I thrive on the buzz of the college campus. During the semester when I lumber through the corridors of Baird Music Hall on campus at Morehead State University, the practice rooms are almost always filled with students working. Scales, Arpeggios, and snippets of music from all over the world spiral through the air in a little, hill-protected hamlet in Eastern Kentucky. Miraculous and wonderful!
Usually, I am barely able to slide my key into my door before students cluster around me with questions about music, or school, or the odd personal problem that is “too urgent to wait.” My students are mostly music education students, and they are passionate, eager, and impatient to steer their own music programs someday. I have a fun job because of my students and the work that I get to do with them—I don’t take it, or them, for granted.
All that energy during the year makes summertime hard for me. Summer, for people like me, is a time to teach a few younger students, travel, reflect or practice. Usually all of that, actually. For me lately, it has been a lot of reflecting, and really that’s what makes summer hard. If you are even tangentially involved in music education, and can operate a smartphone, I bet you’ve seen these articles coagulating your news feed on social media. One is about the Atlanta Public Schools’ decision to “cut” its music programs and jobs while simultaneously sweetening the financial package of the superintendent.
it was one of those
'atlanta’s burning' moments.
'if this is happening in a big city,
what does it mean for smaller districts?”
Predictably, musicians and music educators were outraged. I was depressed. “Here we go,” I thought, still reeling from hearing that several of my friends and colleagues teaching elementary and high school music found pink slips in their final checks of the school year. It was one of those “Atlanta’s burning” moments. “If this is happening in a big city, what does it mean for smaller districts?” Doomsday scenarios begin to sequence: “Music in our schools is over! What will become of culture?! What will become of music in America? Why do schools so casually cut the very program that was a lifeline to me when I was in school?”
After the initial grief, I rallied for action.
I started thinking of how we could show those no-good administrators once and for all the importance and universality of music education. I had visions of working with radio stations, Spotify, Pandora, Apple and Muzak. What if, for one week, we stopped the music? What if for one week, there was no music on the radio, or in restaurants? No live musical performances anywhere in the country? A musical apocalypse! That’d show them how important it is!
As I Googled the number for Pandora to make my case for why they should lose millions of dollars of revenue nationwide for a week for the sake of solidarity, I saw an update to the Atlanta story pop up on my newsfeed.
a musical apocalypse!
that'd show them how important it is!
Today, the Atlanta Public Schools released a statement explaining in more detail what they were planning. They are not cutting all the programs in they district. They are eliminating a few jobs, yes, which is a shame, but all the students in primary grades will still have their general music classes taught by qualified, certified teachers, and there will still be band and orchestra programs. Superintendent Meria Carstarphen even makes this statement in her remarks: “As an oboe player as well as an avid lover and supporter of the arts, I truly understand the importance of these programs to our students. I will do all I can to keep them as part of school district focused on providing a quality education at the highest levels of efficiency.”
What happened? Well, it turns out, like a lot of education organizations, the APS found that they needed to downsize. Programs had to be cut due to a lack of funding, or overstaffing. Positions would be lost, but not just music—across the board. According to Carstarphen’s remarks, 20% of the cut positions came from the central office—administrators and staff.
What question do we ask now?
Well, we could ask, “So who got cut? Who lost their jobs?” Of the 60 or so music teachers in the APS, 18 will no longer be teaching music the district next year.
That was a good question. Here’s a better one:
“WHY did those teachers get cut?”
According to the article, because students in those schools were not interested in studying music. Principals (or Building Level Administrators if you want to use the fancy education lingo) found themselves with the power (granted by Dr. Carstarphen) to make these staffing decisions based on the budgets given to them by the school board. “… If principal A observed high interest in band over orchestra in their elementary school, that principal could choose to enhance the band program and remove the orchestra program. If principal B saw a growing interest in visual arts, principal B could decide to invest more in visual arts, eliminating band and orchestra. If principal C was interested in enhancing band and orchestra programs, principal C could choose to increase school class sizes in order to offer a more robust fine arts program.”
How is this conducive to creating a community of artists and educators doing the best work they can? It sounds like they are promoting a culture of competition among the arts: whatever is the most popular with the local tweens will get funded. The least popular will get cut.
It’s like the Fine Arts Hunger Games down in Atlanta.
Or are the fine arts in our schools behaving more like a cult of “plastics” who are seem to be working together on the outside by are secretly sabotaging each other from the inside?
“On Wednesdays, we wear pink.”
...you can do everything right
and still end up losing your job,
while down the street, another teacher
who is no where nearly
as effective or inspiring continues to invest
in her pension, year after year,
tired holiday musical after tired holiday musical. It just ain’t fair.
Music educators at the primary and secondary levels are among the very, very best teachers I have known. Some are also among the worst. What’s frustrating for me, is you can do everything right and still end up losing your job, while down the street, another teacher who is no where nearly as effective or inspiring continues to invest in her pension, year after year, tired holiday musical after tired holiday musical. It just ain’t fair.
The decision by APS raises awareness to an interesting problem. How do we keep kids excited about music? How do we get them involved in band, orchestra, and choir? In this case in Atlanta, principals were supposed to make choices based on student interest. How do we make sure students stay interested?
Passion? Commitment? Excellence?
The other side to this is the very vocal public outcry. The dissent of the Internet was so vociferous that the superintendent had to post a public statement. Why? Because the culture at large placed a value on music—specifically music education in a major city. This is how we keep music in the schools. We must work together not to vilify administrators who are trying to hang on to their own jobs, but to remain culturally relevant, vibrant, and important to our communities. We have to show what we do, and we have to do it well.
I’ll tell you what I am reflecting on this summer:
No one hates music, but how do we get everyone to love it again? MT