The softer side of KIPP

KIPP schools aren’t militaristic or joyless — much less “concentration camps — write Alexandra M. Boyd, Robert Maranto and Caleb Rose in Education Next.

We found that schools that begin by establishing a culture of strict discipline, in neighborhoods where violence and disorder are widespread, ease off once a safe, tolerant learning environment is secured.

KIPPsters live up to the “work hard, be nice” slogan, but they “also play hard when the work is done,” they write after visiting 12 schools in five states. Despite the strong academic focus, the schools “make time for band, basketball, chess, prom, and any number of clubs.”

At KIPP McDonogh 15, a combined elementary and middle-school building in New Orleans’s French Quarter, the middle-school principal played music, and students and staff danced down the hallways as they moved from one class session to another. In the elementary school a floor below, some teachers took this concept a step further, using a lively musical transition from one lesson to another.

On most Friday afternoons, the New Orleans school schedules “celebration.” Students with no behavior demerits compete in a lottery for the chance to hit any teacher or administrator with a cream pie. A few days after researchers saw a popular third-grade teacher “pied,” a professor at the American Educational Research Association’s conference — a mile away — denounced KIPP as a “concentration camp.”

KIPP Blytheville College Preparatory School (BCPS) in Arkansas celebrated Geek Week in March culminating with Pi Day, on March 14 (3.14). A 6th-grade girl won the Pi Challenge by reciting 158 digits of pi. Then three teachers and three students smashed pie plates of whipped cream into each other’s faces.

It’s a concentration camp with music, dancing, pi and pie.

Music hath charms …

Music hath charms to close the achievement gap, writes Lori Miller Kase in The Atlantic. At least, researchers hope so.

Several times a week, a group of at-risk youth in Los Angeles reports to makeshift music rooms at Alexandria Elementary School near Koreatown for lessons in violin or cello or bass—and to Saturday ensemble programs where they learn to play with bands and orchestras. As the students study their instruments, researchers study the students’ brains.

The children, who devote at least five hours per week to their music, are participants in the award-winning non-profit Harmony Project, which provides free instruments and instruction to kids in underserved areas of the city if they promise to stay in school. The scientists, who hail from Northwestern University’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory, travel from Evanston, Illinois to a satellite lab in Hollywood for a few weeks each year to examine the impact of the music lessons on the children’s language and cognitive skills. What they are finding, according to Dr. Nina Kraus, a professor and neuroscientist at Northwestern and lead researcher of the study, is that music instruction not only improves children’s communication skills, attention, and memory, but that it may even close the academic gap between rich and poor students.

The Harmony Project students were compared to similar students on wait lists for music classes. In second grade, Harmony participants improved in reading, while controls who had not studied music fell farther behind in reading.

SIMPHONY (Studying the Influence Music Practice has On Neurodevelopment in Youth) is a five-year San Diego study focusing on how music training influences connections in the brain.

Public schools teach just as much music (and art) as ever, according to a 2012 U.S. Department of Education report. Nearly all elementary schools and 91 percent of secondary schools offer music classes. Students in low-poverty schools get higher-quality music instruction, writes Kase. I assume that means more opportunities to play an instrument.

Landfillharmonic: Nobody’s garbage

The children of Cateura, Paraguay live on a massive garbage dump, picking through waste to find items to sell. Landfillharmonic shows how trash collector Nicolás Gómez and musician Favio Chávez built instruments from trash — “violins and cellos from oil drums, flutes from water pipes and spoons, guitars from packing crates” – and started the Recycled Orchestra.

Fifty seconds in, Bebi starts playing his cello, made from an oil can, wood and tools used to tenderize beef and make gnocchi. Listen.

Tin water pipe, metal bottle caps, plastic buttons, metal spoon and fork handles.  Tito Romero, maker
Tin water pipe, metal bottle caps, plastic buttons, metal spoon and fork handles. Tito Romero, maker

Band, orchestra or facial peels?

Buffalo schools spent nearly $1.7 million in 2011-12 to pay for employees’ cosmetic surgery, such as facial peels and microderm abrasion, charges John Licata, a board member. To save school band and orchestra programs, which face drastic cuts, the board voted to deny cosmetic surgery claims from teachers and administrators.

That won’t hold up in court, observes a Buffalo News editorial. Cosmetic surgery benefits are in the contract, due to the folly of a previous school board. They can’t be suspended without negotiating with the union, which will want something in return. Just saving the jobs of music teachers won’t be enough.

Via Instapundit.

A whiter shade of fail

Voters in Portland, Oregon approved a $35 per adult tax to raise $12 million for arts and music education. (Those under the poverty line are exempt.)

It’s not surprising Portland schools need more money. The district sent 93 teachers, principals and administrators to San Antonio for a five-day conference on “Courageous Conversations” about race, reports the Portland Tribune. More teachers were sent for five days of equity training in Oregon. All this is run by the Office of Equity, which has grown from one to seven employees in the past year.

At Harvey Scott K-8 school, 20 current and former teachers and staff members told the Tribune that Principal Verenice Gutierrez’s focus on race has created a “hostile environment” for students, staff and parents. Fearing a Courageous Conversations backlash, they all asked to be anonymous.

You may remember Gutierrez, who believes using a peanut butter sandwich as an example is culturally insensitive, but it’s OK to offer lunch time drumming classes only to black and Hispanic boys.

Scott’s “kids of whiteness” feel excluded,  one teacher said.

Adds another teacher: “Our whiteness is constantly thrown in our face. We’re taught we’re incapable of teaching students of color.”

Teachers have filed grievances with their union — or just quit. Twenty-six teachers — about half the staff — left after Gutierrez’ first year at Scott. Eight left the following year. The principal vowed to hire only bilingual teachers who are native speakers of Spanish. She wants to turn Scott into a bilingual immersion school.

Mediators have come to Scott multiple times to lead staff meetings, all paid for by the district. Among them is equity coach Kim Feicke, whose biography cites her expertise in working with “white educators to understand the impact of white culture on teaching, learning and school culture in order to effectively shift current practices.”

Enrollment is dropping, which Guitierrez blames on “white flight.”  Scott’s enrollment is 52 percent Latino, 20 percent white, 13 percent black (mostly Somali) and 8 percent Asian (mostly Vietnamese). The school scores in the bottom 15 percent statewide.

Scott needed to change, says Karl Logan, the regional administrator. “Whiteness” doesn’t refer to skin color, according to Logan, who calls himself a black man with “whiteness in me.” Whiteness is “about the predominant culture. If we’re not aware of how much we take that for granted, we will all of us miss the opportunity to improve student learning.”

In a memo to staff, Gutierrez described her shock at a student’s perception that she is a principal of whiteness.

“I asked him what color his skin is and he stated, ‘black.’ I then went into how society typecasts people of color and how expectations of us are lower simply because of the color of our skin. As I was speaking about our skin color he said, ‘But you are white.’ ” This statement stopped me dead and I can honestly say that it is the most devastating statement a child has ever made to me.”

Matt Shelby, district spokesman, says equity spending is needed to close the racial/ethnic achievement gap:  Two-thirds of Portland’s white students, but only about half of blacks and Hispanics, earn a high school diploma in four years.  “To just hire more teachers gets you more of the same,” Shelby told the Tribune. ”Obviously when you look at our data the status quo isn’t working.”

So far, asking kids about their skin color isn’t working either, according to district data. Scott’s math and reading scores seem to be declining. The school made adequate yearly progress in seven of eight years before Gutierrez took over, but has failed AYP since.

How do you raise a child prodigy?

How Do You Raise a Prodigy? asks Andrew Solomon in the New York Times Magazine.

Chloe Yu’s son, Marc, “picked out a few tunes on the piano with two fingers” when he was “almost 3.” As a preschooler, he began performing at retirement homes. By 5, he added the cello.

At 6, Marc won a fellowship for gifted youth that covered the down payment on a Steinway. By the time Marc was 8, he and Chloe were flying to China frequently for lessons; Chloe explained that whereas her son’s American teachers gave him broad interpretive ideas to explore freely, his Chinese teacher taught measure by measure. I asked Marc whether he found it difficult traveling so far. “Well, fortunately, I don’t have vestigial somnolence,” he said. I raised an eyebrow. “You know — jet lag,” he apologized.

Marc was being home-schooled to accommodate his performance and practice schedule. At the age of a third-grader, he was taking an SAT class. . . . “In America, every kid has to be well rounded,” Chloe said. “They have 10 different activities, and they never excel at any of them. Americans want everyone to have the same life; it’s a cult of the average. This is wonderful for disabled children, who get things they would never have otherwise, but it’s a disaster for gifted children. Why should Marc spend his life learning sports he’s not interested in when he has this superb gift that gives him so much joy?”

. . . Marc sat on a phone book on the piano bench so his hands would be high enough to play comfortably and launched into Chopin’s “Fantasie-Impromptu,” which he imbued with a quality of nuanced yearning that seemed almost inconceivable in someone with a shelf of Cookie Monster videos. “You see?” Chloe said to me. “He’s not a normal child. Why should he have a normal childhood?”

Leon Botstein, president of Bard College, a conductor and a former wunderkind, thinks the U.S. education system has little tolerance for spiky genius. “If Beethoven were sent to nursery school today, they would medicate him, and he would be a postal clerk.”

Warhol’s fractions: Teaching through the arts

A Maryland middle school integrates arts with the standard curricula, reports Edutopia on Bates Middle School in Annapolis.

For example, in a science classroom you might see students choreographing a dance using locomotor and nonlocomotor movements to demonstrate their understanding of rotation versus revolution of the planets (PDF). In a math class, you might see students learning fractions by examining composition in Warhol’s Campbell’s soup paintings. (See more arts-integrated lesson plans from Bates.)

“Engagement can also be leveraged to boost academic growth and improve discipline,” Edutopia argues.

Why kids should specialize

Kids suffer long-term from schoolwork that doesn’t interest them argues career advice blogger Penelope Trunk, who’s started homeschooling her children.

When people ask me why my kids aren’t learning math, I ask them why their kids aren’t learning an instrument. Or why they aren’t learning a language. Because math, music, and language all develop the brain in similar ways. They are all good for a similar type of learning. But the question that assumes that math is the one right way to develop that part of the brain betrays the assumption that traditional school knows best.

Traditional schools want students to learn a little bit of everything, Trunk writes. But the world rewards specialists.

For ten years I have been writing about how important specializing is for your career. Specialization is essential, really, to to staying employable throughout your adult life. But I have recently been blown away by how clear the research is that kids should specialize as well.

Which means that you either need to make your kid great at the test-taking game, or you need to find something else for the kid to be great at.

What if your children are good at various things but not really great at anything? What if your five-year-old wants to specialize in TV watching or dolls or dinosaurs and no interest in math or music or language?

Art, music haven’t vanished

Music and art haven’t disappeared from schools, despite the pressures of test-based accountability and fears of curriculum narrowing, according to a federal report by the National Center for Education Statistics. Music and visual arts instruction is widely available and has changed little over the past decade, the report concluded.

Music and visual-arts instruction are more widely available at high-poverty elementary schools, but less available at high-poverty secondary schools, notes Ed Week.

“When I look at the big picture, … I see a good-news, bad-news story,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in prepared remarks for the report’s release . . .

“The good news is that the last decade has not generally produced a dramatic narrowing of the curriculum in the arts,” he said. “But there is considerable bad news in today’s report, too—and especially for disadvantaged students.”

“Generally, what we really found is there is no consistent trend of decline in arts education in public schools,” said Jared Coopersmith, a project officer at the NCES.

“At-risk” students involved in the arts – in or out of school – do better in school, go farther in college and are more civics minded, according to a National Endowment for the Arts report.  ”Access to the arts” included “coursework in music, dance, theater, or the visual arts; out-of-school arts lessons; or membership, participation, and leadership in arts organizations and activities, such as band or theater.”

However, the report didn’t answer the chicken/egg question:  Do the arts create achievers or attract them?

Teach music for music’s sake

Teach music because it’s a universal language and “the arts are our most potent means of human expression,” not because it might help kids learn fractions or raise test scores or develop teamwork, writes Nancy Flanagan, a music teacher.

Yesterday, the Learning First Alliance asked Can Arts Education Help Close the Achievement Gap? I appreciate the perspectives and data assembled by Anne O’Brien–who points out that students from high-poverty schools who study the arts are more likely to graduate HS, attend and finish college, and register to vote. But I believe the real question is:  What do the arts teach children that other subjects can’t?

Teachers defend music, art, dance and drama by arguing they help teach something considered more important, such as “enhanced brain development, spatial/visual/temporal processing, improving memory and attention, physical coordination, personal discipline and teamwork,” Flanagan writes.

But where did we get the idea that artistic expression is less useful or important than the sciences? How did music, art, dance and drama get pushed aside in our American school curriculum? I’m not surprised that studying or listening to music has beneficial effects on learning fractions or other academic skills, but those are side effects.

Kids should study music because it’s central to every human society on earth and has a vitally important role in every aspect of culture, from history to literature to media and communication studies. Music is part of what it means to be a human being.

Discuss.