A young colleague of mine is an amazing music teacher. When we hired him to teach at a new high school we were designing and opening, we asked him to create two music courses—one about the basics of music theory (with some hands-on instrumental experiences) and the other about the history of American popular music (a 200-year look at the brilliance of American music and what its many forms and styles have meant to our culture and to world cultures—a curriculum idea first proposed by music genius Quincy Jones).
We needed two courses, which we required of all of our students, because our state required two fine arts courses for high school graduation. (We actually required an art and architecture history course as well, because we thought that giving our kids three chances to pass two courses was an important safety net—a way to save worrying about missing state requirements as graduation approached.)
Things went well at the school, and the founding principal and I moved on after a few years to start new projects. I learned early this summer that our music teacher was moving on to a new position at another school. What a loss, I thought; it will be hard to replace him.
Recently, I learned that he would not be replaced and that the fine arts requirement met by the music courses would now be met with a drama course, which a teacher already on staff was qualified to teach. That is how curriculum decisions get made every day in U.S. schools. Where were you, parents? There was no mechanism in place to let you know that a significant change was taking place—much less to ask your advice about it.
Now, I am not opposed to drama or to the teacher who will be teaching it. Both are fine, in many ways. However, I do know that kids already study drama as part of their required English courses. And I do know that, for some kids, music is the only reason to come to school. Of course, any parent knows that, too.
A colleague and I used to run workshops for school board members across the U.S. on the topic of curriculum and on the importance of school board and parent involvement in curriculum decisions. We used to say that, in many schools and school districts, the curriculum was like ice floes. Teachers would come into a school and bring some courses with them; then they would leave and take those courses away with them when they went. Just like ice floes, coming and going.
Audience members always laughed at that description. They thought we were making it up, because it sounded so stupid. Were the courses worth teaching or not? If they were, why didn’t they stay in the curriculum when the teacher left? Couldn’t another qualified teacher be found to teach them? But that was just common sense, we used to say—the best kind of common sense.
What was the rationale for switching music to drama at our school? Did the principal have to convince anybody that this change was a good idea? The likely answer is no. I understand the temptation to solve a problem with a solution that is already at hand. I am sure I have done it myself. But that is not as important as getting the best solution for the students.
Would parents, if consulted, have preferred to keep the music courses? My guess is that they would have thought hard about what was best for their kids—rather than what was best for the principal. They might even have asked their kids. We are never going to know what the parents—or their kids—would have said.
Who should be in charge of curriculum decisions like this one? At the district level, school boards should, with the ever-present advice of parents and other taxpayers. When curriculum decisions are made at the school level, parents should be included in the discussion, even if the principal makes the final decision. A principal should make his or her case to the parents, should explain the reasoning, should lay out the pros and cons of various options, and should give parents a realistic picture of any constraints the school is operating under (e.g., budget, personnel policies, union issues). Then the principal is making a decision informed by the stakeholders.
As schools open for the new year, it is unfortunately too late to undo or reconsider changes in courses that occurred over the summer. But it is not too late to have discussions about what matters moving forward—because changes in what courses are being taught always matter:
- All parents: Ask your school board to talk about the process for making changes in courses in your school district and in your individual schools and to discuss what role, if any, parents and the board itself have in that process. Is the process a matter of board policy or just of the superintendent’s regulations? (This discussion should be part of an open board meeting, but board members should have the opportunity to review the district’s process before that meeting and to get the input of the superintendent before the meeting.)
- High school parents: Ask your principal how a representative group of parents could be part of the process when discussions are occurring and before decisions are made at the school level about dropping or adding courses—whether required or elective. Ask your principal to set up a process for notifying all parents after such decisions have been made.
Remember, parents, that important curriculum decisions are being made—with or without you.