Background: Miranda’s school recently changed its chorus time from lunch to after school. This means that Miranda won’t be able to participate in chorus this year, which makes all of us sad.

I was going to rant about this on the PACT mailing list, but I’ve gotten chastized recently for complaining there near the start of the school year, when there are so many new families around who still aren’t sure if they want to be in PACT or not. (Which is, I think, a sign of mild dysfunction in PACT: we should be constantly discussing things we like, things we don’t like, and ways for improvement. Go retrospectives, or something.) New PACT parents, if you’ve clicked on this link: PACT is super-tiptop-wonderful, and Castro’s actually a pretty nice place as well; neither of them are perfect, but That’s OK.

Anyways, since the point of having a blog is to be able to rant, I figured I would just move the venting part here. But I did want to warn my regular readers that they might be missing some of the context. The part of the message that I did post on the mailing list is a report of a discussion that I had with the principal on the matter. (I should emphasize that I’m quite impressed with the principal; I think she probably made the wrong choice here, but, well, that hardly makes her unique in the world.)

Context ends; rant begins:

The one thing that really bothered me about our discussion was her presenting this as a choice between curriculum versus convenience. The assumption underlying that statement is that chorus is not a natural part of the curriculum, and the only reason to hold it during school hours would be to save parents some driving. I’m not sure it’s a matter of mere convenience for parents, given the realities of work schedules, but setting that aside, I very much object to the notion that chorus should be considered a second-class member of the curriculum.

Certainly when I was growing up, chorus (and related activities, orchestra and band) were held during school hours. It’s possible my experiences were unusual, but I don’t believe they were too unusual at the time. One of the frequent laments triggered by the loss of school funding over the last decades is that arts/music programs are being pared to the bone; one of the reasons why it was supposed to be a good idea to close Slater was that it would free up more money to fund arts/music programs. So I don’t believe that I’m alone in believing that chorus (and related activities) have historically been part of school curricula, and rightly so.

I also see no reason why music should be considered so much less important than, say, reading/writing and math that we can’t spend a couple of hours a week of school time on it. I’m an ex-mathematician, so my experiences in that regard are very far on one side of the spectrum, but I nonetheless spend much more time in an average week listening to music than doing math, and I’m pretty sure that I spend more time creating music (singing, whistling, playing the piano) than doing math. Admittedly, I spend a good deal more time reading, or even writing, than either, but music is wired extremely deeply into our brains.

And, while I don’t have evidence one way or the other, I would be surprised (not shocked, but surprised) if it proved to be the case that students who participated in chorus (or other similar activities) did less well academically, or indeed didn’t do better academically, than students who didn’t participate in such activities. And, of course, our schools’ focus shouldn’t be solely on academics, but should be geared towards helping our children become the best people they can be in a broad sense.

So, from my point of view, this is not a choice between curriculum and convenience: it’s a choice between two different views of curriculum. And the wrong view won.

Then there’s the whole program improvement thing. (Context: Castro is a “program improvement” school, which means that our test scores didn’t pass muster by the powers that be.) I don’t really understand what pressures the Castro faculty are under because of this, but I’m sure they are considerable. This situation seems to me to exemplify one of the evils of our nation’s current zeal towards test-driven schooling: rich schools, where the kids do well on tests, are free to provide a broad curriculum for their students, while schools that are already less well-off have further pressures to narrow their curriculum beyond what funding constraints would force them to do.

So I can accept that, because of Castro’s PI status, some people might feel that the pragmatic thing to do would be to reschedule chorus and spend more time on the basics. But, if we’re going to do that, we should be clear what our reasons are for not holding chorus during the school day. Are we doing it because:

  • We think that chorus shouldn’t be part of the school curriculum, irrespective of test-imposed pressues, or
  • We think that chorus should be part of the school curriculum, but regretfully bow to external pressures?

If the former, then PI status is irrelevant, and it makes me sad that teachers at my daughter’s school feel that way. If the latter, then we should think hard about whether more courage would be appropriate here: do we really believe that chorus students do worse in school or in life, and what messages do we want to send our students?

One unfortunate aspect of the current situation is that either the decision makers haven’t consciously thought about whether the decision is made out of principle or as an accomodation; or, if they have, they haven’t communicated that to the rest of us. Or they have communicated it to the rest of us, and the communication is that they’re doing it on principle. Which I fear might be the case, as much as I would like to believe otherwise.

Another thing that bothers me: I think people should be able to choose their educational priorities whenever possible. So I’m quite happy to accept that music isn’t as important to other people as it is to me: those people may well prefer to have school time devoted to other matters. In which case, great: that’s why chorus is optional! Why not let parents vote with their feet in this matter: parents can choose to either send their child to chorus or to let their child have 25 or 40 minutes (depending on the grade) more of educational time each week? Instead, we have teachers and a principal telling us that such a choice is an inappropriate one.

(Admittedly, that argument has weak points (as of course do all my arguments): in particular, my preferred solution would make it impossible for parents to choose to get the extra instructional time and also get the chorus time by sending their child to chorus after school.)

At the end of last school year, all the schools’ choruses put on a performance. Some schools, including Slater (Miranda’s late, lamented school) had more than fifty students there (it might have been closer to a hundred than fifty). Almost all schools had at least a few dozen students there. And then there was Castro, which had a grand total of six students present at the concert, or approximately one percent of the student population. At the time, I thought that was a bit weird, but at least PACT’s presence at Castro would change that. Now, it looks to me like it wasn’t a fluke at all.

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