Saturday, May 5, 2012

The More I Learn, The Less I Know

In my last post I talked about visiting the Bradenton/Sarasota, Florida area.  While there, the City of Bradenton celebrated it's annual Desoto Festival, commemorating the visit by Hernando lo those many years ago.  The key part of the festival is a huge mardi gras style parade with marching bands and floats and beads and all the rest.

It was while enjoying one of the high school marching bands that I was reminded of my old high school band.  It was a doozy.  125 strong.  Won competition after competition.  Represented the state in Kennedy's inaugural parade.  Finished 5th in Music Man national band competition.  Performed in Europe.  The pride of the school and the community.

Today, it has fewer than 40 students and doesn't field a marching band at all for most occasions.  Of course, a lot has happened over the ensuing years.  It has gone from an all-white segregated school to one that's now primarily minority.  It has gone from a school of 1,500 students to one of nearly 3,000 students.  But still, how can something so superior become something so inferior that it's basically non-existent?  

I decided to write a letter to the editor lambasting my hometown for being so backward and outright cheap, but I needed some ammunition so I contacted a friend who is an administrator at my old school and asked her what has happened to the band.  Here is her partial reply.  It's lengthy, but worth the read.

To help frame the problem -

A high school student has 7 places in his schedule for courses. If a freshman or sophomore scores a level one on the FCAT (Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test) reading test OR a level two and scores as "dysfluent" (fluency is the measure of one's aibility to read text at a steady rate, with appropriate pacing, and minimal stops - it is an appropriate test to use to obtain an overall picture of comprehension when a child is learning to read, but it is inappropriate for students at this level; secondary age students develop coping mechanisms to mask comprehension issues - a student may well be able to read at a sustained pace, but have minimal understanding of a passage ... but I digress), he is placed in Intensive Reading. Intensive Reading takes up two elective spots in the schedule, because the student is in reading every day. In addition, all 9th and 10th grade students take a math, English, and science class. Believe it or not, social studies is an elective in 9th grade, but we have typically put students in a geography class or AP (Advanced Placement) Human Geography (think of it as anthropology with training wheels - few ninth graders are ready for the rigors of a true AP class, unless they have been in a properly aligned, pre-AP or honors prep program). Our 10th graders take World History or AP World History.  So . . . that child who did not pass the FCAT reading exam has already filled 6 of his 7 spots for classes. Students are also required to take a credit of health and a credit of PE before they graduate, so many are placed in at least one during the 9th and 10th grade years. But wait ... there's more. That same student who struggled with the FCAT reading, may also have had difficulty with the 8th grade FCAT math test. If that student did not successfully complete Algebra in 8th grade and made a low score on the 8th grade math FCAT, he can be placed into a double-blocked (it meets every day) Intensive Algebra class - eating up two more spaces in the schedule. There is also an Intensive Math elective which is not double-blocked. It is not unusual for a struggling student to enter with no space in his schedule for an elective, such as band.

Also, struggling students don't happen overnight. Many of these students have been placed in remedial classes in middle school, which means they never had an opportunity to participate in beginning band classes in the 6th - 8th grades, assuming the students attend a middle school where band is still offered.

I am all for providing a firm academic grounding, but humans need motivation and joy in their lives too. I remember students who were academically challenged but found a home in band before this hyper-focus on testing came to pass. Band gave them a place where they could be successful and work as a part of a team while they tried to bring their academic studies up to par.  There is also a significant body of research correlating participation in music education with academic success.

And testing? Do you realize that we have had a standardized test conducted on our campus EVERY day since April 16? The week of 4/16 began the FCAT retakes for upper classmen who had not passed. April 23 began two full weeks of testing for 9th and 10th graders. Since the state has gone to a computerized assessment for retakes and 10th graders (9th grade will be added next year), we are limited to the number of students we can test in one day by the number of functional computers we have in our labs. Computerized EOC (End of Course) exams began this week, and will continue for two more complete weeks. These are in Algebra, Geometry, and Biology. AP exams start next week, and last for 2, then we have senior finals, finals for everyone else, and End of Course Exams in the classes that do not take them on the computer. And THIS ISN'T EVEN A FULL LIST for the last quarter, and doesn't begin to note the multiple district and state tests students took in quarters 1 - 3.

I know this is borderline rant, but it starts to give you a picture of what a band director is up against. When I say Mr. Jones has done an admirable job in the face of adversity, you can begin to have a glimpse of the obstacles. Scheduling is another issue. Gone are the days when the band director could have his top group together in one period, or perhaps all his brass together. Band is low on the scheduling totem pole - not for the school; our administrators bend over backward trying to find ways to make this work - but for a state and district that has lost sight of the human toll. Could you imagine having a band class composed of a mediocre tubist, 2 advanced students on flute, a bass drummer who doesn't read music, and 4 trombones? Welcome to Mr. Jone's world.

And even with all of the above, he continues to prepare students to put a show on the field and compete. Yes, he is well-deserving of your support, as is every other arts educator in this district who is not assigned to one of our two tier system's "private - public" schools, aka magnet programs.

One final question - where the hell is the press? They have abandoned their responsibility to report the truth.

This totally screwed-up system can be laid directly at the feet of the brothers Bush, Jeb as Governor, George as President.  As Chris Rock so aptly observed:  "No Child Left Behind?  It used to be Head Start.  What the fuck happened?"


  1. Great post Mr C (though my eyes began to glaze over trying to decipher just what the students are learning, uh, er, testing)

    What the hell ever happened to learning to learn? I agree in whole who is responsible, and then some.....

    What a mess --- and God bless Mr. Jones!

    1. Greedy Old Party.
      Can they make a buck after school?
      Test the fuck out of them. That will drop teen-pregnancy.
      I could be wrong.

  2. I am so afraid that this situation will only get worse before (if) it gets better. Now that teachers' jobs depend on how well their students do on these tests, teaching will focus even more on "how to take the FCAT."

    I remember reading a few years ago, that Europe was surprised how well Hungarian students did in math, even though the Hungarian school system is considered to be near the bottom of the barrel in Europe and the Hungarian students did not score well in subjects outside math. It was then linked to the country's rich music heritage (Hungary was part of the Habsburg Monarchy which produced many famous classical names - think Mozart). Despite the fact that Hungary is a poor country, music is considered important and students are strongly encouraged to learn music. Studies have shown that kids who play music tend to do better in math than those who don't. We need to understand that it might be better if these kids took band instead of another math remediation class. Or better yet, instead of football...

  3. The whole thing makes my head swim. Then there's this whole other thing called cohorts which overlays the entire program. Basically, cohorts is an attempt to try to keep several hundred kids together throughout their school career so as to form a "village" within today's mega-schools. Some students are actually kept from taking classes they want because it's outside of their cohort. Another "good idea" gone bad.

    1. sounds like right-wing social engineering.

  4. One of my cousin's is a principle at a local high school and when she describes all the balls she has to juggle to keep the local parents, district officials, state officials, and the feds happy its a wonder she does not go postal.

  5. GOP...Greedy Old Party.
    Fuck the young.
    Yo, Get a Job,
    read them and weep.
    ask yo, fat daddy for a loan.
    Fuck you you broke Fucking Fuck.
    Hey I could be wrong about the Republicans.
    They go to church and love their own and well screw the rest.
    They... blah blah bnlah balh. and so on and so forth.
    We cannot change a thing, we are poor.
    Sorry to be the one to report this.

  6. My head was swimming before I got to the end of that "partial" reply.

    "No Child Left Behind? It used to be Head Start." Just wait 'til "no child left behind" morphs into "devil take the hindmost."

  7. here in australia band is extracurricular and students play in their own time, the schools like to use the band at public events to showcase how good the school is but every time the band members are away from class to perform they have to catch up later. for a senior student with a heavy workload and then the poor rock band is likely to get more kudos than the better marching band or stage band. all up it is quite discouraging, which might be the reason why my son goes to a school of 1200 senior students, some of them excellent musicians, but the band is only about 20 people.
    oh yeah and at the end of their recent final rehearsal, when they were all tired, before travelling 12 hours and spending over $1000 each to play in a competition, when no amount of more practice could help them, the music director, who wasnt going on the trip, chewed them all out in front of their parents and singling out the tall poppies for cutting down. yeah, band was real attractive on that day

  8. It is so unbelievably sad that this has happened to the children. Where and what will they be in 20 years? I have never been better than a mediocre musician on a good day, but music kept me alive when nothing else could have. The arts lose, the culture loses, and the society loses and fades into oblivion. I hope I am not here to see it.


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