Monday, 2 March 2015

A Response from the Coalition for Music Education in British Columbia to the Vancouver School Board’s February, 2015 report "Elementary Band and Strings Program in Vancouver Elementary Schools"

A Response from the Coalition for Music Education in British Columbia to the Vancouver School Board’s February, 2015 report "Elementary Band and Strings Program in Vancouver Elementary Schools"

The Coalition for Music Education in British Columbia (CMEBC) acknowledges the work of Dr. Valerie Overgaard as she conducted a review of the Elementary Band and Strings program’s history, examined models of other jurisdictions, met with stakeholders to seek advice, and presented options for the VSB. As the central organization concerned with protecting, promoting, and advancing music education in BC, we continue to be highly concerned about the future of the Elementary Band and Strings Program in the VSB. As a response to the VSB’s report, we respectfully present our feedback and recommendations meant to foster equitable access to a high-quality music education for all students of the VSB. We will discuss the following as it relates to the VSB’s report:

  • the imperative for music education 
  • the imperative for leadership from the school district
  • CMEBC’s responses to key points in the report 
  • CMEBC’s recommendations, including a three-phase plan for VSB music education
  • important further considerations 

The imperative for music education

A point of great importance that appeared numerous times in the report was the need for music education in Vancouver schools. The report states,

 “There is one point of consensus that arose in this process. Music education is not only important, it is essential. As one person expressed it ‘every child has the right to a quality music program’. This includes band and strings, but extends more broadly to a general music education program taught by a music specialist.”

 The CMEBC agrees completely. The VSB has received an overwhelming amount of advocacy and support for music education from all stakeholders, including students, parents, community members, teachers, and administrators. The will of stakeholders implies, unequivocally, that the VSB must find a sustainable solution for music education.

The imperative for leadership from the school district 

First and foremost, we urge the VSB, as a district, to take leadership over their policy for arts education, including music. The report states: 

 “In its policy on the Arts (Policy Manual, IGAK), the Board ‘acknowledges the fundamental worth of the arts’ including music. The policy goes on to say that it is ‘the policy of the Board to provide necessary personnel, facilities, materials, and staff development to ensure that all students achieve to their potential in the arts.’ Yet, there is evidence that elementary music education is not as healthy as the Board would wish and that in the last decade, the quality of music education has been declining in Vancouver elementary schools.”

If music is to be taught effectively in the VSB, and this valued program is to be saved, district leadership that outlines requirements and expectations for the music program in every school is necessary. Short of leadership at the provincial level that mandates music taught by specialist teachers in every school, the next best thing is for leadership at the district level. Based on the data collected from VSB administrators in the report, it is clear that music education is far from consistent and equitable across the VSB. In the cases of other districts examined in the report, where some type of music program exists in every school (Burnaby, Surrey, New Westminster, Richmond, West Vancouver, North Vancouver, Delta), the district has taken a stand and made a choice to teach music in the only way that should be acceptable, and in the only way that truly meets curricular requirements: in every school, for every student, taught by a music specialist teacher. It is worthwhile to note that in 5 out of the 9 Greater Vancouver school districts examined, there is a music specialist teacher PLUS a band or strings teacher in every school. It is also worthwhile to note that with the exception of Coquitlam, the VSB is the only district out of the 9 examined that does not guarantee access to some type of specialist music instruction at every school, whether through band, strings, or general music, whether optional or mandatory. Only in the VSB or Coquitlam can a student attend a school where there is no band or strings program AND no elementary music program taught by a specialist. We strongly urge the VSB to take the same leadership these other districts have taken and mandate music education taught by a music specialist in every school.

CMEBC’s responses to key points in the VSB’s report 

A. The report states:

“This process [solving the band and strings funding crisis] should be seen as a catalyst to enhance music education across the district. The band and strings program is important, but it does not replace a good music program with access for all students.” 

The CMEBC recommends that the VSB move toward a model where there is a music specialist teacher in every school. The BCTF acknowledges music specialists, and we believe music specialists are absolutely necessary to provide students with a quality music education. Students should be provided an elementary-general music program, beginning in Kindergarten, taught by a music specialist. When students enter an appropriate intermediate grade level, they should then be given an opportunity to participate in band or strings. Further recommendations on this topic will be discussed later in this response.

B. The report states:

“The role of our community music foundations and organizations is an important one, but it can never replace a good music program in school with qualified music teachers. The partnership is critical.” 

The CMEBC agrees completely and is strongly against “farming out” music education to any community organization. Community music programs are wonderful, and they enhance music education in ways that could not happen without these organizations, but they are to exist in addition to not in place of a school music program.

C. The report outlined four different ways to provide a band or strings program for elementary students:
  • provide additional staffing to schools
  • provide staffing as preparation time
  • engage community organizations to provide instruction
  • a user pay model
The CMEBC supports the option that provides staffing as preparation time, as it is the only way the VSB can make this work equitably and effectively. There is no budget available to fund the current option of additional staffing; and there is little to no appetite for community-based instruction or a user pay model.

Recommendations of the CMEBC 

We encourage the VSB to implement a 5-year plan that moves towards K-5 general music (including choir) and grades 6-7 band, or grades 5-7 strings in every school. Music (whether general, choral, band or strings) should be taught by a music specialist with staffing provided as prep time. Each school, therefore, should have at least one music specialist. District staff should work with school administrators to develop individual plans on how the school will reach this goal over the term of five years. The topics of mandatory vs. optional programs and what grade levels will receive what type of instruction require further exploration and discussion at the district level, so recommendations will not be presented on these topics.

Phase 1:

Beginning in September, 2015, as suggested on page 8 of the report,

“assign prep time specifically for band and strings in schools where this would be practicable…. In schools where it is not currently practicable, this measure could be phased in over the next few years.”

In the schools where it is not currently practicable, the current model should remain in place temporarily. The report also suggests encouraging any new schools wishing to add a band or strings program to do so via a prep time model. Consider whether band and strings should become mandatory to accommodate a prep time model, or if it can remain an optional program while still providing music instruction to students who do not choose to take band or strings.

Phase 2:

Expand the band and strings program to every school in the district for grade levels deemed appropriate by the district, and staffed through prep time. Consider whether band and strings should become mandatory or whether it can remain an optional program. Consider whether an elementary general music teacher might be able to take on a band or strings program in some schools.

Phase 3:

The end goal is at least one music specialist teacher in every school, and a comprehensive music program for all grade levels. In schools where an elementary general music program taught by a specialist does not currently exist, begin building these programs. Consider having elementary band or strings teachers teach general music as well. General music taught by a trained music specialist rather than a generalist classroom teacher is essential.

Important considerations

  • The report considers reducing the number of grade levels in which band and strings are offered as a temporary measure to preserve the program in its current form. The CMEBC believes that reducing is always better than eliminating if left with no other option. If the grade levels need to be reduced, is there a way to offer the program to additional grade levels via prep time in schools where this is possible? As the report points out, however, this is likely to create inequities. 
  • In order to keep band/strings an optional program, yet still provide music instruction for all students, students could be offered another option such as choir or general music if they choose not to take band/strings. As mentioned in the report, elementary choral programs are not as common they used to be. A long-term goal could be to rebuild these programs. If covered by prep time, additional options might require more than one music specialist per school, but with creative scheduling and the possibility of itinerant teachers, it could be a possibility.
  • The implications on secondary music programs must be considered when making decisions about the elementary programs. Music is an art and a skill learned over time. There are many intricacies that when learned at an earlier age result in a higher level of success later on. Depriving students of a band or strings program in elementary schools will have a dire impact on the district’s secondary programs. 
  • Another longer-term goal for the VSB is to reinstate the District Principal for the Performing Arts. This role is so important to the success of any music program, and unfortunately, the damage done by not having someone in this role is not evident until problems have had a chance to accumulate over time. A District Principal for the Performing Arts (or at least the arts in general) would be an excellent investment to support the health of the VSB’s music program into the future. 
  • The CMEBC is willing to assist in any way we can. This process will surely raise many questions along the way. For example: how does a school choose whether to offer band or strings? What are the implications of moving to a mandatory band and strings program? Please don’t hesitate to call upon us. 

In closing, we applaud the VSB’s efforts to support music education and to work toward a solution for this highly valued program. We are all sensitive to the budget constraints BC public schools continue to endure. However, it is time for the VSB to CHOOSE music education the way most other Greater Vancouver school districts have. Please assume this leadership role and commit to enforcing the district’s policy on music education.

Presented by Christin Reardon MacLellan, President
on behalf of the Board of the Coalition for Music Eduation in British Columbia:
Karina Billesberger, Graham Blank, Mandart Chan, Adam Con, Colleen Maybin, Jennifer Ng, Anita Prest, Jeff Weaver
March 2, 2015

PDF Version of Response

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