Continuous Improvement ≠ Transformational Innovation (or, 5 Things We Must Do To Improve Education) – Kids Need to Sing: Part 1 of 5

I’m sure you’ve heard the argument that students in faith-based schools academically outperform public school students because of small class sizes.  Let’s debunk that myth here and now by going back to 1965…almost 50 years ago.  The 1st grade at St. Albert the Great School in Baldwin Boro (a suburb of Pittsburgh, PA) had approximately 108 students.  Almost 50 years later, there are Catholic schools (as well as other faith-based schools) which don’t have that many students in the entire school.

You can’t say there was no tuition because all the teachers were Sisters.  There were two first grade classrooms, each with about 54 students (6 rows of 9 desks).  A Sister was at the helm in one of the classrooms; the other was instructed by a married woman.  Second grade was the same. Third grade had 2 female teachers.  Fourth grade had a Sister in one classroom and a single woman in the other.  Fifth grade had a Sister in each of the classrooms, while 6th grade had 2 male teachers!  I’m sure that, even though the average salary in 1965 was about $4,600, the non-religious teachers in the school were making less than that.  Still, those monies had to come from somewhere.  There were many people in 1965 that put a dollar in the collection basket every week at Mass.  50 years later, a typical salary is 10 times that amount, yet many people don’t put a minimum of 10 times the 1965 amount in the collection basket at Mass.  Most don’t even go to Mass, as evidenced by a recent CARA study.

Classrooms were larger than public school classrooms are today.  Check that first grade number in the previous paragraph.  Yes, that meant 54 kids in each classroom.  Teachers’ unions would have a kitten today if public schools had that many students in a classroom!  Parents paid tuition, too.  At least, my parents did.  Interestingly, tuition at the time was about $300 per child.  That’s 6.5% of the average salary back then, which was a lot!  Comparatively, in 2005, data from the Diocese where I worked showed the average family income of families that applied for financial aid equal to $71,000.  What’s 6.5% of $71,000?  $4,615…which is just about where the average elementary school tuition was in 2005.

Amazing, isn’t it?  Perhaps even fascinating.

So what was is the differentiator?  At least from my experience, students in the Catholic school sang.  Every day.  Not just in music class, and not just to rehearse for a Thanksgiving program or Christmas pageant either.  Students sang “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” following the Pledge of Allegiance; Sister always sang “Good morning children” and the class responded “Good morning Sister” in the same tones.  This “call and response” motif is heard throughout the repertoire.  Perhaps one of the most emotional examples of the power of singing and the call and response format was performed at LiveAid in July of 1985, when Freddie Mercury of Queen engaged the entire audience in his vocal warmup exercises while the rest of the stage was being prepared.  And what were students rehearsing for in class during the week?  Church – and not Sunday Mass, but the Masses that happened during the school day.  Religion class was held 4 days per week; the 5th day was morning Mass, 2 of the grades per day, Tuesday through Friday.  If there was a Holy Day of Obligation, the whole school went to Mass on that day…and sang.  Singing, after all, according to St. Augustine, is praying twice.

Christian schools today amaze me.  When I go to a Christian schools conference, the teachers in attendance sing hymns of praise, and it sounds as if a huge choir has been assembled.  If the teachers sing that well, they can surely engage their students in the power of music to enhance their classroom and academic activities too.

As time progresses, more articles will be posted here about the power of music and its effect on the brain.  For now, let’s just say this to all those educational leaders that are cutting music programs from their curriculum due to funding difficulties and the purported need for more academic subject matter – you’re in for a rude awakening.  Or, perhaps more correctly, colleges and employers are in for a rude awakening.  Interestingly, almost a decade ago, when educational leaders began a “back to basics” movement, eliminating the arts and cutting back on music programs, articles were written about the positive effects not just listening to music, but lthe positive effects learning a musical instrument had on the brain and learning, enhancing achievement and the neuron connections that are so important to new discoveries and creative thinking.  As for that rude awakening, colleges and universities are having difficulty enrolling students, and help wanted signs are in most every business vertical today.  Sadly, the alarm is still sounding, and school boards today who don’t want to raise taxes are just pushing the snooze button.