MUSIC TEACHERS ARE OUR BEST HOPE FOR IMPROVING MATH IN OUR SCHOOLS
OK, I admit this is not likely to be supported by anyone in the education racket. No politician, superintendent, Harvard expert, or the teachers' union president would ever embarrass herself with such an irrational idea. But consider for a moment the tens of thousands of papers, conferences, and policy papers that have proposed rational solutions to our math education crisis over the past 50 years and ask yourself: “Are kids doing better in math today than they did in 1961?”. They are not, and everyone knows it. So, perhaps its time to try something unconventional, that as you'll find out is a whole lot less loopy than you might think.
Do you know why well-meaning strategies proposed by well-meaning academics from their insular ivory towers never worked? It is because the problem is not with the way math, or any other subject, is taught in schools. The problem is, and has always been, that schools do not teach children to think, and without being able to think no amount of tinkering with HOW math is taught is going to make the slightest difference.
But why music teachers? How could they improve the quality of thinking in schools where science and English and math have consistently failed? Actually, music is no better in solving the problem than any of those other disciplines. What music has though, which neither English nor math nor science have, is the general perception that it is not very important.
You read it right. Being unimportant is the key to what I am proposing.
Our schools operate under the testing paradigm, which states that a school’s funding is tied to its performance, and its performance is ascertained solely by testing its students. As we know, doing well on tests is a skill that has almost nothing to do with learning and comprehension. It is a subject all its own, and it is the ONLY subject taught these days in school. Schools that teach testing well are deemed “good schools”. Those that don’t know how to teach testing become “failing schools”. Both types have in common the fact that their students do not know how to use their intellects, how to inquire, consider, and solve problems independently. In other words they have not been taught how to think, because thinking is not a factor in multiple-choice tests. Memory is. And the school's funding and very existence is completely dependent on its students' ability to memorize and ace tests.
If you introduce into this intellectual desert a new pedagogical concept, unless it can be proven to improve the testing skills of students, and do it instantly, it will die, no matter how worthy it is.
I know what I am talking about. For three years we ran a pilot program in a Math and Music Magnet school in one of the poorest suburbs of Cleveland. Our mission was to use music and math in new ways to gradually turn students from memorizing robots into thinking human beings. The students thrived and their teachers recaptured the enthusiasm and idealism of their youth. After three years the program was axed. You know why? The math test scores did not go up quickly enough. True, the students were thinking and engaged, coming to school all pumped up, doing enthusiastic creative work. But creativity, enthusiasm, problem solving skills, are not reflected in the standardized testing. As test takers our students were only moderately successful and that was not good enough for the school to maintain its funding. End of story.
In hindsight, our biggest problem was not what we were doing nor how we were doing it. Our biggest stumbling block was the mere fact that we were teaching a core subject. Our teachers were math teachers whom we trained to deliver our curriculum. We were teaching MATH!!!!! And school administrators watch such a core curriculum like hawks. It's the math scores that are the do or die for a school.
This is where the music teacher of the future may have a leg up on a math or an English teacher. Nobody pays attention to her. Music in most public schools is the absolutely lowest priority of school administrators. The state may provide some guidelines but they have no real teeth since students are not tested on music, and even if they were, the results would not figure in the overall performance evaluation of the school. In many schools the music teacher is a glorified baby sitter, affording classroom teachers a longer lunch break. In other words, and this the key to my idea;
The music class is an unregulated island in an otherwise Orwellian environment for acing tests.
Unfortunately, what music teachers currently do is, with due respect, useless. They are well-meaning people, often working against great odds in teaching their students how to squeak on a clarinet or beat a drum. For the rest, music class will leave zero impact on the life of its students. None will take away even the most rudimentary musical skills, to say nothing of any intellectual improvement.
But music is an ideal vehicle for intellectual improvement, even though presently it is not taught as such. Of all the arts it is the closest to science and math. Historically, it was part of the Quadrivium in universities (the other three subjects being arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy). Music's affinity to mathematical thinking in particular is well documented. You cannot read music without manipulating the objects on the page in your mind and then executing them on a completely different plain on your instrument. You cannot play an instrument without the capacity to form mental images of the sounds before you execute them. All these, and many more, are fundamental skills required in arithmetic, geometry, graphing, and algebra. It is not surprising that since the 1990s researchers have demonstrated repeatedly that musical activities improve spacial temporal skills in children and directly improve their math comprehension. And add to these cognitive benefits the fact that they acquired as part of the creative and enjoyable discipline of music, and you probably get where I am headed with this.
What would happen if in this barely supervised musical island, in which presumably a creative teacher could pretty well do as she or he wished with little interference from school administrators, what if that teacher was versed in in both music and mathematics? Couldn’t such a teacher take a useless curriculum aimed at teaching students to play a band instrument, badly, and turn music class into an engaging multi-disciplinary curriculum of Math and Music, and inquiry, and experimentation, an intellectual incubator that fosters curiosity and mathematical thinking? And the best part is that it could probably be done under the radar, without the pressure of testing and without Big Brother watching you.
In other words, a Math and Music curriculum, which failed under the glare of scrutiny that Math attracted in our Magnet school experiment, might have succeeded in the quiet unobserved corner of the music room.
Of course such a strategy depends on many factors. First and foremost, there must be young music teachers with an interest in mathematics and an open mind towards developing young intellects. Second, schools have to be identified in which the principal would be sympathetic to an expanded music program that would feed the intellectual capacity of students and positively impact their performance in all other areas. Such a benevolent principal would hopefully also shield our renegade music/math teacher from the preying eyes of the superintendent’s office. And third, these insurgent teachers, entering a hostile environment, often operating alone and clandestinely, would need to have a support structure. They would need an organization that would help them keep in touch with other “guerilla” math-music teachers and, more importantly, would go to bat for them and support them legally and politically.
There is no doubt that such a vision is a pie in the sky. It derives from my deep disillusionment with the public education in this country and with the government policies that regulate it. But considering all the remedies proposed and implemented in the past, and their universal failure, perhaps it is not such a crazy idea after all.
 The reason you cannot have it both ways, i.e. develop mathematical thinking and creativity AND have high testing performance is that there are only that many hours in a school day.
The Kvetching Factory
"Start every day with a smile and get it over with" (W.C. Fields)