A Simple Innovation: Spend The Money Wisely


Podcast Update: In this blog post, John writes about Placido Domingo and the Harmony Program, inspired by El Sistema in Venezuela. If interested in some of John’s interview with maestro Domingo, that’s been posted online as a podcast. Click here to listen.

The New York Times has made official what most of us have known for years: the children of the privileged do better in school than the children of the underprivileged. This matters because the rich-poor gap is growing wider, and so (therefore) is the educational outcomes gap, what everyone calls ‘the achievement gap.’

Is educational innovation the way to close the achievement gap? A lot of smart people are hoping it will solve the problem. In the past few months I’ve been around a lot of innovations. I have watched the Khan Academy (and Sal Khan himself) in action, dug into ‘blended learning,’ Rocketship and KIPP, and looked at some Early College High School programs. I’ve been reading about new iPad applications and commercial ventures like Learning.com, and teachers have been writing me about how they are using blogs to encourage kids to write, and Twitter for professional development. In many schools kids are working in team to build robots, while other schools are using Skype to connect with students across the state or nation. I’ve even watched two jazz groups — one in Rhode Island, the other in Connecticut — practice together on Skype!

‘Innovation’ per se is not sufficient, of course. We need innovations that level the playing field and give all kids — regardless of their parents’ income — the opportunity to excel.

This is the core of education, but we need to be thinking differently.

This matters more than ever. As recently as 50 or 60 years ago, most high school graduates could expect to earn a living doing physical labor, while the rest could look forward to doing mental labor (as an accountant, a bank teller, etc). Back then very small percentage of adults did ‘creative labor.’

Now think about tomorrow. Unless our economy collapses, very few youth now in school will earn a living doing physical labor. Some will do mental labor, but, if we prosper, it will be because the large majority of adults — not just those who grew up rich — are doing ‘creative labor.’ They have to learn to do this ‘work’ in school, which means that innovation must become the norm and not the ‘gee whiz’ phenomenon it now is. In short, we must close ‘the opportunity gap’ if we want better educational outcomes for more kids, and, by extension, a competitive economy down the road.

A barrier to innovation is the accounting/accountability mentality. Suzy Null, a reader of this blog, wrote in part last week:

I think teachers are becoming more like McDonald’s workers. They are given pre-cooked products and a specific “recipe” for preparing them. They are expected to follow these orders religiously in order to ensure that everyone gets the same “quality” experience. If they diverge even slightly, they are told that they are negligent and aren’t doing their jobs. What’s really sad is that the public is so used to mass-produced products and fast food, that they think that uniformity and mass production would be “good” for schools too.

What’s happening is not going unnoticed. The Baltimore Sun reported on February 6th that Maryland officials are “fretting over a perfect storm of education reforms that could make today’s extensive state testing regimen seem like a snap,” because next school year students will have to take FIVE — yes, five — state-mandated tests on top of the tests and quizzes teachers give and the tests administered by local school systems. And Maryland is not unique, because at least 23 states have agreed to ‘field test’ new assessments, part of the bargain they struck to get federal dollars. “We are going to have students sitting in testing situations for weeks on end” if all of them are given, interim state schools Superintendent Bernard Sadusky told the newspaper.

This is happening, it seems to me, because the adults in charge are obsessed with ‘the achievement gap’ and somehow believe that we can test our way out of the mess we are in. More testing is not ‘innovative,’ even if the tests themselves are full of bells and whistles.

That’s why no one should endorse ‘technology’ as the innovation that will be education’s salvation. What truly matters are the values that drive the uses of technology, that is, the values of those in charge.

Truly innovative programs engage the creativity of kids, expect them to work hard, know that they will fail but are ready to help when they do, require cooperation with others, involve the families, and — roll of drums please — spend real money giving poor kids the stuff that rich kids take for granted.

Spending money matters, because, as the Times pointed out, “One reason for the growing gap in achievement, researchers say, could be that wealthy parents invest more time and money than ever before in their children (in weekend sports, ballet, music lessons, math tutors, and in overall involvement in their children’s schools), while lower-income families, which are now more likely than ever to be headed by a single parent, are increasingly stretched for time and resources.”

The program I have in mind does all of these: the Harmony Program provides free violins, trumpets, cellos, trombones and more to about 80 low-income 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th graders in two New York City elementary schools. Harmony also works with another dozen or so kids at a local Y and the Boys and Girls Harbor program.

Over the course of a year, children who participate receive hundreds of hours of group lessons, lessons that would otherwise cost their parents north of $7,000. The young musicians are expected to practice at least one hour a day and must keep their grades up if they want to stay in the program.

Demanding hard work of kids is innovative because our education system doesn’t come close to expecting enough from young people. Harmony demonstrates that kids don’t mind working hard when they understand and believe in the purpose.

Expecting the parents to be involved, as Harmony does, is another innovation in an education system that tends to push parents aside.

What I admire about Harmony is that it’s all about language — another innovation at a time when schools are all about ‘the basics’ of reading and math. The language happens to be music, which is, after all, the one universal language. And because music is all about mathematics, Harmony’s young musicians tend to do well in math.

World-renowned opera star Placido Domingo understands aspects of approaching innovation in education.

Most important of all, this particular innovation provides extra resources for low income kids — another innovation in a nation whose schools display ‘savage inequalities’ on a regular basis. This innovation closes the money gap.

If you ‘have to see it to believe it,’ well, soon you will, because producer Cat McGrath and I recently spent several days with the kids and the adults who work with them for another forthcoming report on PBS NewsHour. On Monday, I believe some audio of my interview with Placido Domingo will be released as a podcast on the Learning Matters site.

“Harmony” is new in this country, but it’s not really an innovation. Venezuela’s “El Sistema” has been providing instruments and lessons to the poor for more than 30 years and has helped hundreds of thousands of underprivileged kids — among its graduates is Gustavo Dudamel, the conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Perhaps one day some of the Harmony kids will be professional musicians. Perhaps not. But they are doing well in school; they seem to walk taller with the confidence of those who believe in themselves; and — as you will see on PBS and hear in podcast form next week — they get to perform in public, conducted by none other than Placido Domingo.

Can “Harmony” spread? The notion of trying to give poor kids the opportunities that rich kids get is sort of anti-American. After all, the French do it in their pre-schools, and everyone knows the French are anti-business. (Wasn’t it George W. Bush who pointed out that the French are so hostile to business that they don’t even have a word for ‘entrepreneur’?)

We can’t touch the rich-poor wealth gap without raising taxes on the rich and closing tax loopholes, but we don’t seem to have the stomach for that.

Do we have the political courage to spend a few thousand dollars a year — per child — on school programs for underprivileged children, and the wisdom to spend it in ways that develop their creativity and talent?

I hope so.

16 thoughts on “A Simple Innovation: Spend The Money Wisely

  1. Very well stated – actually, the the blog entry I’ve been trying to formulate in my head, but couldn’t yet put down so coherently on the paper. Living in an affluent community and working in education in low-income communities for almost 2 decades have made me hyper aware of the opportunity gap for students living in lower income neighborhoods. Our innovations all too often try to close the achievement gap artificially by “gaming” the tests the students are taking, without addressing the real issues of poverty and privilege. My child’s school has an incredibly high API score, but that’s not due to the quality of teaching in the school, but rather the extra opportunities the students in the school are given by their own parents. It partially irks me that I am contributing to the opportunity gap on one end while trying to solve it on the other.

    We need to identify more programs like Harmony and focus more on some of the other things “no excuses” schools are doing besides drill and kill, (i.e. the KIPP NYC Orchestra, experiential field trips at other charter networks, et. al) to close the achievement gap. These schools do not ignore the cultural and societal capital equity gaps because parents cannot afford the “extras” in the afternoons and weekends. These are the real innovations in our schools and should be lauded.


  2. I am currently working on a project that will address the opportunity gap, while encouraging innovative, creative thinking and learning by addressing the issue of Digital Divide. Low-income and poor children, particularly minority children, often are without computer/internet access in their homes. If anyone has taught inner-city youth who do not have computer access in the home can attest to, students get really excited when they have the opportunity to explore the internet. By providing computers to more children, we encourage and help promote the opportunity to excel, prompting creative labor as well as creative thinking, which will be a necessary aspect to future employment. Learning is not about more testing, that is the old ideology thought up by the Bush Administration and has been proven a failure to students, teachers and school programs throughout the country. it was a bad idea and premise to base quality education on and will not help anyone get a job. We as a nation must think like children and look at what motivates children to learn and place more emphasis on these concepts and let testing show how much affect these concepts has on learning.


  3. “We can’t touch the rich-poor wealth gap without raising taxes on the rich and closing tax loopholes, but we don’t seem to have the stomach for that. ” At least, not for the moment. Maybe again someday!

    In the meantime, I would love to see the spread of the Harmony program. Poor kids in rural schools would also benefit, of course. I teach in a grade 7-12 school, and my job description includes two rock bands and two guitar classes. You give kids instruments, a voice in helping choose what they learn to play, and a venue for performance, you get amazing buy-in and a whole host of benefits. Research even supports this, and suggests that benefits can be seen across the board.

    Thanks for a great article!


  4. I teach Government but I majored in music, love art, architecture and poetry. I find occasions to introduce all into my lessons.

    When Nina Simone died, I took 10 minutes out of every class to talk about her – she was both a civil rights figure as well as a major musical artist.

    When I discovered Eva Cassidy had grown up in our county, I took time to share her music with our students, and it turned out one kid’s parents had grown up with her.

    I also try to give them opportunity to demonstrate what they have learned in various formats, including poetry, drama, music, art, etc.

    I believe in educating the whole child. There is more to life than reading and math, and we should take into account that one can demonstrate learning by means other than mass-produced tests.


  5. John, you say things so well! I have taught for 40 years, (middle school art), and to see the faces and voices of children so focused and into their work….it doesn’t get any better than that! There is joy, frustration, problem-solving, talking with other students and me in ways that would amaze other adults. They tell me that the semester they have art is the only time they have perfect attendance. They laugh, they “play” with ideas. There is no difference between the rich and poor when the subject is art- especially when it gets messy! Thank you for your constant, relentless, pursuit of GOOD thing in education and teaching. Keep on!!!


  6. I always read John’s blog’s with interest, even though K-12 education is his primary focus. Mine is early childhood education – specifically between the ages of 0 and 5. Many of us have known from our experience how much happens in those early years – both in the brains of developing children and in the worlds around them, especially in their families. Now, that knowledge has been quantified in widely available brain research from diverse sources.

    Early childhood education does not involve huge amounts of technology, but, as John states below, is also about practice, creativity, every-day hard work, and cooperation. Investments at this level will help make the work of K-12 education much more cost effective, by raising the competencies of children entering school districts in low income communities, and empowering their families to be part of the innovation John speaks of.

    I have developed a model ECE program for the diverse socio-economic community that we have in some parts of Silicon Valley – where very low and very high income families live within a mile or two of each other. This model has a lot of local support, but needs some significant funding to get it off the ground. Unfortunately, K-12 education is the current rage, and ECE doesn’t yet have the cache for foundations or individuals in our extensive philanthropic community to risk.


  7. There are other programs similar to Harmony around the country. The Montgomery Music Project in Montgomery, AL brings music instruction to children from all income brackets of the city by involving students from two public schools and one private school. The children at all three schools receive the same instruction three days each week at their schools and sit side-by-side Saturday mornings in an orchestra and other activities that bring them all together. The project overtly conveys the message that all children deserve to have equal access to the benefits of music education. The project is described at http://www.montgomerymusicproject.org.


  8. I hope everyone will keep an eye out for the NewsHour piece AND be watching for some web activity as well. We are about to post the interview with Placido Domingo as a podcast. And we will be using Google Hangout for some international conversations about these issues.


  9. To bridge the devastating education gap, why not give teachers the creative freedom to make education real and relevant? Not asking ourselves “why are we failing to successfully educate students today?” will lead to more program band-aids, like buying laptops with the hope that this alone will change the results. Teachers using access to the Web as a rich blended learning resource can create collaborators, foster creativity, but most importantly, provide true post-secondary choices for all students.


  10. This is an interesting blog. However, the author maintains a mailing list that does not contain an UNSUBSCRIBE option. I believe that is illegal under the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003, 15 U.S.C. 7701, et seq., Public Law No. 108-187.


  11. I am not sure where you’re getting your information, but great topic. I needs to spend some time learning more or working out more. Thanks for excellent information I used to be looking for this info for my mission.


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