Survival Tip Three – Dealing with Inequality in Your District

Mike Lawson • Commentary • July 24, 2015

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The combined bands of the North Monterey County High School Symphonic Band and the People’s Liberation Army Band of China, playing our national march Stars and Stripes Forever, followed by the playing of the Chinese national march Motherland, at the China National Performing Arts Center in Shijiazhuang, China. The conductor is D.L. Johnson.

In America, Schools Are Not Equal: A View From Another Side

Over my 40 years in public education, I have seen education in America go up and down. From the “new math” of the ‘60s, “restructuring” in the ‘80s and ‘90s, “No Child Left Behind” in the ‘90s and ‘00s, to the present day “Common Core.” However, no matter what strategy is used in the academic classroom California education still remains unequal. As a high school band director all these years, I have the opportunity to see education from a totally different perspective.

For example, when I attend faculty meetings, and they talk about academic teaching strategies, I get lost in all the acronyms. It took awhile before I realized the average standard approach to academic classes in presenting, teaching projects, and developing assignments is almost opposite the directions taken by most music classes. No problem, you do your thing and I will do mine. So far, there is no Common Core (“thankfully”) for Performing Arts classes. But our struggles still go on.

I have had the honor to serve on several local, state, and national music and general education committees. This has allowed me to observe education in many locations around the state, country, and in some cases, other countries. The more I saw, the more disenchanted I became with my own situation.

The one greatest underlying factor that creates inequality in a public school is the demographics of the community it is located in. Affluent schools do not have to address the issues that face less affluent schools (communities). Teaching large groups of English Language Development (ELD) students, or Special Education is extremely expensive. Schools may be funded equally by each state (which I do not believe), but are forced to spend fortunes on remediating students who transfer into their schools lacking basic education skills and a basic understanding of the English language. We teach by demonstration (comprehension) and then work on content (mechanics). Also, written “Western Classical Music” (Not country western, LOL) is universal between most countries. Even countries that developed their own form of written music also study the western classical forms. But for some reason music programs have to fend for themselves from one district to the next.

When we think about what can be offered to our students to enrich their lives, this is where from school-to-school in many states there are huge differences. Area to area can be quite shocking as to what one school can offer and another cannot. In California we have schools within a few miles and even blocks of each other, one with a complete comprehensive music program, and the other with no music classes at all.

American middle and high school band directors see this very clearly because of their commitment to comparative band competitions and music festivals. It is extremely hard to set up fair competitive balanced divisions based on either school size or band size. There are huge differences between what can be done at one school compared to the next. Scheduling (number of periods or sections offered in the school day), when band meets, rural, inner city, suburb, total rehearsal minutes, after school programs, et cetera, and of course, funding. Affluent districts generally have more to spend on co-curricular and extracurricular programs, both in the school day and outside the regular school day. That includes offering seven and eight sections (periods or blocks) per year. Poor school districts struggle with six. Many band classes, for example, have been relegated to before school (0 Period) in order to survive. The perception of before or after school band must then be that band is not important. In reality, it is simply difficult to place a band class offered to all four grades all four years in today’s high school student schedules. Advanced Placement and Honors classes are now being pushed (music kids tend to take a lot of honors or AP classes). However, before and after school band programs often keep these students from participating in school sports, or do the homework required in weighted AP classes. Small schools really struggle with this, as they often share students. Large schools, not so much.

For the sake of this article we are only addressing the inequality of public education from the view of Performing Arts classes. There are so many other subject areas that have similar inequalities that exist between schools. Therefore, let’s leave Common Core, teacher union issues, or any of the big controversial educational issues out of the discussion. Here are some basic areas that, if addressed, could at least move us into closer equality in American public education:

1.   The infrastructure of all school districts (buildings, grounds, et cetera) should be at the exact same high level to create a positive learning environment. Schools should look like institutions of learning, not the old drab rundown outdated educational environments of the past.

2.    Reasons for the lack of equality in school facilities is not based on the ignorance of school districts and their communities. School facilities are built when money is plentiful and went a long way, while others had to build new or upgrade facilities during economic inflation or depression. There is a huge difference in terms of what can be built based on the strength of the dollar. Therefore state building standards should include the funding to help school districts finance upgrades to existing facilities to an equal standard throughout each state. The Williams Act in California kind of addresses this, but more on the safety of the children and equality of classroom materials. For example, if U.S. highway standards are exactly the same from state-to-state, and county-to-county, then why do we allow the basic infrastructure of school facilities to be different from one school district to the next? 

3.   Every middle school and high school should be equally funded and required to allow a basic seven-period or eight-block (4×4) regular day school schedule, without increasing state requirements (other than total units for graduation). Offering just one more period a day allows thousands of students to take that one enrichment elective that may just keep a teenager in school. Maybe even band class can be moved back into the regular school day (wishful thinking). Most affluent school districts offer seven period days at the middle and high school levels, while poor districts are still stuck at six.

4. Academic achievement (especially for college entrance) should not be based on how many Advanced Placement classes a student can take. The AP thing is starting to get out of hand. Kids used to take only one or two AP classes a year. Now students take four and five a year because someone has told students and parents “weighted courses for higher GPAs is the only way to get into college.” Some districts are now considering forcing students back to no more than two per year because of increased stress levels. Sometimes the schools have to protect the children from their own parents. Greater importance needs to be placed on a balanced education. “Commitment” to something other than the reading-writing-and-arithmetic tells much more about the character of an individual. Finishing that commitment should be a high priority for entrance to college. Students who understand commitment will, in the long run, finish what they have started. That includes playing in the school band, choir, orchestra, drama, ASB, advanced vocational education, et cetera, over all four years in high school. Participation in after-school sports, marching band, dance programs, et cetera, should mean something other than a pat on the back.

 Everyone is so worried about what education should be. However, if we look at history education seemed straightforward and much easier to comprehend. Today’s impression is to fix the problems by making them more complex. The system is already complex. Why not move education back to a time when failing a class was unheard of? The real problem with education is not education itself, but the view of what society thinks education is. Politics is perception.

D.L. Johnson, director of bands, at North Monterey County High School, is a graduate of Sierra High School, Reedley College, and California State University, Fresno. In his 39 years in music education his performing groups have received high ratings, trophies and awards. His groups have done 26 major tours to Canada (four times), Colorado (twice), Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, Washington D.C. (twice), and China (three times), Italy, and throughout California. Mr. Johnson has supported music education through leadership in and out of school.

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