Are Children Learning

'Superman' a hero at connecting music, math and reading

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos

Hulk, Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman.

What seems like a simple list of superheroes from rival comic book publishers turns into a lesson on rhythm and musical notes in Amber Price’s fourth-grade music class at Indianapolis Public School 70.

“Batman, Batman, Superman, Batman, Batman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Hulk!” the kids chant, falling into a sing-songy cadence as Price keeps time by hitting a tall, African drum at the front of the room.

It’s fun, and the kids love it, but Price has a stealth purpose: meet Indiana standards by using superhero names to get kids to understand music notes.

Price tells the kids the name of each comic book character is also a music note: “Hulk,” with just one syllable, or beat, is a quarter note. “Batman,” with two beats, is two eighth notes. “Superman” is three uneven beats, or one eighth note and two sixteenth notes. And “Wonder Woman,” with four quick beats, is all sixteenth notes.

Soon, the kids are chanting, clapping, stomping and snapping their fingers as they recite the whole song. It’s a noisy, lively lesson, and once the kids get instruments, Price can barely be heard above the din of drums, tambourines, maracas and mallets hitting wood blocks.

She continues to conduct at the front of the room, leading the class to the end of the song with a loud “HULK!” and a flourish of her arms to silence them.

When the kids leave for their next class, filing out quietly in two lines, Price exhales. It might take a lot of energy, but she’s just that much closer to crossing one more fourth-grade academic standard off her list: “Superman,” or rather, teaching her kids to read and interpret an eighth note attached to two sixteenth notes.

Indiana has seen rapidly changing standards in English and math. The standards were first revised in 2009, then the state made a switch instead to nationally shared Common Core standards and then it made one more change to the new Indiana-created standards that followed in 2014. That last change was a big battle between Common Core supporters and skeptics of the shared standards.

But expectations for what kids should be learning in art and music have stayed the same since 2012, said David Newman, the arts curriculum director for Indianapolis Public Schools. Even so, teachers and schools are doing things differently to keep pace with other subjects.

Amber Price leads a lesson on singing the school song for her fourth-grade class at IPS School 70.
Amber Price leads a lesson on singing the school song for her fourth-grade class at IPS School 70.

 

Newman, formerly principal at School 70, a fine and a performing arts magnet school, is trying to emphasize to his teachers that the arts can’t be taught in isolation from core subjects such as English, math, science and social studies, echoing moves he made at School 70.

“You can’t sit on your hands and have everything come to you and you do your little music and art things and you are not fused to anybody else,” he said. “What we did was we did fine arts collaboration in the classroom. We use fine arts in everyday curriculum.”

Connecting arts to classroom learning

Unlike core subject teachers, Price said IPS doesn’t provide her with a curriculum.

She uses her own training in strategies that combine music, movement and literacy to figure out how to make sure her kids know what is expected by the state.

“Everything is written for classroom teachers, what standard to do and lesson to do,” Price said. “I’m not given anything by textbooks, which I don’t really use. I don’t want them to sit there singing out of a book. I want them to read music, to write music and be able to enjoy playing music.”

Most students in IPS have art and music class about twice per week, usually for an hour or so total. That’s not a huge amount of time, Newman said, and though teachers have multiple classes and sometimes multiple schools, they also need to be working with core subject teachers to “push-in” to classroom lessons and show how the subjects are connected.

“Go to the teachers and say, ‘Hey, I see you’re studying Day of the Dead (a Mexican holiday) in first grade. I know some songs or we can create masks,’” Newman said. “Put yourself in there.”

That philosophy drove how he structured one program in partnership with the Indianapolis Philharmonic Orchestra. Former teachers wrote lessons aimed at third-graders, and all grade level teachers participated. The kids learned about composers and their compositions, and after a few months the classes and their teachers got to see the orchestra play the music they’d been learning about.

Price said she teaches songs in her music class that can apply to English or math, such as a song about prepositions. Classroom teachers might also have students act out their reading for the day instead of just reading their chapters from the book. The key is finding small ways to infuse the arts into other areas, she said.

Cindy Huffman, curriculum director in Pike Township, said all performing arts standards have literacy components in them, so when the state transitioned toward Common Core, and then to new standards a year later, the district talked with teachers about how to make sure those standards were taken into account in all subjects — even the arts.

For example in sixth grade, students might be asked to determine the main idea of a piece of music and summarize it — an English standard for written passages — or identify important details and write about the style of art an artist chose. Just like with core subject teachers, performing arts teachers also had to develop tests and growth measurements so their instruction can be assessed, she said.

“All the teachers have been involved in the entire movement to Common Core as well as the Indiana Academic Standards, to those higher-level thinking and asking higher-level questions,” Huffman said.

Amber Price plays while her students sing at IPS School 70.
PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Amber Price plays while her students sing at IPS School 70.

Music and math, for example, are already heavily linked, Newman said. Music notation uses fractions in deriving musical notes, beats and rhythms. Price’s superhero lesson, for example, reinforces the concept of fractions in beats. Connecting music to English can happen through poetry, song lyrics and even history, he said. Integrating fine arts and traditional classroom subjects, Price said, really enhances both lessons.

“It makes it more fun, I think, for learning really, instead of just sitting there with your paper and your pencil,” Price said. “You’re up moving, you’re having fun singing and stuff like that. I learned the preposition song in sixth grade, and I can still sing it — It does help with remembering.”

The wider arts community offers support

It’s not just teachers who try to find innovative ways to connect arts and classroom studies. Schools also depend on outside partners for help.

For example, The Indianapolis Museum of Art can equip teachers to use visual and performing arts strategies in their classrooms.

This year, the museum started a STEAM club — science, technology, engineering, arts and math — that pairs traditionally disparate subjects. Four teachers-in-training from Butler University and six Indiana teachers are part of the group learning to integrate those strategies in their teaching.

“Too often we compartmentalize learning,” said Heidi Davis-Soylu, who oversees the museum’s education initiatives. “For a long time in the history of education, it wasn’t like that. There wasn’t ‘the sciences’ and ‘the arts’ — they were together.”

For now it’s just a pilot program with 10 teachers, but the museum also offers summer training workshops for teachers who want to learn more about the arts. There are also materials and other training programs available that support Indiana’s new academic standards.

Davis-Soylu, a former teacher who later went back to school to study art education, said kids, especially younger ones, can learn a lot from experiencing art alongside typical core subjects.

Hands-on activities can teach them to fine-tune motor skills and help them become better problem-solvers, she said. There’s not just one right answer in music or art, like on a standardized test.

“They are not trying to have to get to A, B, C or D,” she said. “And that just challenges the mind and gives opportunities for critical thinking.”

For older students, she said, developing more ways to express themselves and build on basic artistic skills learned in elementary school can help them discover their own voices. It also offers an avenue for building community and could motivate kids to learn more about the culture that surrounds them, Davis-Soylu said.

She cited research that found that those who participated more in the arts actually were better citizens — they voted more and had higher levels of education. Plus, she said, there are few downsides to being exposed to other cultures and types of expression.

Academic standards provide a framework for that experiential learning, Newman said, but it’s challenging for teachers when they have so little time with each class. It can be almost impossible to cover both the “performance” standards — literally whether they can “do” the art well, such as by playing an instrument competently — and the ones about theory or history, he said.

“Understanding music in relation history and culture and why it’s important, where things came from and how music and art shaped history, you know, we don’t get to talk about that enough,” Newman said. “People like to use time as an excuse — I’m just as guilty as anybody — but you have to think past that.”

Price, for example, has just 37 class sessions with her students. That means she has to make the most of what she has. She focuses less on history except when it corresponds with another teacher’s lesson, but she does very clearly outline the music-reading goals she has for each grade level she works with.

Theory is especially important to what “college- and career-ready” standards, like those Indiana has adopted, make a focal point: critical-thinking, problem-solving and question-asking skills.

“Teachers need to understand: You aren’t just teaching music, you aren’t just teaching art, you aren’t just teaching social studies. You don’t teach in isolation either,” Newman said. “Some of (the standards) are pretty powerful, and if you can use them and address some topics, you can also support social studies and math and science, which I think is better for everybody.”

First Person

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

“With fidelity” are some of the most damaging words in education.

Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things. Then officials say, over and over again, that they must be implemented “with fidelity.” What they mean is that teachers better not do anything that would serve their students’ specific needs.

When that curriculum does nothing to increase student achievement, it is not blamed. The district person who found it and purchased it is never blamed. Nope. They say, “Well, the teachers must not have been implementing it with fidelity.”

It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human and teaching is both creative and artistic would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power. Also, there are some really crappy teachers out there, and programs for everyone are often meant to push that worst-case-scenario line a little higher.

And if everyone’s doing just what they’re supposed to, we’ll get such good, clean numbers, and isn’t that worth a few thousand more dollars?

I was talking with a friend recently, a teacher at an urban school on the East Coast. He had been called to task by his principal for splitting his kids into groups to offer differentiated math instruction based on students’ needs. “But,” the principal said, “did the pacing guide say to differentiate? You need to trust the system.”

I understand the desire to find out if a curriculum “works.” But I don’t trust anyone who can say “trust the system” without vomiting. Not when the system is so much worse than anything teachers would put together.

Last year, my old district implemented Reading Plus, an online reading program that forces students to read at a pace determined by their scores. The trainers promised, literally promised us, that there wasn’t a single reading selection anywhere in the program that could be considered offensive to anyone. God knows I never learned anything from a book that made me feel uncomfortable!

Oh, and students were supposed to use this program — forced-paced reading of benign material followed by multiple-choice questions and more forced-pace reading — for 90 minutes a week. We heard a lot about fidelity when the program did almost nothing for students (and, I believe quite strongly, did far worse than encouraging independent reading of high-interest books for 90 minutes a week would have done).

At the end of that year, I was handed copies of next year’s great adventure in fidelity. I’m not in that district any longer, but the whole district was all switching over to SpringBoard, another curriculum, in language arts classes. On came the emails about implementing with fidelity and getting everyone on the same page. We were promised flexibility, you know, so long as we also stuck to the pacing guide of the workbook.

I gave it a look, I did, because only idiots turn down potential tools. But man, it seemed custom-built to keep thinking — especially any creative, critical thought from either students or teachers — to a bare minimum.

I just got an email from two students from last year. They said hi, told me they missed creative writing class, and said they hated SpringBoard, the “evil twin of Reading Plus.”

That district ran out of money and had to cut teachers (including me) at the end of the year. But if they hadn’t, I don’t think I would have lasted long if forced to teach from a pacing guide. I’m a good teacher. Good teachers love to be challenged and supported. They take feedback well, but man do we hate mandates for stuff we know isn’t best for the kids in our room.

Because, from inside a classroom full of dynamic, chaotic brilliance;

from a classroom where that kid just shared that thing that broke all of our hearts;

from a classroom where that other kid figured out that idea they’ve been working on for weeks;

from that classroom where that other kid, who doesn’t know enough of the language, hides how hard he works to keep up and still misses things;

and from that classroom where one kid isn’t sure if they trust you yet, and that other kid trusts you too much, too easily, because their bar had been set too low after years of teachers that didn’t care enough;

from inside that classroom, it’s impossible to trust that anyone else has a better idea than I do about what my students need to do for our next 50 minutes.

Tom Rademacher is a teacher living in Minneapolis who was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. His book, “It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching,” was published in April. He can be found on Twitter @mrtomrad and writes on misterrad.tumblr.com, where this post first appeared.

union power

Gutting Wisconsin teachers unions hurt students, study finds

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Michael Vadon
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in 2015.

The high-profile fight to limit union power was replete with drama — including a recall election and state legislators fleeing to neighboring states.

In the 2011 battle in Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker ultimately came out the victor. The controversial law passed, Walker won the recall, and the Democratic-aligned unions have lost much of their power.

But new research points to other losers in the fight: students in the state’s already struggling schools.

The first study to assess how Wisconsin’s high-profile weakening of unions, particularly teachers unions, affected students finds that it led to a substantial decline in test scores.

The findings come as the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments for a case, known as Janus, that could dramatically scale back union power across the country — essentially taking aspects of the Wisconsin model national. And they give credence to concerns from unions and their defenders that weakening teachers bargaining power would ultimately make schools worse, not better.

A report from the left-leaning Center for American Progress released Wednesday highlights this research — and the fact that teacher pay and average experience declined in the wake of the law, known as Act 10 — to argue that weakening unions ultimately harm schools.

“Those concerned about the quality of public education — and of all public services — should understand that Wisconsin’s Act 10 and associated budget cuts have not had the positive impact on education that its proponents claimed it would,” the CAP report argues.

Still, the research, which has not been formally peer-reviewed, only assesses the short-term impact of Wisconsin’s law. It adds to a complicated set of research findings on unions that doesn’t render a clear verdict.

Short-term effect in Wisconsin is negative, especially for low-achieving schools

The new research looks at the effects of Wisconsin Act 10, which became law in 2011 and severely limited the scope of collective bargaining and allowed members to opt of unions.

The paper’s author, Jason Baron, took advantage of what was essentially a natural experiment set up by the law. Act 10 did not affect all school districts at once — a handful of school districts were allowed to maintain union rules until their existing contract expired up to two years later. That helped isolate the immediate impact of the law.

Baron found that weakening unions led to declines in test scores, particularly in math and science. The effects were fairly large, comparable to sharply increasing class sizes. And the harm was not evenly distributed: Schools that started out furthest behind were hurt the most, while higher achieving schools saw no impact.

Other research may help explain why.

The law led to big cuts in teacher compensation, particularly for veteran teachers and especially in health insurance and retirement benefits, according to one paper. There was also a spike in teacher retirement immediately following the law’s passage.

As compensation drops, it may become harder for district and teachers to recruit and keep teachers. An increase in retirement also reduces teacher experience, which has been linked to effectiveness.

Another study found that some Wisconsin districts moved from a single salary schedule to a performance-based pay system after Act 10’s passage. Those performance pay systems were more likely to be adopted by higher-achieving districts, potentially allowing them to lure effective teachers away from struggling schools.

“Following Act 10, high-performing schools filled vacancies from teacher retirements by poaching high-quality teachers from low-performing schools through attractive compensation schemes,” the paper concludes. So while those retirements might have hit all districts equally, high-performing districts were better able to make up the difference — at the expense of low-performing schools.

There is one study that complicates the narrative in Wisconsin. As retirements spiked, it found that academic achievement actually increased in the grades that teachers left. It’s not clear what explains this.

The larger question of how teachers unions affect learning remains up for debate

A number of other recent studies have examined the relationship between teachers unions and student outcomes outside of Wisconsin. The results aren’t consistent, but the trend has been more positive for unions of late. A caveat: Some of these studies have not been published in peer-reviewed academic journals.

  • On recent efforts to weaken unions: Research in Tennessee found that it led to a drop in teacher pay, but had no effect on student test scores. But a study of four states, including Wisconsin, that recently weakened unions found evidence of reduced teacher quality as a result.
  • On what happens when charter schools unionize: Two studies in California came to differing conclusions. One found that when charters unionize, student test scores go up, but the other showed no impact.
  • On the initial rise of collective bargaining: Another paper finds that students who went to schools where districts negotiated with unions earned less money and were more likely to be unemployed as adults. But this study looks at a fairly old data set — examining those who attended schools between 1965 and 1992.

Meanwhile, it’s not clear if any of this research is likely to influence the Supreme Court, as it considers the Janus case that could make life more difficult for unions. Last month, Chief Justice John Roberts called empirical studies on political gerrymandering “sociological gobbledygook.”