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You Can Charter a Bus, but Can You Charter an Orchestra?

by Dan Daley • in
  • July 2018
  • Last Word
• Created: July 20, 2018

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I thought I could take a look at how music education is faring in schools without having to reference politics. I tried, but I couldn’t do it.

That’s largely because the nature of K-12 education – the foundational bedrock for music education for students whose parents don’t have a rock band or bluegrass group or mariachi band on the side – itself is undergoing massive upheaval.

Traditional public schools, which have been under pressure from charter schools in recent years, have seen that pressure ramped up considerably as the U.S. Department of Education presses for increased voucher funding for charter schools. It’s not that charter schools are necessarily unwelcoming to music education; the problem, rather, is one of scale: traditional public schools are by nature large and institutional, while charter schools tend to be much smaller, with fewer students and teachers. That’s supposed to be an advantage in education, and it might be in any number of ways. However, when you lose scale, you decrease the pool from which school bands can fill their orchestras, or even somewhere in the building to put them.

Smaller schools are not solely the fault of the charter schools movement, which has been a measurable factor in education since 1991. The New York Times recently noted that between 2002 and 2013, New York City closed 69 high schools, most of them large schools with thousands of students, and in their place opened new, smaller schools. Those schools did better academically, with significantly increased graduation rates. However, in the case of music, the Times found, “…a robust program requires a large student body, and the money that comes with it, to offer a sequence of classes that allows students to progress from level to level, ultimately playing in a large ensemble where they will learn a challenging repertoire and get a taste of what it would be like to play in college or professionally.”

Ironically, this kind of environment might be a good one for combos, where students can move from group to group, picking up chops from each quartet or quintet sequentially. It might better fit the tone of the times, where students’ local rock bands might follow the same arc as their parents’ marriages. But nothing can replace the K-12 orchestral experience. You not only learn an instrument (or two or three) but you do so in a large, dynamic group setting that presages the career environments that many students will encounter after graduation.

The implications of the loss of this experience are not hard to find. A decade-old study by the University of Arkansas music department and the University of Colorado, Boulder examined 122 surveys from charter schools in 15 states and found that music instruction provided in charter schools “does not appear to be at a level completely commensurate with that of traditional public schools.” Furthermore, charter schools employed fewer highly qualified music teachers than other public schools and tended not to use written curricula. (There’s that combo mentality again.) “In addition, charter schools tended to use fewer but longer class periods than did public schools, leading to elementary students in some cases attending music class once a week for 60 to 90 minutes, a developmentally inappropriate practice for that age group.”

A 2017 report by the School Superintendents Association came to the conclusion that “…band and orchestra programs and other extracurricular activities traditionally available in public schools are seldom offered in charter schools.”

In some very basic but critical ways, traditional and charter schools are measured by different yardsticks: the former by graduation rates, the latter by productivity and costs per student.

Thus, their emphasis on music instruction also differs. A 2008 study (Austin J. R., Russell J. A.) demonstrated that traditional schools have music instruction in a higher percentage of schools, have more credentialed specialists, and are more likely to have a school district curriculum for music. Charter schools in their sample, on the other hand, offered music less often, but the schools that did offer it had more minutes committed to music instruction. The researchers also concluded that while the majority of charter schools offer music instruction, music education is not given the same status in charter schools as it is in traditional schools.

The data may have some ambiguity, but they do establish a clear distinction between traditional and charters when it comes to music. What we also know is that charters are on the rise, an extension of ideology that puts choice – informed or otherwise – above all else. Orchestras, take note.

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