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.