Fifth Verse – Same, Sorrowful Tune: Superintendent Proposes to Elminate Elementary Strings

Other districts facing fiscal and academic achievement challenges have had successes maintaining and growing their fine arts education – through strategic planning, active engagement and real partnerships with their communities. In Tuscon, AZ, with a large low income and hispanic population, test scores of this population have climbed measurably (independent evaluations confirmed this). This state has received more than $1 million in federal funding for their fine arts education work. School districts in Chicago, New York, Texas and Minneapolis have also done some remarkable work in this area.
In my opinion, the administration’s music education work products and planning efforts this year are unsatisfactory, unimaginative and incomplete. In spite of research that continues to demonstrate the positive effects on student achievement (especially for low income students) and the high value the Madison community places on fine arts, the administration continues to put forth incomplete proposals that will short change all students, especially our low-income students, and the administration does its work “behind closed doors.”
Three or four weeks ago, I spoke at a board meeting and said I thought we needed to do things differently this year – Shwaw Vang and other board members supported my idea of working together to solve issues surrounding elementary strings. Apparently, the administration saw things differently. Since my public appearance the Superintendent has issued two reports – one eliminating elementary strings replacing K-5 music with a “new, improved” idea for K-5 music and a second report with enrollment data presented incompletely with an anti-elementary strings bias. Teachers had no idea this proposal or data were forthcoming, saw no drafts, and they did not receive copies of statistics relevant to their field that was sent last week to the School Board. Neither did the public or the entire School Board know these reports were planned and underway. During the past 12 months, there were no lists of fine arts education priorities developed and shared, no plans to address priorities, processes, timelines, staff/community involvement, etc. String teachers received no curriculum support to adjust to teaching a two-year curriculum in 1/2 the instructional time even though they asked for this help from the Doyle building, and they never received information about the plans for recreating elementary strings in the future. None.
I don’t feel the Superintendent proceeded in the manner expressed to me by Mr. Vang nor as demonstrated by the School Board’s establishment of community task forces over this past year on a number of important issues to the community. Madison’s love of fine arts lends itself well to a community advisory committee. I hope other Board members support Mr. Vang’s community team approach, rejecting the Superintendent’s recent music proposal as incomplete and unacceptable.
In his fifth year of proposals to eliminate elementary strings, the Superintendent is proposing a “new and improved” K-5 music that is not planned for another year, but requires elimination of Grade 4 strings next year. The recent proposal, once again, was developed by administrators without any meaningful involvement of teachers and no involvement of the community. Elementary strings and fine arts education are important to the community. The Superintendent did not use a process that was transparent, well planned with a timeline, open and involved the community.
Music education, including elementary string instruction, is beneficial to a child’s developing, learning and engagement in school. However, music education, also directly supports and reinforces learning in math and reading. Instrument instruction does this at a higher level and that’s one of the reasons why MMSD’s music education curriculum introduces strings in Grade 4, following a sequence of increasing challenges in music education. In fact, all the points made in the Superintendent’s “new” K-5 music program, including multicultural experiences, exist in MMSD’s current music curriculum. The only thing “new” in the Superintendent’s proposal is the elimination of elementary strings.
It is not acceptable to say that we have to do something, because we have to cut money. Also, this is not about some folks being able to “yell” louder than others. To me, this is about five years that have been wasted – no planning, no community involvement, no shared visions. Our kids deserve better. Let’s get started on a new path working together now.

MMSD administration has not worked with the Madison community (parents, teachers, organizations), and this year has simply been a continuation of a closed-door attitude toward the community and toward teachers in this field. Until the administration has worked with the community and put in place a transparent, public process, proposed changes to fine arts education should be rejected. Also, the School Board needs to set expectations before any process commences.
MMSD’s historical data for elementary strings tell us the program is reaching and attracting our low income students: From 1992-2002 enrollment doubled to 2,049 students (consistently about 50% of 4th and 5th graders were enrolled in classes). During this same time period the NUMBER of low income MMSD students enrolled in elementary school grew and the NUMBER of non-low income MMSD students in elementary school declined. Nearly 30% of students currently enrolled in elementary strings are low income and the percentage of students taking the class has grown over time.
NO OTHER PUBLIC/PRIVATE ORGANIZATION IN THE AREA TEACHES HUNDREDS OF LOW-INCOME CHILDREN HOW TO PLAY AN INSTRUMENT – NO OTHER ORGANIZATION IS PRESENTLY EQUIPPED TO DO THIS. No other public/private organization teaches hundreds of low-income children how to play an instrument for little more than $100 per student per year. How can the Madison community help these students continue to be successful?
While THOUSANDS of dollars of administrative time have been spent discussing next steps for elementary strings, teachers were basically excluded. This year teachers were given limited, incomplete information at one voluntary (unpaid) meeting in December, which less than half the teachers were in attendance. They received no information on next steps and heard nothing on progress following this meeting.
Even sadder, the Superintendent has sent a proposal for K-5 music to the School Board, which “promises” a new K-5 music education course in one year (nothing now) that will be great, because it will be well planned! There has been no curriculum assessment or planning this entire year! Why should the School Board expect this to magically change next year unless the structure, process and “players” change?
If this “new” curriculum already exists, the following question comes to mind – why isn’t the existing curriculum being implemented? When was an evaluation last done? Who did this evaluation? There could be a number of issues – questions about implementation, training and coordination that need to be addressed. I would expect any process to begin with an assessment of the current curriculum; which, at a minimum, I would expect to include teachers and community representatives.
The Superintendent’s “idea” will not result in a new, improved K-5 music curriculum and will continue to alienate students, teachers and the community. What the Superintendent wrote in his proposal for K-5 music education ALREADY EXISTS in a thoroughly written K-12 sequential MMSD music education curriculum plan that meets state requirements for a) a K-12 sequential curriculum plan for music and b) is approved by the School Board. When resources are tight, we cannot afford to waste precious time and money.
Lastly, some may read and roll their eyes that I’m writing AGAIN about elementary strings! Rightly so, but not because I’m having to write about this course again and again, but because the Superintendent and the School Board majority have not taken proactive steps toward meaningful, workable solutions – at every turn teachers, parents, and community organizations are excluded. Teachers asked for curriculum time last summer to reorganize the strings course, which was cut in half. The admin. did not help and has not helped this past year, being more of a burden on teachers. This situation has left teachers and kids to figure out curriculum as they go, which does not help teachers who are new or teachers who have introductory classes of 35 kids.
The Superintendent’s record of handling fine arts education in MMSD has wasted precious time and resources, is short changing our low income population and our community. I’d like to see the process change this year. Until it does, I believe the School Board needs to reject the current proposal from the Superintendent.

5 thoughts on “Fifth Verse – Same, Sorrowful Tune: Superintendent Proposes to Elminate Elementary Strings”

  1. Thanks for your post, Barb. You have such a strong voice for strings and music education. Rather than rolling our eyes, there are many of us who are quite interested in what you have to say about this. We also need to remind ourselves that the music teachers themselves are asked not to get involved in the public debate – so we need community advocates for the programs, that very much understand the passions of the teachers.
    I think one of the benefits of music education that you missed from your post was the benefits to school culture and social networks. From teachers’ perspectives and our own involvement in music as kids, we remember the kids that never did quite fit in – but they did connect in a real way through music or other fine arts. We now had something in common, and this did improve the classroom and school environment.
    Libby Burmaster knows this well as a former high school music teacher. Her cultural understanding of the high school helped her in her roles as Principal at West High and, now, as State Superintendent at DPI. Perhaps we should look at this at a state level.
    One of the biggest effects from cutting elementary strings is on the quality of the learning environment in middle and high school. A cohort of elementary kids will soon be in middle school. This is something that everyone can care about, whether you have your kids in elementary strings or not. Early, supportive learning in the arts sticks with kids; they carry it with them for the long term.
    On its own merits, fine arts education really shouldn’t be cut.
    One thing we’ve talked about was how music education requires some threshold level of exposure and support. Also important is the timing of the exposure. Introducing strings to a student in 5th or 6th grade is different than 4th grade. One day a week versus 2 may make many just give up – because they don’t advance at a rate that is satisfying to them. Teachers also can burn out faster when they don’t see broader support or opportunities to teach. Once that level is cut back, the effectiveness of the whole program is threatened from a seemingly marginal cut.
    This is the part I’m not sure the administration understands – but they are also making many other marginal cuts. And, for how much we want to maintain fine arts education, it does have to fit in with the overall budget. If the arts are maintained, cuts will have to be greater elsewhere.
    You make a very good point about the lack of community and teacher involvement in planning music education curricula and in forming priorities. I can see this as being relevant on the state level. Once those priorities are well formed and understood, districts will need to come to some sort of long-range plan for proper support to meet those goals.

  2. One of the major reasons I feel that more kids are not involved in something like strings, is the lack of support. When my kids where of age to take strings, the teachers where strongly opposed to having kids pulled out of their academics. Also, we had a principal who made sure that the environment was not pleasing, including not hiring anyone all three years until Nov. and even 2nd semester one year. Because of all the hassles, my children never participated, and now in 9th and 10th grade, they want to learn some kind of instrument.
    From what I have heard, research has shown kids who where involved in music where stronger in math. Something to do with learning to read music, I think. Can someone who knows more about this please share the correct info. Is this a possible that someone could share this research with the board to try to sway the board into not cutting this program?

  3. I would go farther. It’s time to cut Rainwater.
    Rainwater has been a consistent enemy of arts programs, while this community has demonstrated consisent support for these programs. Rainwater is out of step with this community, and should be let go now.
    Year in, year out he comes up with half-baked cuts to arts programming that make no sense educationally or fiscally. I used to think he did this to engender support for more money for education. As long as parents bought into his extortion, he was happy to let the arts programs hang on so he could threaten cuts and extort more money down the line. He has refused to draw in the broader community to attempt to solve this issue for the simply reason that he doesn’t want to solve it. This community wants this issue solved, and Barb has proposed reasonable ways to do that. Rainwater is standing in the school house door. It’s time for him to go.

  4. I am continually dumbstruck by this District’s persistent efforts to eliminate the elementary strings program, and I find it particularly ironic that the announcement this week of the All State Scholars for 2006 made note of the large number of these exceptional students who were involved with music. Music instruction has been shown to increase school performance and IQ scores and cognitive ability (see the work of Glen Schellenberg, Eliminating a low cost intervention like strings instruction which can increase academic performance seems to disproportionately effect our low income students who don’t have the same opportunities outside of school to receive music instruction, and is antithetical to our District’s stated goal of reducing the achievement gap.
    Just for the sake of comparison, examine the cost of strings instruction to something like Reading Recovery, look at the number of students impacted by these programs, and then decide which is a better investment of the District’s money.

  5. As Judy’s posts suggests, the biggest issue with strings is that it was designed as a pullout program. I don’t know the particular statistics, but I wouldn’t be surprised if participation in strings overall has been trending down a bit since No Child Left Behind. With high stakes testing in 4th grade, the loss of academic time to participate in strings, particularly for struggling students, isn’t supported by some principals and teachers. This has led to an inherently inequitable situation where the strings programs in some schools consist entirely of high achieving students who can afford to miss academic time in order to participate.
    I don’t think abandoning the program is necessarily the best solution to that problem. I know a principal who wanted to offer strings as an afterschool activity. She had some grant money to provide transportation home to any kid who wanted to participate, but the teachers union doesn’t provide for anyone working outside of contract hours, so no one in the district would even discuss her idea. Consequently, very few students at this particularly high poverty elementary school participate in strings.
    I’m very torn on this issue. Both my kids play violin and my husband, who is a Memorial grad, also played violin from 4th – 12th grade. The opportunity to participate in strings in MMSD has been very enriching for my family. My kids lives are more sports-oriented than music-oriented, so I know that neither one of them would be playing violin without it being available in school. It’s sad to see that opportunity denied to the little ones who are just coming up in MMSD, but I’ve also seen how critical academic time is for those kids who struggle to succeed in school and how disruptive a pullout program like strings can be to academic programming.
    It’s a difficult problem, but I do agree with Barb. The administration has spent 5 years doing nothing to support or improve the program….no creativity or thinking outside the box or asking for input (from the fine arts teachers, principals, classroom teachers, parents, community members) or anything. Since my husband participated, I know that MMSD has offered strings starting in 4th grade for a very long time….it is a shame to see it go away without even being given a chance to try and make it a better program that can provide opportunity for all of our students.

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