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April 1, 2013 · OPINION

April 8 meeting critical for music education’s future

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By .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
The Plains and Princeton University
As the daughter of Carina Elgin — the daughter cited in her letter about potential cuts to middle school music — I feel I should take the time to address to Interim Superintendent Sandra Mitchell's response.

I would first like to, as both my mother and Dr. Mitchell did, commend the county's music programs. Under Paul Hicks' instruction at Marshall Middle School and Andrew Paul's at Fauquier High School, I learned not only the music skills that would help me to play at a high level further down the road, but also life lessons about dedication, hard work, discipline, and teamwork. These lessons have helped me in my musical, athletic, artistic and academic endeavors at Princeton University, and I am sure that I will continue to use them in my professional career.

That said, in music these lessons are very hard to instill without structured rehearsals every day, particularly at such a young age. In the early stages of learning to play an instrument, daily practice is required. One could argue that students could practice at home daily. However, when students are just starting, we cannot expect them to improve at home by themselves without instruction daily. Just like any other skill, learning from scratch requires guidance. I imagine it very difficult for a sixth-grader to learn how to best breathe to sustain a note or notice that they are holding a bow slightly incorrectly without a knowledgeable teacher in front of them.

I respect the desire to introduce students to other disciplines, like family and consumer science, art and technical education. However, disproportionately targeting the music program is not the answer. While we would like for our county's students to experience as many courses of study as possible, we must make choices. When I was a sixth-grader, music students were given the opportunity to take one other elective, while still attending health and physical education classes daily. Electing to take band during my first year of middle school, I knew that I would be unable to take another elective course, even though I certainly had interest in others. As an 11-year-old, I chose to continue to take band, even though I knew it would mean I would be unable to take an elective.

This ability to choose teaches students a valuable lesson and gives middle school students valuable agency. Following a path requires certain sacrifices. While I believe that sixth-graders should be given the opportunity to pursue other options (as I did my first year in middle school), I believe that they should also understand that you cannot always have all that you want. Furthermore, simply because music students are unable to take other electives as courses, there should be opportunities to gain exposure to other interests through after-school clubs or perhaps during homeroom time.

I do not understand why the music program and music students in particular are being targeted. If the school board feels the need to keep the proposed schedule with the extended core classes, why not let the elective classes be on an alternating schedule instead of music courses? Under the current plan, music students are being deprived of health and physical education time. The school board argues that music students are currently being deprived of "equitable curricular access" to electives, but in the proposed schedule, music are being deprives of that same "equitable" access to physical education. This suggests that the school board places the (non-music) arts, career and technical education above the physical education of our students. Do we truly believe that our 10- through 13-year-olds need keyboarding instruction more than physical exercise and education about eating habits, discrimination and healthy living?

As an aside, I would also like to question Dr. Mitchell's emphasis on "keyboarding." As a 21-year-old writing from a laptop, I understand the need for children to be able to type. However, this generation is more acclimated to computer technology than ever before. My seventh-grade sister likely types better than I do. Furthermore, at least one Fauquier elementary school currently offers keyboarding instruction. Should these lessons be repeated? Perhaps the "keyboarding instruction" includes more than simply "keyboarding," in which case I apologize and look forward to hearing more about what this course teaches.

Dr. Mitchell identifies the impetus for the change as a concern that Fauquier County's middle schools "were not equitable in their offerings, and the degree of offerings varied too widely among our schools." I recognize the desire to ensure access to the same, high-level quality middle schools across our county; a student should not be punished with a subpar school simply for living in a certain region of the county. However, similar schedules and offerings could be offered across middle schools without depriving music students of full music and health/physical education class time. While disproportionately affecting music students, it also puts additional strain on music teachers.

I would also like to touch upon the discussion of the gifted and talented (GT) services. While I have no qualm with simply changing the label for the courses from "GT" to "honors," the problem that I have witnessed with the change is a vast increase in the size of these so-called honor classes and the range of students’ skill level for which the teachers of these classes must prepare. One of the advantages I found in the GT program when I experienced it was the smaller class size that allowed me to truly engage with the presented topics while being supported by similarly interested peers. This advantage has been stripped as more students are being let into the classes. Not only are more students in the classes, however, but students who are not as similarly engaged are now in the courses. In my sister's honors classes that were formerly GT, many students who are not GT identified have joined the classes, and this has reduced the class quality as many of these students are not as academically motivated as the GT identified students. Furthermore, because they were not in GT classes last year, they are behind the GT students in subject knowledge, and those formerly in GT classes have been forced to repeat material they have already covered. This not only hinders GT-identified students' ability to learn at the pace appropriate for them, it also disadvantages students who are not GT-identified but are in classes with them. In my sister's classes, there are students who are struggling with the "honors" material and would learn better in a class with a slower learning pace. Due to ideals of “inclusion,” however, these students remain in “honors” classes. Finally, the range of academic engagement and learning levels makes lesson-planning more difficult for our teachers who must find a way to not to impede upon the education higher-level students while still ensuring that others are learning.

One concern I have with the Fauquier County Public School System is the emphasis on test-taking. Dr. Mitchell's citation of Fauquier County's inclusion on the 2013 College Board AP Honor Roll highlights this emphasis. While I am proud of FCPS's improvement on AP exams, I would like to counsel that AP and other standardized statistics should not be the primary indication of a school district's success. This leads down a dangerous path of educating students to take exams, not of educating them to enrich their thinking processes, intellectual stimulation, and love of learning. These are the skills that aid students in a college and professional environment. (Furthermore, many top-tier colleges only accept AP scores of 4 or 5. More than half of Fauquier students taking AP exams do not earn scores of higher than 3. While there is remarkable improvement, there is room for more, and perhaps that begins with changing the approaches to teaching, not in increasing the number of students taking the exams.) I recognize that administrators and government officials feel the need to somehow monitor the performance of schools, but care needs to be taken to not center educational experiences around tests.

Another concern I find myself thinking about is the emphasis on “inclusion” and “equitability.” The school board and FCPS administrators seem to be emphasizing these two ideas in their policies, however this is not necessarily the best path for our students. I urge county administrators and the school board to read books such as Cheri Pierson Yecke's "The War Against Excellence," Linda Darling-Hammond's "The Flat World and Education" and John Merrow's "Below C Level," which show that desires to create an equal education experience for all students without concern for levels of individual academic engagement and mental faculties and an emphasis on test-taking can lead to mediocrity in schools. I am not suggesting that Fauquier schools are simply mediocre, but I am concerned that this may be where Fauquier schools are headed. The inclusion of students not identified as GT in classes formerly taught as GT and the emphasis on "equitable" experiences of all middle school students regardless interests and capabilities may lead us down this path.

I am a proud product of the Fauquier County school system, and I am appreciative of all the gains Fauquier schools have achieved. However, I urge the school board to take the time to consider these points. I am appreciative of the fact that our county's schools have persevered through difficult budgeting years, as Dr. Mitchell writes, but we must also not allow this endurance to excuse policies that will not benefit our children's learning experiences.

While I cannot attend the April 8 school board meeting, I hope that other concerned members of the Fauquier community will express the thoughts I have shared and others. I know that with careful contemplation, sustained consideration of parents' concerns, and diligent attention to the wholesome wellness of our students, we can make Fauquier County schools better than ever before.
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Kellysfordman · April 2, 2013 at 2:42 pm
Katherine,
Well said and with thesis ability, and I read your entire commentary with scrutiny. As a career science teacher in Virginia, I feel debate without berating is one of the greatest lessons that schools can teach anyone. Your emphasis about continuity of skills on a daily basis is true in many of the the mentioned disciplines.
Developing the physical body, with structured exercise should not be
compromised for any age, and especialy the adolescent one. Obesity has to be attacked in our schools and at home, and with added sedentary (meaning in a seat to me) time is not worth the cost to the physical development.
I see a national concern over the educational programs to not have less of that part of the overall experience, but just the opposite. Fauquier cut middle school sports and cheering last year, and now time in physical education and music to offer more academic requirements. Foundations are the basis for any student. We need to teach those better.
Cheering, competing, teamwork, performances, concerts are universal languages. Please allow the greatness of this school system not be one where we are decreasing the student's opportunities that I know my two children and obviously Katherine Elgin experienced. All kids are gifted, if given the opportunity.
With malice to none, and best wishes
to the Education team in Fauquier County.

James G. Flanagan
SumerduckWood Farm
in beautiful southern Fauquier County
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