Music education takes it on the chin againPublished 9:13am Tuesday, April 12, 2011
Column: David Behling, Notes from Home
Our household has been buzzing with frustration since last week, when news of the budget cuts for District 241 surfaced.
Once again the music program takes a huge hit. Yes, there are cuts in other places. Other staff also face unemployment, but music bears the brunt.
District officials say that there are no “program” cuts involving music. They say that they are “increasing music instruction,” that students won’t lose anything they have now. But how can you increase instruction while cutting teachers?
What’s the district’s proposal?
At the elementary schools, one music teacher would be shared between Halverson and Hawthorne, while Sibley and Lakeview would keep their full-time music teachers. Something doesn’t seem fair about that decision to the kids at Halverson and Hawthorne.
Southwest Middle School music staff would be cut to just above half-time. How are they supposed to do more than lead those large groups? What about lessons? What about the extras, like jazz band and Blue Skies? The middle school used to have a full symphony orchestra. It won awards. Is that possible with part-timers?
While Albert Lea High School gets an extra administrator to share the load, the music faculty at ALHS are being asked to accept a whole extra grade with the same resources.
The Tiger Choir, for example, will add eighth-graders to ninth-graders — approximately 90 of them altogether — with only one Diane Heaney to supervise them all (unless the district has found a way to clone her and doesn’t plan on paying the clone).
How will the music program not change with all of those additional duties and subtracted faculty?
The superintendent seems concerned about the attention paid to one individual’s fate, Peter Gepson, the current band teacher at ALHS. But a music program is about individuals, about teachers and students with names and personalities, and the band suffers when teachers disappear. The high school is currently rebuilding from the last change. How will that momentum be maintained if the position is passed on to a yet another new teacher — the fourth new band instructor in six years?
How about a comparison?
If this cut is implemented, Albert Lea Area Schools will have one full-time and one half-time teacher assigned to about 300 band students in grades 6-12. That’s about the same number of teachers at the public school in Lake Mills, Iowa — for one-fifth the number of students. Austin schools, on the other hand, have three full-time positions for roughly the same number of band students as in Albert Lea.
The word “efficiency” caught my attention in school board president Bill Leland’s comments about the cuts. Efficiency is a good word when describing industrial processes, perhaps even agricultural work, but efficiency is a dangerous word when used with people, especially with children.
I thought we were supposed to be talking about what’s best for kids?
But, if efficiency is the magic principle behind the decision to cut music teachers, then wouldn’t getting rid of music completely be even more efficient? That way students could spend even more time preparing for those mandatory statewide exams: memorizing historical facts for social studies tests, formulae for math tests and grammar for writing tests.
Here’s another way to look at efficiency. There is a documented link between music education and success in school, including rising test scores and better attitudes toward learning (especially among low-income and minority students). But is there a link between the number of administrators in a school and test scores? Wouldn’t it be more “efficient” to share administrators and leave the music teachers alone?
How about this kind of efficiency: The high school schedule currently assigns students to an advisory class. They meet — occasionally at this point — as a group with a teacher starting in ninth grade. This group of students and teacher stay with each other all four years — assuming the students stay in the district and the teacher doesn’t retire or take a job elsewhere.
If advisory classes met once a week, wouldn’t those teachers be more informed, more efficient advisers for those students than an administrator or professional guidance counselor who sees them maybe once or twice a year?
It would be nice, as a parent, if I didn’t have to worry about music education every two years, when the budget is cut. Hopefully members of the community who don’t have kids in school, but enjoy attending concerts and other events where the district’s students perform, share that concern.
If you do, now is the time to call school board members. Waiting until next week will be too late.
Albert Lea resident David Rask Behling teaches at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, and lives with his wife and children in Albert Lea. His column appears every other Tuesday.