

Did you ever sit through a professional development workshop on learning styles? I have—at least twice. Once with the dreaded Outside Presenter (from a university that shall not be named), and once with a well-respected teacher in my building, both at least 20-25 years ago, when learning styles were a thing.

They’re not a thing anymore.

In fact, they’re ‘detrimental.’ According to a number of education psychology experts, learning styles themselves don’t exist, so actually it’s believing in them that’s detrimental. Detrimental to whom? Students. Teachers. Parents.

Shaylene Nancekivell, PhD, visiting scholar at the University of Michigan and lead researcher for a new study on the myth of learning styles, divides folks who believe in them–some 80%-95% of people across the globe, BTW—into two groups: Essentialists and Non-essentialists.

Psychological essentialism is the belief that certain categories of people have a true nature that is biologically based and highly predictive of many factors in their lives. People with essentialist opinions about learning styles may be more resistant to changing their strongly held views even when they learn that numerous studies have debunked the concept of learning styles.

Non-essentialists are ‘more flexible.’  The other group–those who understand that learning styles are myths that have been debunked by scientific research—doesn’t have a formal name. Let’s call them academic pedants.

And now you’ve just read the first reason why these cyclical pieces about how learning styles don’t exist drive me crazy: researchers set up experiments to examine a bit of ‘conventional wisdom’ that some (not all) teachers find useful–or have found useful at some point in their career.

They then inform teachers that their pet theories about teaching and learning are baloney. Next, they label them ‘essentialists’–and build straw teacher-men, speculating about how teachers use these silly, foolish ideas and, by the way, resist change.  Because, you know, they’re teachers.

Previous research has shown that the learning styles model can undermine education in many ways. Educators spend time and money tailoring lessons to certain learning styles for different students even though all students would benefit from learning through various methods. Students study in ways that match their perceived learning style even though it won’t help them succeed. Some teacher certification programs incorporate learning styles into their courses, which perpetuates the myth for the next generation of teachers. Academic support centers and a plethora of products also are focused on learning styles, despite the lack of scientific evidence supporting them.

I certainly agree with the last sentence. The number of ‘educational’ products that are built on theoretical quicksand is legion. And I can list a dozen ongoing ‘wars’ around the best way to teach important content, each with its own ‘research base’ and, probably, a vocal advocacy group. The shelf life of an educational theory is often short.

But correctly identifying ‘best practice’ that will help all students succeed is, and always has been, a moving target. Stamping out a belief in learning styles is hardly going lead to an erasure of what Nancekivell calls ‘maladaptive practice.’

In a Facebook discussion on the referenced article, I was touched when a friend (Nate Smith-Tyge) said this:  I do think the learning styles beliefs come from a good place.

I think so, too. Teachers are trying to reach kids by trying different strategies and modalities. Some will work better than others. If paying attention to the easiest, most efficient and indelible way to teach something to an individual child means a teacher is dabbling in learning styles, so be it.

As a 30-year music educator who frequently got the kids who were misidentified as ‘kinesthetic learners,’ I can testify that there are undoubtedly preferences and natural tendencies in learning to play an instrument.

Some students learn to play by reading their beginners method books. They learn the note names and memorize the fingering chart. Their focus is on note-reading, counting and blowing or bowing at the same time. It’s a tricky, uncoordinated multi-task at first, but eventually, through persistence, they get the pieces put together. Instrumental music teachers love kids like this—some teachers won’t let students even pick up their instruments until the preliminary cognitive/visual material is mastered.

Other kids learn to play instruments by watching others and doing what their mouths, arms and fingers do. They couldn’t care less what’s in the book. They want to play! They come in the second day, saying see what I can do! (In my neck of the woods, that was usually ‘Let’s Go Blue!’) How did they learn this? From watching YouTube or maybe an older brother who told them what keys to press.

These kids make the first group, still playing whole notes, heads in their books, nuts.  I always had students who complained that other students were watching their fingers or slide positions—which felt, to the note-readers, like cheating.

Still other novice musicians fool around, trial and error, until they can repeat a sequence of sounds: a tune. Parents were constantly telling me about their amazing child who could pick out any tune on the piano, or saxophone or trombone, after hearing it a few times. It’s hardly an unusual trait—auditory memory—but it’s definitely a learning preference.

It’s also the way many rock, pop and country musicians learn—strictly by listening, and remembering. No paper involved. A friend who plays bass tells me that in a gig with a new group of musicians, he seldom tells folks that he reads music; some people find it off-putting.

The Suzuki method of teaching basic instrumental skills relies on watching and listening, mimicking, repeating and improvising, to a far greater degree than traditional American music pedagogy. Suzuki students learn to DO, and to listen, rather than read, for a long time.

If I believed in learning styles (ha), I would say that Suzuki students exercise and develop their auditory and kinesthetic modes first and save the visual/verbal symbolic interpretation skills until students are older. There’s a lesson there for American educators.

The point is: there are multiple ways to learn to play a musical instrument. All of them have value, and none of them is a ‘best practice’ or ‘maladaptive.’

Dan Willingham is the national guru on the myth of learning styles. I once wrote a blog entitled ‘I Believe in Learning Styles’ and he graciously commented and engaged in a lively discussion about the semantic differences between preferences, abilities and learning styles.

I came away feeling as I still do today: I get the yada-yada about theories of mind and theories of instruction. But I still feel as if teachers who have found benefits from addressing those learning preferences, abilities and styles are coming from a good place. Their observations and gathered evidence matter, too.

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Is Your School Band Playing this Weekend? Thank a Teacher.

I’m not much of a flag waver, really. I always thought that author James Baldwin captured my feelings precisely in Notes of a Native Son when he wrote:

I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.

These days, perpetual criticism is essential. We are headed into dark times, redefining the meaning of patriotism and sacrifice. It’s easy to lose faith in our government and the grand experiment—all men created equal—that founded this nation. It’s easy to let hope die when threats of another pointless war appear on the horizon.

I still believe, however, heart and soul, in the shining but imperfect ideals of a democratic education –equality under the law, the American common school, a free, high-quality education for all children, simply because they deserve it. Thirty years of teaching school have given me a hard crust of cynicism about many things related to education and America. But I never lost my enthusiasm for the Memorial Day parade.

For 25 years, my middle school band students marched through the small town where I taught and lived, in the Memorial Day Parade. There was a whole set of traditions around this event, which grew larger and more complicated every year: the aural passing down of our special drum cadences from the self-appointed 8th grade drumline leaders, mending the color guard flags originally purchased through a pizza sale back in ’88, and patching up hand-me-down snares and sousaphones scrounged from the high school.

There was never a budget for this–middle schools don’t typically have marching bands–but somehow there were always T-shirts, and cold drinks at the end of the parade route. We had a stunning handmade banner that two moms whipped up with lots of lamé and sequins. In my last year, we marched nearly 300 students, on a morning when the sky was a sapphire blue and Air Force jets flew overhead as we rounded the corner by the cemetery.

This took up a fair amount of teaching time. I would get on my knees and beg colleagues for 20 minutes on the Friday before the parade, to assemble five bands into a single marching unit and take a few spins around the parking lot. One year, as I was trying to get the back of the band to master pinwheel corners, the front rank (rambunctious 8th grade trombones) marched right up the sidewalk, opened the front doors, and led the band, playing America the Beautiful at top volume, through the school hallways. By the time I sprinted up to the head of the band (and the principal popped, red-faced, out of his office), marching through the school was a done deal–and became yet another annual tradition.

I was always clear with my students about the meaning and purpose of Memorial Day. They would occasionally whine about how boring America the Beautiful was–Mr. Holland’s band played Louie, Louie, right? I explained that they were old enough to dedicate a morning to thanking local patriots and acknowledging the sacrifices made by Americans over centuries. Older people, watching them march by, would be pleased to hear traditional music. It was about respect.

We do this, I told them, to remember and honor those who made it possible for you to live in this beautiful little town, in this safe world. People like my Uncle Don, who died in February 1945, part of the Fourth Marine Division which stormed Iwo Jima. Or Ray Shineldecker and Joey Hoeker, two high school classmates who lost their lives in Viet Nam. I had lots of funny stories to tell about Joey, who lived around the corner in my old neighborhood–a big, goofy kid who was what guidance counselors in the 1960s called “not college material.”

On our last band trip to Washington D.C., after performing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, I was loading tympani onto the buses as my students toured the Mall. A few girls came running up, calling “Mrs. Flanagan! We found him!” Found who, I asked.

Joey Hoeker, of course–on the Wall. And I lost it, right in front of all those kids.

I thank those who served and sacrificed so I can love my country, and criticize it, too. A hat tip to all the band teachers and student musicians who help make Memorial Day meaningful this weekend. And to hero teachers and band directors everywhere– donating yet another weekend to the community –please keep teaching, in spite of everything.

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The Teacher as Assessor

A little handmade meme has popped up recently in my Facebook feed, shared by Alexandra Penfold, a children’s author and food writer.

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Interesting, no? Being told—by scientific measurement, no less—that you were minimally proficient at the skill that was your heart’s desire and life goal. And then sailing on to the very wonderful career you planned, data be damned.

There are lots of implications here, most importantly that test scores are not even close to reality. The first question I would ask Penfold, if I could, is whether she was ever made to feel as if her skills were ‘remedial’—either by any of her teachers, or by her family. I doubt it.

But I have heard plenty of stories about kids who seemed to be fine, cooking right along, until they were derailed by surprising test results, causing a radical change in plans (different classes, different college, different career). Testing impacts lives—and Penfold probably missed the worst of the data fetishism that has become standard in American public education.

And yet, the alternative—the teacher as sole assessor–has come to feel almost random to us. Do we trust teachers—all teachers—to provide useful and accurate feedback, the kind that nurtures children’s dreams and also pushes them to excel? It’s a tall order.

Teachers develop their personal assessment skills and models over time. And building equity and encouragement into testing and grading (as opposed to using evaluation as sorting or punishing) takes a lot of trial and error. Some teachers are good at using grades and scores as investments in student growth. Others, not so much.

Universities don’t do enough to prepare teachers with a range of assessment strategies—but there are limits to the training even the best college programs provide. The only way to become seriously good at assessment—in ways that help students– is practice over time.

Here’s a story:
When I was a novice teacher (back in the 1970s, when merely suggesting that teachers ought to have common grading scales or practices was considered an insult to one’s academic freedom), one of my assignments was 5th grade beginning band. I met with students in like-instrument groups, twice a week.

There were no grades. Band was considered an elective activity, and none of the elementary electives were graded, largely because the teachers who taught them saw hundreds of students each week. I thought of myself as a Band Director, a more rigorous secondary teacher. I thought part of the reason my students weren’t making the progress I thought they should–backsliding between sessions, snickering when they made mistakes, not taking their learning seriously–was because they weren’t getting a grade.

So I graded them secretly. I had them play, every 2-3 weeks, one at a time, and took notes on a legal pad. I clustered them in groups—the stars, the competent ones, the not-yet-but-maybes, and those who really shouldn’t be in band next year, when they would be meeting daily and at last getting real letter grades. By the end of the year, I had a lot of unshared data on these students.

There was one little girl in the clarinets that I found hopeless. I got tired of switching her hands (left on top, right on the bottom, instead of the reverse) and putting the correct fingers over the holes. She was a sweet girl, chubby, bespectacled and earnest, but her clarinet playing was comprised mainly of squeaking (leaky fingers), honking and miscounting. In my rank ordering of about 20 clarinet players, she was dead last.

The pad went into the bottom of a cardboard box, when I moved up to the middle school the next year. The clarinet player moved up, too. In fact, I taught her for eight years, giving her the John Phillip Sousa award as a senior, as she headed off to the university as a music major.

I found the pad some years later. I had, of course, forgotten all about my earlier assessment of a girl whose persistence carried the day. It was easy to see how her initial failures were largely my fault; by the time I found the ‘assessment,’ I was much better at teaching beginning clarinets. I was also lots better at using the power of the test or grade to enhance learning.

But that’s the bottom line here: assessments have tremendous power, for progress or penalty.

Be careful out there.

Who Do I Appreciate? Music Teachers.

Like a lot of my educator colleagues, when it comes to Teacher Appreciation Week, I come down somewhere between surly and cynical, preferring actual respect and control of my professional work, not to mention adequate compensation, over a potluck lunch and a mug.

Being snotty about Teacher Appreciation Week is bad form, however—a cheap shot. Exhausted teachers everywhere deserve recognition and our gratitude for making it most of the way through the ’18-’19 marathon. And one subset of educators—music teachers—merit an entire month of appreciation.

Music teachers do it all. They teach 250 students a day, often in groups of 65, with each student holding a noisemaker. Elementary music teachers might see 500 students in a week, struggling to learn all their names, and packing five or six skills into a dozen 30-minute lessons per day. Music teachers take their students out and about, singing for the nursing home or marching in community parades. They’re responsible for hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of fragile, finicky equipment—and often have to raise the money to replace what’s broken or worn out or keep the music library fresh.

They deal with childish egos and children’s artistry, then put the results of their practice out there for untrained, opinionated parents to judge in concerts, musicals, contests and Friday football shows. They often sacrifice their home and family lives for the good of their programs, knowing that those programs can easily be cut at the next Board meeting, because they’re not ‘essential.’

I am part of a Facebook group of 26K music educators. What happens in BD Group stays in BD Group, but someone just asked if any of us had ever had to send a student home from a field trip or band camp. There were 158 horror stories shared (along with some great prophylactic advice), but none saying ‘…and then I stopped taking my students anywhere.’ Because everyone knows that what makes a music program memorable and magnetic is the concert at the State Capitol or the last night of band camp, when that large group of diverse kids has bonded into a weary but cohesive unit.

It’s easy to hack away at music teachers and their work. Everyone in the building or district or community has an opinion on what a ‘good’ elementary program, halftime show or orchestra concert looks and sounds like. I once got a letter from a Board member’s wife suggesting we raise money to buy capes to spice up the marching band shows. Her high school band had capes, and they were the ‘top band in the state.’ According to her, anyway. Multiply that by every, say, month—and you get the picture.

Or you can read an article entitled The Tragic Decline of Music Literacy and Quality,’ by Jon Henschen, a financial advisor from MN, which includes cheery bits like this:

Public school music programs have been in decline since the 1980’s, often with school administrations blaming budget cuts or needing to spend money on competing extracurricular programs. Prior to the 1980’s, it was common for homes to have a piano with children taking piano lessons. In 1909, piano sales were at their peak when more than 364,500 were sold, but sales have plunged to between 30,000 and 40,000 annually in the US.

Besides the decline of music literacy and participation, there has also been a decline in the quality of music which has been proven scientifically by Joan Serra, a postdoctoral scholar at the Artificial Intelligence Research Institute of the Spanish National Research Council in Barcelona. The results of the study revealed that timbral variety went down over time, meaning songs are becoming more homogeneous. Translation: most pop music now sounds the same.

One wonders if Henschen has ever listened to American pop music from the 1950s. In fact, his piece could easily have been written in the 1950s. We’ve been fighting to keep music literacy and quality from ‘declining’ for a century or more. And when I say ‘we’—I mean music educators.

Stories, studies and op-eds about the value of music education pop up regularly. Like this one, from a young man looking back with gratitude at his musical experiences in high school.

Or this one, thanking a battle-axe music teacher that Jon Henschen would have lauded, for straightening him out and putting him on a path to becoming a lifelong musician.

Or this video, a perfect illustration of the utter joy of singing.

And yet—somehow, the message about the critical value of music education gets lost, over and over again. Why is that? Serious question. Why haven’t we learned that music—all the arts, really—are about our very humanity? In fact, there is new evidence that the ability to keep a beat, that most basic of musical skills, is linked to the ability to read.

Now, music teachers everywhere already knew this, especially those entrusted with developing a steady beat or pitch recognition (yup—it’s science) or simple melody repetition with small, distracted children at 2:45 in the afternoon, a half-hour before the bus comes. But still– it’s nice to see.

I’ll put that research into my bulging digital file labeled Music Advocacy, perhaps pulling it out when the next wave of Phonics Warriors suggests that we need to be re-allocating resources currently spent on ‘specials,’ because, you know, Reading First.

In the meantime, Music Teachers: I see you. I hear you. I thank you for your creativity, persistence and sacrifices. You absolutely rock.

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Who Is Gifted? Why Does It Matter?

Having authored a dozen or more columns on gifted education, it’s easy to predict reader response. It’s unfailing, in fact. There is a well-organized parent advocacy army associated with educating our brightest kids, always at the ready to respond to published commentary, claiming anything less than a full-bore endorsement of extra resources and programming for gifted kids is Not Enough. Because they deserve it.

Essentially, I agree with them. In fact, I got a Masters degree in Gifted Studies, back in the day (way back), because I thought I wasn’t challenging my most accomplished students and wanted new ways to deepen their musical learning. I actually thought I represented the ‘talented’ part of ‘Gifted and Talented.’

Stepping into Gifted World was revelation, however. Educators in the field were mostly interested in whether curriculum for the gifted should focus on acceleration or enrichment. (Acceleration won.) And, of course, the core disciplinary question was just who was entitled to such enhanced curriculum. I learned about the range of testing tools to identify giftedness and creativity. There were cutoffs and variables and labels. There was a fair amount of dissent, even hostility. And nobody was talking about kids with exceptional talents in the arts.

My thesis involved surveying music teachers around the state, who were very kind and willing to respond (in the days where that involved paper and the US Postal service). Most of them offered excellent ideas on strengthening and expanding musical excellence in their own classrooms, as well as special instruction, camps, honors ensembles and other challenges.

Although musical talent is overlooked in the ‘gifted’ discourse, I remain interested in gifted programming in public and private schools. I have taught any number of genuinely gifted students over 30+ years, kids whose interests and capacities, across the academic board, were extraordinary. I saw bright students who didn’t fit in formal programs for the gifted and sank like stones. I saw kids whose parents seemed to have one goal: winning non-existent academic races. I saw children whose unique and remarkable gifts seemed unrecognized—by everyone, including their own teachers.

Gifted programs have come and gone over the intervening decades (mostly gone, as funding dries up and the focus shifts to data-based accountability). But this week, I read an article from Hechinger that took me right back to grad school and the never fully-clarified question: Who is gifted?

The most troubling aspect of gifted classrooms is that they tend to be disproportionately filled with white and Asian students while bright black and Hispanic students often get overlooked. Indeed, gifted and talented programs can sometimes look like a clever tool to separate children by race or ethnicity in school. In New York City, for example, white and Asian parents who have the resources and/or inclination to prepare their four-year-olds to excel on standardized tests snag almost three quarters of the coveted seats. Meanwhile, black and Hispanic students make up more than 65 percent of the public school system.

The article focuses on slicing and dicing test data, asking insulting questions about whether ‘watering down’ a talent pool by allowing kids who test in the 92nd percentile to take classes with kids in the 99th percentile is ‘fair’–a word that presumes precise, certain numerical identification of ability and potential based on one test score (the MAP test, in this case). Fair to whom?

There are lots of presumptions in the article—that only certain students deserve to be offered special instruction, that students who missed a couple more questions on a computer-delivered test are inherently less capable than students who may have had two lucky guesses, and that segregating students in racially-similar schools makes identifying gifted kids and offering them tailored instruction easier.

Troubling, indeed.

The tsunami of readily available testing data has led to articles and arguments about percentages of a human quality as slippery and ill-defined as giftedness. It makes sentences like this possible:

Education experts, like the rest of us, argue endlessly over whether it’s a good idea to accept the trade-off between achievement and diversity.

Think about that. Should any educator—let alone an expert—see ‘accepting’ diversity as an option, and then only if it doesn’t get in the way of faster delivery of the same content? Or meaningless higher scores? There are a lot of questionable value judgments embedded in this one sentence.

It’s questions like these that make people skeptical about the value of exclusive programming for gifted children. If programming for the gifted is just another data-driven contest, a prize to be won, then it’s a waste of resources. There needs to be a solid rationale for offering bright children across the spectrum—rich and poor, black, brown and white—rich and stimulating curriculum, distinctive instruction and unique programming.

It was that rationale—kids deserve opportunities that match their capacities and talents—that drove me to study education for the gifted. It’s enough. But only if we can avoid excluding and ranking children, and hoarding opportunity through the use of achievement data.

Nor can we demand allocation of more resources for the gifted on the basis of ‘national security’ or ‘the Chinese are doing it,’ as this article does. National security is an important goal for every American citizen, no matter what their achievement test scores reveal.  We’re not going to accomplish security (not to mention life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness) without offering a meaningful education for every single child, no matter what they bring to the table. photo-1532168881420-27ec4ba493a6