School Board Cuts Math

Local News
By Alonzo Church
January 6, 2014

Citing budgetary constraints, local school board cuts math and science from the district’s elementary schools.

While confronting a budget deficit of at least $1.1 million, The Seacrest School Board is targeting the district’s elementary math and science departments for cuts.

A group of parents protested budget cuts that include a reduction in elementary math and science programs during the school board meeting. “We need to encourage them to be math savvy,” Seacrest parent Amber Ramsey told board members, referring to the need for children to be exposed to math and science. “That’s what we expect.”

Board member Jill Kutter set the tone by opening the meeting with a prayer - asking that the board and administration be "immune to bullying from isolated interest groups" and cognizant that decisions affect all students and taxpayers.

The math and science programs at two elementary schools are affected by $1.2 million in budget cuts approved earlier this year by the school board. The board approved a plan to cut 20 positions and reduce the number of work days for the coming school year. Under the budget cuts, Seacrest’s Lincoln and Jefferson elementary schools will share math and science teachers next year instead of each school having its own math and science teachers. This concerned many parents who attended Tuesday’s meeting. Parent Freeman Dyson said math is important to inspire students’ knowledge of quantum electrodynamics and solid-state physics. “Instead of encouraging this, we’re neglecting it,” he said. “It’s sad.”

School board member Peter Cauchon told parents that the children will not miss out on math and science programs, although he said teachers will provide the programs differently. “The children now get more math and science than they did before,” Cauchon said. “Everyone knows that math is part of a well-rounded education. Opponents cited the district's rich math tradition as a reason to avoid the cuts, saying it's important for kids to be exposed to math at an early age.

Alan Turing, the vice president, of the KMEA (Kansas Math Educators Association) argues “As future math educators of America, we find these statistics very disturbing. How is it possible that  board members and administrators are so quick to cut math programs, when they are such a big part of society?” Who’s going to calculate the relativistic discrepancies in the GPS that we rely upon to get to work? I can’t find the best way through traffic without my nav.”


Ok, you get the point; thanks for reading my satirical report. If the school board was cutting math, we would be amazed. Unfortunately, all of the above sentences come from media articles about cutting school music programs. I simply substituted math and science for music and art and changed the names to protect the guilty. By the way, I like math, I like people who do math and teach math. It’s just a literary device...

So why are school boards cutting music programs? Perceived value. There is pressure to improve language and math skills. Part of this trend is because of the requirements of “No Child Left Behind,” but it is also a result of the perception that music and art are not critical to economic success.

While costs are increasing for education of all types, our current political and cultural environment does not promulgate trust in government or schools or teachers. We have tax cuts or no increases in spending. We have the cognitively dissonant situation of expecting our schools to do a better job while implementing policies that are not based on sound judgement.

Our public discourse, if you even want to civilize it with that word, has created a fractured, permanently distracted, and irritated electorate. School boards are making political decisions based on what they think people want. This is driven by an overarching perception that music and art are extras; they are not that important, and they are surely not as important as math, science, reading and writing.

Wasteful spending or investment in the future? It appears that main goal of our public school education has become jobs training. We only value things with perceived economic value. In order to create consumers, we need to people to have skills. If you can’t turn it into a job, an education is not worth the trouble.

I don’t disagree. No matter our overall policies, the elite institutions will continue to produce experts in medieval history, ancient greek and yes, musicians capable of performing at a high level.

Unfortunately, many of the jobs of the future involve areas of expertise that do not exist yet. The rapid changes of the last 50 (or 100) years demonstrate clearly that entire new fields of human knowledge, economic development and value are created at an astonishing rate. Even within well established fields the accelerated page of change is normal and will require continued adaptation and innovation. In other words, the ability to be creative and learn new skills.

A lens for learning, music is largely misunderstood and undervalued as a positive, integral, and focusing force in education. Because of its comprehensive - synergetic - nature, music education is uniquely qualified to be a main driver of improvement in public schools.

So instead of arguing that music makes you well-rounded, or allows you to express yourself, is present is all human civilizations or is good for its own sake, I will address directly how teaching music to an elementary school student creates value and helps us compete in the global economy.

What are the skills that we hear about again and again for competing in the global workplace? Innovation and creativity. Discipline and focus. Highly trained technical and professional workers with the domain knowledge and skills to produce results.

So let’s look at a hypothetical nine year old beginning trumpet lessons. Let’s name her MaryAnn. She’s in fourth grade at Seacrest’s Lincoln Elementary.

In the first few lessons, she will learn how to hold the instrument, how to breath, buzz her lips into the mouthpiece to make a sound and begin to learn which valves to depress in order to change the pitch.

By playing daily the motor and sensory parts of her neocortex create strong pathways and memories for the appropriate motions. The temporal lobe and visual cortex work together with the tactile and motor abilities in concert. This fine motor skill is working in concert with many other parts of the brain. As written notation is introduced or expanded upon, MaryAnn is connecting visual, aural and tactile memories with the aural product. In other words, her entire brain and a significant portion of her body is involved in this activity. The neurological changes due to this activity increase the overall connectivity of her brain.

At first the limited number of notes she can play means that the tunes she is playing are very simple. The newness of the procedures makes an enormous impact on her perceptions. As she practices everyday and and follows the suggestions of her teacher she makes steady progress. It is a process of ‘trial and error, trial and success.’ Under the guidance of competent teacher she is internalizing new skills. She is teaching herself by doing.

Eventually, as she learns more notes, it is possible to play more and more interesting music. A positive feedback loop occurs where more abilities inspires more practice. True self-esteem results from true mastery. By practicing everyday, her ability to sustain attention on specific tasks lengthens. Sustained effort is crucial to true accomplishment. We we use the phrase “paying attention” we are tacitly acknowledging the energy required in establishing and maintain this attention. This develops concentration and awareness, crucial in learning new skills and concepts.

By learning about rhythm, tempo, and beat structure, she is learning fractions in a different way than in math class. This “other view” of math improves her math skills as well. She “sees” the fractions on the page and hears them in real-time.

As soon as is feasible, she is playing in band with her peers. It’s fun, but challenging. She has to glance at the conductor while looking at her music and playing. She has to listen to the sounds around her, adjusting and matching to the best of her ability. The cooperation, flexibility, respect, and understanding that comes from participating in ensemble is a life lesson. We need to listen in order to be successful in life. We need to understand our role within a group. We need to be quiet if we are “resting” while the others play and play out clearly when our part is a solo. Leadership and follow-ship develop.

With proper guidance, a discrimination for pitch develops. Intervals become expressions of whole number ratios. The overtone series is a lesson in acoustics. The mouthpiece venturi a lesson in fluid dynamics a la Bernoulli. The languages of europe, especially Italian are present in the tempo markings of Allegro, Adagio, and Andante (the Italian verb “to walk.”) Over time, she is exposed to various composers. Bach, Mozart, Brahms from the classical world, perhaps Ellington, Kern and Gershwin from popular musics. The various styles and time periods are markers in our cultural history.

By playing their music, we can travel back in time metaphorically and explore the past. Where and when did they live? What was their music like? What historical, cultural and technological factors played a part in their work? These experiences bring alive certain aspects of history that no essay or lecture can equal.

All of the activities mentioned above cause physically changes the brain. More importantly, they enhance the mind; its ability to perceive and converse in a myriad of subjects.

The concepts from math, science, language, and history weave a tapestry that connect domains. And here is the real source of innovation: 1) having deep domain knowledge, 2) understanding the friction of ideas that occurs as domains rub together, 3) having the sustained focus of attention to pursue inchoate thoughts to fruition.

Innovation, performance and creativity stem from developing trust and working together in teams with a coherent goal. Accenture Consulting has a entire new consulting paradigm called Leadership Ensemble. It’s loosely based on metaphors from music. It’s clear that the lessons from band, orchestra, chamber music, jazz improvisation have value to them and the corporations they advise.

Sometimes it takes years to develop a product or skill. Anything worth doing well is worth doing poorly at first. The stamina and determination skills developed from musical experience are incredibly useful in other domains. Domains that by their nature do not necessarily develop these same skills.

How do we change the minds of school board members or anyone else in our society who does not see this? By explaining it in practical terms if necessary. The message bears repetition and demonstration of the real-world rewards.

The most important function of our conscious minds is to direct attention towards that which has value of some sort. A person, an aspect of survival, a creative thought. The discipline, focus and concentration of learning to play an instrument or sing develops this attention and focus comprehensively. The study of music also includes and combines nearly every domain of human knowledge.

Please share this message and feel free to add your own comments to this site.

Summary of areas that study of music education enhances:

  • Physical dexterity, fine motor control.
  • Aural, visual and tactile memory.
  • Aural discrimination and imagination.
  • Mathematical, spatial, acoustic, and mechanical concepts.
  • Historical knowledge and cultural context
  • Language constructs, such as the notation system itself, the various languages used in music notation (Italian, German, French, all sharing Latin roots.)
  • Complex behavior in ensembles.
  • Abstract concepts of music form and associated ideas from literature, art, philosophy and science.

Links supporting the ideas expressed in this piece:

Is Music the Key to Success? -
NAfME – Advocacy Groundswell – Music Education Brain Development
NAfME – Advocacy Groundswell – Music Education and Math/Spatial Reasoning

Permanent Links: