In Response To Gov. Engler

Former Michigan Governor John Engler recently penned an editorial praising Betsy DeVos as a great pick for Secretary of Education. At the very least, his editorial needs a good fact-checking. So here we go.

I often get asked about President-elect Trump’s choice as the next leader of the U.S. Department of Education. In each response, I start by calling Betsy DeVos a highly qualified, creative and promising pick to lead the department.

Betsy DeVos does not have a degree in education, nor does she have any relevant experience in education. She sure doesn’t seem qualified in the academic sense.

Ninety percent of American students rely on the public education system for their schooling. Mrs. DeVos never attended public school, nor did any of her children. Again, somebody who does not understand the environment in which 90 percent of  students learn each day does not seem to be qualified for the position.

The key is supporting what works, from rigorous standards to charter schools to transparency across the system.

The charter schools in Michigan favored by Engler and DeVos have not improved educational outcomes. The magic bullet of competition favored by business-friendly conservatives has only succeeded in dragging more Michigan schools down. And there’s plenty of evidence that competition isn’t the answer when it comes to improving schools. Just ask Sweden.

Thankfully, as a businesswoman and entrepreneur, Ms. DeVos has been singularly focused on accountability and results — exactly what our education system needs. She is a particularly strong advocate for increasing accountability of both traditional and charter public schools in Michigan.

Except, she’s not. DeVos has thrown a great deal of money to organizations and legislators that fought against oversight for charters in Michigan. She can claim to be pro-transparency and pro-accountability all she wants, but the reality is that DeVos’ actions show that she wants traditional public schools to play by a different, more stringent set of rules.

For example, she supported a new state law that grades Detroit schools from A to F and shutters the doors of any school that receives an F for three consecutive years. It has been a bitter pill for some, but a necessary prescription for a city system that has been failing students for years.

It’s a bitter pill because closing a school is not “accountability”. It’s punishing the local community, especially when the other choices (charters) in the area have done a poor job.

Of note, CREDO concluded that Michigan was “among the highest performing charter school states.” I am proud that the law that Ms. DeVos championed and that I signed in 1993 is achieving these results.

Test scores have been steadily declining in Michigan. If there are great results worthy of praise, we’re simply not seeing them. Over 20 years since Governor Engler passed Proposal A, and Michigan is ranked near the bottom of the nation in education quality.

To those who have seen the work that Ms. DeVos has led, and the educational successes she has helped achieve, it is clear that there is no one better to lead the Department of Education at this critical time.

[Citation needed]. Again, what successes is Engler talking about? Public money has been funneled into private pockets thanks to DeVos’ policies. In 2011, less than a quarter of Detroit charters were outperforming their public counterparts. Twenty-five percent is a failure no matter how you slice it.

Where’s the accountability for the failed ideas of Betsy DeVos?

#AskBetsy

Confirmation hearings begin tomorrow for Trump’s plethora of inexperienced, wildly unqualified, tremendously wealthy cabinet picks. While I’m concerned about pretty much all of them, Betsy DeVos is especially terrifying because we’ve seen her ideas fail firsthand here in Michigan. I’m begging the Democrats in the Senate to show some tenacity, and grill her. Make her defend her ideas with facts and research (spoiler alert: she can’t!) Push back against the idea that privatization is the fix for everything.

Here’s what I would ask, if I had the chance…

  • Mrs. DeVos, you claim that all students deserve a quality education, regardless of their home zip code. The Michigan legislature has been eager to implement many education policies you support. Can you explain why the flood of charter schools in Detroit haven’t improved educational outcomes?
  • Mrs. DeVos, Michigan has allowed charter schools to operate in the state for over two decades. We have over two decades worth of evidence that charters in Michigan do not outperform their public school counterparts. What evidence have you seen that makes you continue to push so hard for charters?
  • Mrs. DeVos, you are a noted advocate of school privatization, as well as for-profit schools. In recent years, Sweden has begun rolling back their country-wide experiment with school privatization because it has not improved educational outcomes at all. Why will mass privatization succeed in the US despite a higher level of childhood poverty compared to Sweden?
  • A follow-up on Sweden. Why do you think privatization failed in Sweden? What lessons did you learn from its failure? Why should the US travel down that road despite the large body of evidence that privatization won’t work?
  • Mrs. DeVos, what was the original purpose of charter schools?
  • Mrs. DeVos, which educational researchers have been most influential to you?
  • Mrs. DeVos, you and your husband were supporters of ‘Right to Work’ legislation in Michigan. Schools in Right to Work states routinely under-perform compared to their counterparts with stronger unions. Why do you believe that RTW legislation can improve education?
  • Mrs. DeVos, you never attended public school. Your children never attended public school. You do not have a degree in education, nor does anybody else in your family. Some 90 percent of this nation’s children attend public schools. How do you plan to identify and empathize with the millions of families in the US public school system when you’ve never set foot in one yourself?
  • Mrs. DeVos, you have in the past talked about the concept of a ‘value school’, where students can be educated for around $5,000 each. A study commissioned by the Michigan legislature recently determined that Michigan’s average per-pupil funding (considerably more than $5,000) is inadequate. The study found that the most successful districts in Michigan receive nearly $9,000 per student. How will your value schools be able to provide a well-rounded education in the arts and STEM for $4,000 less than the most successful districts in Michigan?
  • A follow-up on value schools. What cuts will you have to make to bring costs down to $5,000 per pupil? How will you determine what is valuable, and what has no place in these schools? How will you justify these cuts to the communities they will impact?

Let’s Celebrate MIOSM 2017 By Collaborating

Each of the past three school years, my students have celebrated Music In Our Schools Month (MIOSM) with an evening of chamber music. Starting after our December concert, the students pick their chamber groups and music, and they begin rehearsing together. This collaborative experience has been very empowering for the students.

This year, I’d like to expand that collaboration beyond my classroom walls. What if several ensembles around the country performed the same piece of music during MIOSM? What if these schools recorded their performances and shared them with the other performers from around the country? How cool would it be for students in Michigan to hear how students in California interpret and perform the same piece of music? What if we were to create new music for these students to perform during MIOSM?

The seeds for this idea were sown back in my college days. Trombonist Brad Edwards composed a series of fanfares for International Trombone Week, and made them freely available to any interested musicians. My plan is to compose a fanfare for concert band, and make it freely available to any groups who would like to perform it as part of an MIOSM performance.

I invite any interested composers/educators to join this fanfare collaboration by contacting me here. Ideally, I envision several short new pieces being created each year that encompass a wide range of styles and ability levels. Any groups that perform these pieces and have access to recording equipment would send in a recording of their performance, which we would then post online to share with every other group that performed the same piece.

I hope some of you will find the potential of this project as exciting as I do. The potential for interaction between performers and composer is great, and I love the thought that my students could start some deep musical discussions with students from all over the country. Again, if you’re interested in participating in this project as a composer or a performing ensemble, drop me a quick note here.

Let’s stop calling the public “customers”

I worked at Jimmy John’s in college. A couple of them, actually. And I was pretty damn good at slinging sandwiches. It’s been at least 10 years since I put on the uniform, and I’m pretty confident that I could still get behind the counter and pump food out quickly.

When I was at JJ’s, I had a pretty clearly defined relationship with our customers. They pay for a sandwich, or sandwiches. I make said sandwich. We exchange pleasantries while I wrap their sandwich. I tell them to have a great day. They leave. It was different with regulars only in the sense that we would repeat this process with them on a daily basis.

That’s where it ended though. When that sandwich left the shop, the door closed on that relationship. I never stayed after my shift had ended to help any of the customers become better at consuming their sandwiches. I never lost any sleep worrying that the Italian Night Club I had made during the lunch rush didn’t have a warm home to go back to. I never had the urge to go check in with sandwiches that I had made years prior.

And after sitting through yet another meeting where somebody described the local community as “our customers”, I couldn’t help but realize just how terrible that label is. “Customer” doesn’t even begin to describe how deep the bonds are between teacher and community. We care deeply for our students even when they leave our classes for the day. We sacrifice our time and energy even when we are off the clock.

When I made a sandwich, there was no considering what impact that Beach Club with extra sprouts would have on the community. When I teach kid? That’s a huge part of my thought process. Is what we’re doing in here benefiting the school community, and the community at large?

When we call the public “customers”, we are selling them short. They are our allies, our supporters, our partners, our stakeholders. Calling them customers does them a disservice. We are just as invested in the students as they are, let’s start conveying that and think of ourselves as more than just customer service reps.

More on the NAfME situation

It’s a been a few days since some racially charged comments allegedly made by NAfME CEO and Executive Director Michael Butera have come to light. Both NAfME and Mr. Butera issued statements on the matter. So far, the response has left me feeling a little underwhelmed and unsatisfied. It’s led to more questions that need to be answered.

  • Mr. Butera’s argument seems to be that his comments were taken way out of context. If that’s true, then what was the context? It’s hard to imagine any scenario in which those words would be okay. Perhaps Mr. Butera was trying to make the point that many school communities with high populations of minority students often lack access to rich arts education experiences. That’s a valid discussion to have, but an incredibly poor choice of words with which to start it. I would happily welcome a more substantive statement from both Mr. Butera and NAfME that elaborates on the context of the situation.
  • A great letter from some of the music education faculty members at Arizona State University has made the rounds in the last day or so. The statement calls for a more detailed response to the incident from NAfME, as does a similar statement released by the SMTE.
  • The ASU letter does contain something that was troubling to read. “While we understand questions may revolve around what Mr. Butera did or did not say, we understand that the actions described in Keryl McCord’s account were corroborated by others and that there is no question that Mr. Butera left the meeting on diversity, inclusion, and equity in an abrupt manner.” It seems that when given the chance to clarify or re-word his statements at the meeting, Mr. Butera decided to leave. If true, it’s difficult to reconcile his stated desire to foster “inclusion, diversity, and equity” with the act of walking away from a conversation on that very matter. Hopefully some of these corroborators will come forward and shed some more light on this situation.

This situation has upset a good portion of the NAfME membership and we would welcome a more detailed response from the leadership in the organization. Hopefully Mr. Butera also opts to provide a more detailed statement on the events, something which I believe is necessary if the organization is going to move past this.

Time for change

It’s clear that NAfME has a serious problem on its hands, and they need to part ways with executive director Michael Butera immediately. Apparently on April 26 at a meeting hosted by the NEA, Mr. Butera decided to publicly share some remarkably prejudiced and wrong-headed beliefs. According to Mr. Butera, NAfME’s membership lacks diversity because “Blacks and Latinos lack the keyboard skills needed for this field” and said something to the effect of “music theory is too difficult for them”.

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Look, everybody is entitled to their own personal views, no matter how stupid and ignorant those views are. I would like to assure the author of this article that as a NAfME member, I do not share Mr. Butera’s beliefs, and I will be reaching out to NAfME to let them know I believe his views have no place in the organization and neither should he.

It’s laughably easy to come up with a list of musicians to counter Mr. Butera’s beliefs. I’m pretty sure Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Charlie Mingus, Robin and Kevin Eubanks, Herbie Hancock, Quincy Hilliard, James Reese Europe, Adolphus Hailstork, Billy Strayhorn, Gustavo Dudamel, Astor Piazzola, Manuel De Falla, etc, all demonstrate a great understanding of music theory, great keyboard skills, or both. Several of the professors, graduate students, and teachers that I’ve worked with in my short career are also living evidence against Mr. Butera’s beliefs.

I can not in good conscience remain a NAfME member if Mr. Butera is allowed to continue in his leadership role. As teachers we would not dream of excluding students based on their nationality or the color of their skin. It’s massively disappointing that somebody in a position of power in our national organization seems to believe differently.

Celebrate Jazz Appreciation Month

April is Jazz Appreciation Month, a great excuse for music educators everywhere to bring this fantastic art form into their classrooms. NAfME has a list of ways to celebrate on their website, here are some more things you can do to get your students involved with jazz.

1. Incorporate the blues scales into your warmups. Learning a blues scale is an excellent gateway to basic improvisation. The scales are fairly accessibly even to your younger students (I teach them to 7th graders), and open up a lot of musical possibilities. You can create some short riffs for your students to mimic as an ear-training exercise, or you can even just use them with any major/minor scale exercises you already do. I’ll play some very basic comping rhythms, and we’ll play the scale as a class using that rhythm on each note.

2. Learn a jazz standard by rote as a class. If your students know even just a single scale, you can teach them the melody to C Jam Blues by using scale degrees. It’s a very quick process that can lead to teaching swing style, getting percussionists involved, and improvising. Here’s how I do it (and you can do this with ANY major scale):

  • Okay class, find the fifth note of this scale. Let’s play and hold that together.
  • Now find the eighth note of the scale. Play and hold together.
  • Repeat after me (do this in the rhythm of C Jam): five five…five five…five five…fiiiiiive eight. That’s the whole melody! We just play that little riff three times in a row.
  • Now I’m going to use some hand signals to help you guys remember those notes while we play it as a class (I use five fingers and eight fingers).

If your students are very comfortable with that, there are plenty of other standards out there that only require some basic blues scales knowledge (Manteca, for one).

3. Have an improvisation conversation. Trading fours is one of my favorite ways to introduce my students to improvisation. We set up a few basic parameters and go from there.

  • Pick a single note from the B-flat blues scale. That’s the note you’re going to use for this conversation.
  • You can play any rhythm you want, just stick to that note you chose.
  • You get four measures, and then it’s somebody else’s turn.

I’ll put a basic swing beat on our stereo system using the GarageBand app, and then I’ll take the first four measures to give the students an example. The first few times we do this as a class, just so the students feel more comfortable, I’ll play, then a student, then me, then a new student, then me, etc. As they get more comfortable, I’ll step aside more and let the students take over.

This can be expanded to riffs using multiple notes as the students progress. The reason I choose to start with a single note is so that the students are not overwhelmed by choices. It’s one less thing for them to think about as they’re starting to learn a new concept.

4. Write a short 12-bar blues composition as a group. I’ve done this project with my jazz band many times. Your students don’t have to be great with notation for this project to be successful. The last time we did this project, we started with an improvisation conversation. Students came up with some very short riffs using the B-flat blues scale, and we recorded the session.

Step two was playing back the session for the students and asking them to identify some riffs that they liked. I spent a few hours over the weekend transcribing those riffs and labeling them (A, B, C, etc) so I could put some sheet music in front of the students.

Next, we experimented with putting those riffs in a different order. One student might feel that riff B is a great opener, and we should follow it with riff E, and close with riff A. Another student would suggest going ABD. Since the students had each labeled riff right in front of them, we could try out these combinations right away and figure out what we liked best as a group.

If you want, the project can stop there. You’ve got a 12-bar blues melody ready to go. If your students want to go deeper though, you can start digging into the chords that make up a 12-bar blues, and start coming up with some background harmonies to support your melody. This is where I would revisit some of those basic comping rhythms, and we would have some students play the melody while others played I, IV, or V on those comping rhythms. Now you’ve got a more complete piece to work with.