What Type of Education System Do We Want?

In the last ten months something happened regarding education in the United States: We have all become aware that the process of teaching our children is extraordinarily complex. Mind you, this has always been the case, but it took a global pandemic, and the subsequent mass shuttering of schools to shine full-light on this fact. As a glimmer of hope appears inside the long dark COVID-19 tunnel, it’s time to finally ask a long overdue question: What kind of education system do we want?

I’m a music teacher, and have been teaching for over 16 years. In that time I’ve had the pleasure of working with a wide array of student populations. I currently teach in a public county school district that specializes in alternative and special education. I teach in a self-contained school for autistic children as well as a self-contained school for physically and/or developmentally disabled students, and a middle/high school for at-risk students with behavioral and/or emotional classifications. I’ve also worked in the district’s alternative high school for at-risk inner-city students. In addition, I have taught in a public K-8 inner-city school and continue to teach countless students as a private music instructor. Prior to my work in public education, I created and taught my own early-childhood music curriculum to pre-school aged children ages 18 months to five years, both typically developing and with special needs (and still spend my summers doing that at a local day camp).

I have taught students who were contemplating joining a gang. I’ve had classrooms of students where just under half were non-verbal. I’ve taught students who were homeless, and who were on probation after being arrested. I’ve witnessed children take their first steps. I’ve had piano students whose homes were behind private gates. Some of my school students were so poor, I would hand them $20 on Friday because if I didn’t, I knew they wouldn’t eat again until school on Monday. I’ve have had the pleasure of teaching a wide array of amazing kids from almost every type of background, age and ability imaginable. This has enabled me to see just how diverse our children, and young people, truly are.

What is the job of public education? The initial job, and mission, of our schools were to create better citizens. Teaching our children about how our government worked, as well as their responsibilities within it, would enable them to see how they could, and should, contribute to our democratic republic. The subjects of math, science, reading, civics, history, geography, and languages are not taught simply to impart knowledge, these subjects are meant to inspire curiosity, discovery, new thoughts, insights, perspectives, and ideas. Then hopefully inspire their application towards the greater good.

Over the course of time, the quest for higher test scores, reams of data, and the hype of global rankings allowed us to lose sight of the true purpose of education. Instead of better citizens, that purpose has been reduced and redefined as providing marketable job skills and getting into college.

The truth is, in addition to developing better citizens, education is a journey of self-discovery. It’s a period in which we take the knowledge being imparted and begin to ask ourselves some pretty weighty questions: Who am I? What am I interested in? What am I good at? Where is my place in this world? These questions not only go into how we see ourselves and our community, but help to develop a sense of virtue and understanding to the world, and those around us.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had many effects on society. Perhaps the most significant was it made us realize what the future is going to look like⏤and it did so in a matter of weeks. Beginning last March, every preconceived idea of American life from work and school, to grocery shopping, and socializing was obliterated. Life moved inside, but digital technologies allowed a significant number of people to still work, go to school, buy food, and get their pizza delivered. We were able to see fully just how technology has become integrated into every facet of life.

When schools began shutting down en masse, people were shocked to find out that there are entire districts in the United States whose school buildings provide one singular purpose for their students: food. Their students don’t see the building as a place to learn. They see it as the place to eat. The pandemic exposed us to the significant number of American kids who are growing up in poverty.

There are 7.1 million children in America who go to school every day and require special education services. These services include crucial therapies like occupational, speech, social skills, and even physical therapies. Many special needs and at-risk children also receive vocational skills at school. These things are not just crucial to their education, but their growth and development. With buildings shuttered, how were they going to adequately receive them?

The pandemic also alerted us to the physical dilapidation of our schools. As this past summer ended, and districts began facing the prospect of re-opening, too many realized their ventilation systems were not adequate or in disrepair. Some schools had windows incapable of opening. Social distancing protocols created a weird reverse physics equation: providing more classroom space for less students. It also became clear that our schools serve a greater purpose to the daily functions of every-day life. With schools closed ⏤ how were parents supposed to go to work? How were they going to earn money? Pay the rent? The mortgage? Buy groceries?

The pandemic quickly showed us how American public schools serve a multitude of purposes. They’re a strange hybrid of foodbank/daycare center/social hub/social and emotional support center/sports training facility/community theater/place for structure and discipline/special services provider/intellectual development center/school.

When kids go to school, they come in carrying more than books and backpacks. They come carrying experiences and emotions of their daily lives. For some, these are positive, but for others, they’re the opposite. Some come with amazing abilities. Others with disabilities. As time has gone on, and society has changed, our children’s lives have been impacted in lots of different ways, and these have impacted what they carry into school.

The rise of digital technologies, and social media have had profound impacts on our kids, and have affected their growth, development, and sense of self. These technologies have also impacted the definition of truth. What is true? What is not? What is real? There’s a whole populations of Americans who believe the Coronavirus is not real. How do we think this mindset is affecting the growth and development of our children? A CDC study done on neurological disabilities amongst American children ages 3–17 (completed pre-pandemic) gives us some insight:
- 1.9 million have a depression diagnosis (3.2%)
- 4.4 million have an anxiety diagnosis (7.1%)
- 4.5 million have a diagnosed behavior problem (7.4%)

Children grow and develop at different rates, and one of the reasons is their varied and different experiences outside of school. This holds true for children growing up in stable communities as well as those growing up in dysfunctional ones. There are outside circumstances that could (and do) affect a child’s development as well as ability to learn. A child growing up in a region of the United States that has been disproportionately affected by the opioid crisis is going to bring a series of unique experiences and emotions to school. A child growing up in a region that’s been seriously impacted by an environmental disaster (contaminated drinking water, wildfires, floods/hurricanes) will also have unique experiences and emotions. In each of these examples, the children’s growth, development, as well as how and what they learn is going to be forever impacted.

Now imagine how children are going to be affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

How are we going to deal with children returning to school after experiencing a global humanitarian crisis? Regardless of where they live, our kids are going to return to “normal school” and will have been affected by this pandemic in some way. Some will return having lost a parent, or parents. Some will have a parent, or parents who lost their job. Some will have suffered the loss of an immediate family member like a grandmother, grandfather, aunt or uncle. As of the writing of this essay, over 400,000 Americans have lost their lives to the Coronavirus. This is an extraordinary event and to believe that kids are going to return to school and pick up where they left off is not only shortsighted, but selfish.

I believe we can help our kids, and our entire system, get back on track. And I believe we can accomplish this through the use of something that’s been a part of our public education system almost since its inception. It is not only essential to our children’s intellectual growth and development, but also their emotional, social, physical, and creative development.

I’m speaking about music.

In America, our music is what grounds us. It calls us home. One thing we have discovered during the pandemic is how music brings us together. It unites and humble us. It sets us free, and reminds us of who we are. Dancing didn’t go away during the pandemic. Instead, everyone and their brother began posting videos of themselves dancing. Why? Because we need to do it. It’s inside of us. Why was that video of the man riding his skateboard while Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” played so popular? Seriously, why? It wasn’t about the cranberry juice. It was because we felt the freedom and beauty of the song⏤and we all needed to see, hear, and feel that.

The process of self-discovery that is education, and the questions we ask of ourselves in the process⏤Who am I? What am I good at? Where is my place in this world?⏤are not solely answered in math and science class. The answers to those questions are honed, and further investigated through music. We dig deeper while singing spirituals in chorus, playing an Aaron Copeland piece in band or orchestra, and listening to Charlie Parker in music appreciation class. The lyrics, tones, rhythms, and sounds bring things together and further inspire us.

In his book Arts and the Creation of Mind, Eliot Eisner defined education as “…the process of inventing yourself.” To me, that is a beautiful description. It speaks to the fact that education is more than just facts and figures. It involves waking up to who we are, and who we can be emotionally, physically, and aesthetically — as well as intellectually. All of these things are a part of education, and music guides the way.

But over the last thirty years or so, we have forgotten this⏤and this could not have happened at a more difficult point. As we began making education more about providing skills that will get you a job, something was also happening: our schools were becoming more socially, emotionally, economically, and developmentally diverse.

As technology has improved, and increased, so has our ability to diagnose and treat childhood disabilities. Earlier diagnoses and understanding has meant the creation of better therapies and treatment protocols. This has meant an increased presence of special needs as well as classified children in public schools. Teaching⏤which has always been a creative and dynamic profession⏤has gotten more so. The current data/test based model of education flies in the face of how our student populations need to be educated.

The pandemic has raised many questions about the future of education. It has brought to light the fact that not all children can be educated the same way, at the same time. There are children who’ve responded very well to remote learning. Likewise, there are students who did not. Taking children out of the school building has shone light on just how diverse our students are.

Emerging scientific research is showing how music affects the brain in ways we never imagined. It — like our kids — is dynamic and not only stimulates us emotionally, but also physically, socially, and cognitively. A study out of Stanford University demonstrated how music can increase our attention spans. A Finnish study showed how listening to different music while walking outdoors can, literally, change your perception of the surroundings. So, walking in the woods and listening to George Winston will give you a very different percpetion than if you, say, listened to Bad Brains.

Think about what music does for you, and to you. You mark your life with songs, pieces, and chants. When I hear “Don’t Stop Believin’” by Journey, I can (literally) smell my High School cafeteria: the stale coffee, almost spoiled milk, the bad pizza. We all have prom and wedding songs. There are break-up songs, love songs, happy, and sad songs. There are certain songs for certain dances. You can’t do the “Cha Cha Slide” when “The Hustle” comes on⏤and you know exactly what I’m talking about. When my grandfather was dying he told my father to play “St. Louis Blues” by Cab Calloway at his funeral. When my father asked why that song, my grandfather said “So I can go in the ground smiling”.

That’s the power of music. It goes well beyond how we’re teaching it in school. It’s more than band, chorus, and orchestra class. Music can be used to help behaviorally challenged kids organize themselves physically, socially, and emotionally (I know because I use it that way). It can help kids with speech delays better understand their patterns and cadences. It can help teachers better understand the personalities in their classrooms and how they can work together. Music isn’t just an extracurricular activity⏤it’s an untapped resource.

Recently, a friend, whose daughter is a very gifted athlete and will be playing a sport in college this fall, approached me while I was walking my dog. Her daughter’s school has been remote since March of 2020. “Do you know what she misses most about school? Not her teammates, practice, or the games….but band. She told my husband and I band is the one time during the school day when she feels most like herself.” I could see the surprise in her face, but then felt a sense of relief when she said “My husband and I never realized how important music is to education.”

When schools do fully reopen as “normal” again, music should be given priority, and not just temporarily. Yes, this moment is extraordinary and, as a result, our children will have had extraordinary experiences. But music will provide opportunities for our kids to express and work through them. It’s also important to remember that these unique experiences don’t stop. They keep happening and are a part of education.

Outside of Coronavirus you had a unique experience today that no one else did⏤and you’ll have another tomorrow. Remember all of the experiences you had when you were in school? You made lifelong friends. Maybe you fell in love for the first time. Our teenage years are a rollercoaster of emotions and experiences. Music helps navigate them.

The great jazz pianist Thelonious Monk said “A genius is the one most like himself”. Those we see as geniuses appear exceptional, but you are too, and that’s the beauty of humanity. We’re all different. We have unique perspectives, feelings, and impressions. What makes music so special is it gives us the opportunity to not only put those experiences out there, but the emotions that accompany them. Our children are going to need to do that.

As a result of the pandemic, I switched my private music lessons outdoors. Beginning over the summer, those students who wanted, came onto my patio to have a masked, in-person, socially distant lesson. I was shocked at the number of kids who not only took me up on it, but are still coming. A heat lamp is now a part of my outdoor studio setup. Kids come when it’s windy, snowing, and 37 degrees outside. In fact, they insist on it.

As time has gone on, I’ve realized that taking on a musical instrument, as well as continuing with one, has helped my students with the process of living through a pandemic. Kids today are used to solutions and answers coming immediately — but the pandemic has been dragging on for almost a year. What better way to understand a lengthy process than learning an instrument? Added bonus: you to express what you’re feeling as a part of it. The instrument, the music, the sounds, the feel, and the flow are all part part of the process of music.

Wynton Marsalis said “We are all part of one glorious procession”. This fact has never been more obvious than right now — but the procession has changed its tempo. We have all been forced to slow down. The things we miss the most about the procession are those we typically share with others: laughter with friends and extended family; your aunt’s sausage stuffing this Thanksgiving; the smells of our favorite restaurants and bars. I still play in a working club band, and the last gig I played was over a year ago. I miss talking to the bartenders at the end of the night, and the smell of bleach while the busboys mop the floors. I miss watching people dance from behind my drums. I miss the laughter and the people who come up to me during the break to ask “Do you guys know any [insert band name here]?”

What I hope will be the new American education needs to use music as the resource it is. Part of education is providing our children the opportunities to work through moments like this — the moments of life. Providing an education that fully embraces music will enable them to move through and process an extraordinary moment that is now a permanent part of their procession.

The glorious procession never stops. Maybe the tune, scenery, or steps change, but the procession itself does not. Music provides crucial tools and outlets so our children, and us, cannot just stay in the line, but make a contribution. Music shows us how to move together, work together, and feel together. It provides different views and ideas. But most importantly of all, music teaches us how to express and rejoice together.

Next fall, our children are going need to do a lot of that. Music will help keep the glorious procession moving forward.

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