December 8, 2017

Practice Makes People: Why Schools Need High-quality Music Education

Elementary school students from Staten Island’s PS 22 perform at the 2013 Presidential Inauguration. Video courtesy of PS22 Chorus.

From visits to my elementary school by members of the Richmond Symphony orchestra to conducting my own group of students as a project in high school, music education has been —and still is — deeply embedded in my life. Music enhanced my creativity and curiosity and taught me patience and how to overcome failure. As a student musician who played the cello from sixth grade to the end of college, music opened up many opportunities for me. I can’t imagine anyone being deprived of an education enriched by music.

Students are hungry for music education, but unfortunately, many do not have access. Currently, more than 1.3 million elementary school students and about 800,000 secondary students fail to get any music education. High-poverty schools with greater proportions of students of color, in particular, are less likely to expose students to music education.

For example, in the Detroit area, only 31 percent to 60 percent of schools with high concentrations of students of color offer any music instruction at all. Access is limited by the number of curricular and extracurricular course offerings or an insufficient amount of staff dedicated to musical instruction. While research has shown that the cost for a basic music education can average as low as $187 per student annually, school districts serving predominantly low-income and students of color have competing priorities and limited access to necessary resources.

A number of studies have demonstrated the benefits of music education. Elementary school students who take part in high-quality music education programs have significantly improved scores on standardized tests — including 22 percentage points higher in English and 20 percentage points higher in math scores — than students in low-quality music programs. Furthermore, musical training has a number of benefits for cognitive and language development for young children.

Beyond these facts and figures, I strongly believe music in and of itself is incredibly valuable. Music is an important avenue for self-expression and a vehicle for the preservation of culture. Without a high-quality music education, students can miss out on an opportunity to understand and appreciate something so integral to us as humans.

While tax-funded, school-based music instruction is ideal for large-scale support of music and arts education, school districts facing budget cuts may take years to prioritize and adequately fund music education. Rather than waiting, young students should be able turn to smaller scale community-based interventions.

One program in East Los Angeles, the Boyle Heights Community Youth Orchestra (BHCYO), provides free music education to students aged six to fourteen in response to cuts in public school music education funding. Based on Venezuela’s El Sistema model in which underserved students are provided with free instruments and individual and group music instruction, the BHCYO provides a free classical orchestral training for low-income students. The youth take part in weekly rehearsals and a six-week intensive summer program. The orchestra relies on community partners such as the local Boys and Girls Club and the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs for resources and rehearsal space.

Community-driven organizations, such as BHCYO and the Silver Lake Conservatory in Los Angeles, or the Opportunity Music Project in New York City, dynamically enhance and supplement students’ learning needs and help them access the music education they crave and deserve.

If you’re interested in advocating for music education, you can view resources and toolkits from the National Association for Music Education or the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM).


November 21, 2017

A Day in the Life: Bellwether’s Aurelia Twitty

Aurelia Twitty with her honey badger award at the Bellwether Education Partners 2017 retreat

photo by Tanya Paperny

When Aurelia Twitty joined Bellwether in 2016, we learned about her 20+ years of volunteer service to DC-area schools and her commitment to educational equity. In addition to her role as executive assistant and office manager, she brings a wealth of experience as a parent advocate for education, a Certified Life Coach, and someone who has served with various organizations for over 25 years.

I loved getting the chance to talk to Aurelia about her background and advocacy. Whether as PTA president, member of a charter school Board of Trustees, or Bellwether’s own Operations team member, Aurelia brings energy and passion to everything she does. So much so that she received the top honor at this year’s Bellwether retreat: the Honey Badger Award! (See the photo above for her prize.) The award recognizes “exceptional perseverance and badger-ness marked by exuberant team spirit.”

Read our conversation below (and this Q&A is a great companion to our recent blog series on family engagement, which you can read here!):

You’ve volunteered with schools in the Washington, DC area for over 20 years. Why is it important for you to serve in this way?

I’ve always believed that a student’s chance for success is higher when the student, parents/guardians, and school all work together. I grew up a poor African American child in Washington, DC, and my parents did not invest in my education by visiting my schools or providing me with the at-home assistance I needed. I saw firsthand how my peers outperformed me while I was in elementary and middle school because they had the guidance of their teachers and their parents/guardians.

I made a promise to myself that if I ever had children, I would volunteer at their schools and work with them at home to ensure they had the best chance of success. I have three children — two adult daughters and one son who is a senior in a DC public charter school — and I’m proud to say I kept my promise.

What are the different roles you’ve held over the years? Continue reading


November 20, 2017

Better Buses: Three Ways to Improve School Transportation, in Under 3 Minutes

When I was a high school teacher, my sophomore and junior students routinely told a tired joke: What’s big, yellow, and full of freshmen? The school bus. There was a stigma attached to riding the school bus. For students who fancied themselves on the cusp of adulthood, the school bus was a vestige of childhood, and they avoided it if they could.

That attitude contrasts with the reverence my own elementary school-aged children have for the bus. All things transit fascinate them, but the school bus holds a special status. It is as magical as Ms. Frizzle, and the bus driver is a superhero. She arrives each day with a big smile and a wave, greeting her tiny charges with their oversized backpacks, and maneuvering her iconic vehicle down darkened city streets.

These conflicting views of school buses symbolize a conflict in school transportation. School buses and school transportation are at once a nostalgic and iconic symbol of American education and a challenged system that often fails to serve students, schools, and communities as well as it could.

Today we release “Better Buses: Three Ways to Improve School Transportation, in Under 3 Minutes,” a short animated video that encapsulates the challenges and complex considerations we must grapple with to improve our school transportation systems so that they meet the needs of students, families, schools, and communities. Watch it below:

This video pairs well with Miles to Go: Bringing School Transportation into the 21st Century, our 2016 paper which dug into the structure, function, successes, and challenges of school transportation systems across the country.

In spite of dramatic changes in transportation (e.g., Uber, Hybrids and electric vehicles, and self-driving cars?) and in schools themselves, school transportation systems haven’t changed much in decades. Addressing school transportation challenges isn’t simple, though. These systems must balance competing, important priorities and interests like student safety, cost, equity, environmental impact, and other factors.

Please watch, enjoy, and share. And Magic School Bus fans should look for the subtle homage to Ms. Frizzle’s world.


November 1, 2017

Supporting Teachers and Leaders in Minnesota and Beyond

Minnesota is a fascinating place when it comes to education. Student populations are increasingly culturally and linguistically diverse, especially in the Twin Cities. Overall child outcomes have been historically high relative to national averages, but wide and persistent achievement gaps reveal unacceptable disparities by race, ethnicity, immigration status, and income. Local education leaders, funders, and advocates are increasingly seeking change in policy and educational programs. In this environment, it’s interesting to zoom in on work happening at a local level, to identify lessons that can be applied elsewhere in Minnesota, and in other schools, states, and cities.

Today we release Supporting Minnesota Educators, a new website from Bellwether Education Partners. This project began by looking at the McKnight Foundation Pathway Schools Initiative, which aimed to improve pre-K to third grade reading outcomes in seven schools in Minnesota’s Twin Cities via formative assessments, educator professional development, and leadership supports for principals. McKnight and its partners began with bold ambitions to support significant improvements in student learning, but those gains haven’t materialized in most participating schools. These results show how complicated school improvement work can be, and also point to how policymakers can better set schools and principals up for success.

In examining evaluation results and speaking with initiative stakeholders, we found three key lessons that can inform future efforts:

  1. Foster stability among educators and leaders to allow for instructional and school culture changes to take hold
  2. Build leadership teams in schools focused on improving teaching and learning
  3. Improve training for educators so they have the knowledge and skills to provide excellent instruction for all students

Supporting Minnesota Educators expands on all three of these lessons, and brings together results from the Initiative with national research and resources. The website will also serve as a home for more resources to come on these topics in the year ahead – you can sign up for updates here. I hope this website will be a helpful resource for leaders, teachers, and advocates and generate conversation about pre-K to third grade and school improvement in Minnesota and elsewhere.


October 31, 2017

Three Education Implications to Consider on the 500th Anniversary of Reformation

According to tradition, today marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the castle church door in Wittenburg, launching the Protestant Reformation. Numerous books, articles, and museum exhibits this year have explored the ways in which this event shaped Western history, Christianity, and the world we live in today. But what does it have to do with education? Here are three things to consider:

1.Martin Luther was an advocate for education. Luther argued for widespread education, including the education of girls. His doctrine of “sola scriptura” (or scripture alone), as well as the argument that believers needed no intermediary between themselves and God, implied that Christians should be able to read the Bible. But Luther didn’t just advocate education for the sake of Bible reading: he advocated a broad education that included languages, history, music, and mathematics. And he advocated such education not only for boys, but also for girls. In a 1524 pamphlet, he encouraged cities in Germany to establish schools for both boys and girls, using an argument that may sound familiar to many today (though other arguments in the pamphlet will not!):

If it is necessary, dear sirs, to expend annually such great sums for firearms, roads, bridges, dams and countless similar items, in order that a city may enjoy temporal peace and prosperity, why should not at least as much be devoted to the poor, needy youth, so that we might engage one or two competent men to teach school?

(Lest one think Luther only believed men should teach, he also wrote a letter encouraging a former nun to become a teacher at a girls’ school he founded in Wittenburg.)

2. Martin Luther’s German translation of the Bible played a central role in education in 16th century Germany (and beyond).

3. The Reformation and its legacy is a great example of why schools today need to teach students about religion. The Reformation played a crucial role in shaping both Western history and the world we live in today, and students need to learn about it. And to really learn about it, they need to understand at least a little bit about Christian doctrine. If public schools do not teach children about the religious ideas (from a range of faiths and traditions) that have shaped history and the world we live in today, they’re not equipping them to deal with the challenges we face today.