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…over 50 years ago.  The 1st grade at St. Albert the Great School in Baldwin Boro (a suburb of Pittsburgh, PA) had approximately 108 students.  Fifty 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).  At this school, 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.  Fifty 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.  Parents paid tuition.  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.  And that was a lot back then.  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 an elementary school’s cost of education was then.

Amazing, isn’t it?  Perhaps even fascinating.

So what was is the differentiator?  Why were Catholic school students ranked higher in academic achievement than public school counterparts, especially when teachers may not have had certifications in the subjects they taught?  Why are Catholic schools still proclaiming academic excellence? Many will point to the facts of smaller class sizes, and the “privileged environment” that comes with a faith-based education.

But let me make another suggestion that no one I’m aware of has ever mentioned: Students in Catholic school sing.

In my experience, we 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.  Where did the students learn “call and response?”  Church.  What were students rehearsing during the week for?  Church.  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 support cutting music programs from their curriculum due to funding difficulties and the purported need for more academic subject matter are in for a rude awakening.  Or, perhaps more correctly, colleges and the workforce is in for a rude awakening.  The alarm clock has already begun to buzz, and hitting the “sleep” button will only make things worse.