The Euphonium Conundrum and the Online Option

My niece’s daughter is now 10-years old, and she has reached the age where music instruction in school graduates to real band instruments. She was excited when she went in to meet with the music director and be assigned to an instrument. She wanted to play the saxophone, as her mother did. Alas, it was not to be. The band director looked at this tiny slip of a girl and decided that her mouth shape was not right for the saxophone, but it was perfect for the euphonium, and it just so happened he needed a euphonium player in the band. And so her musical dreams were dashed, and she will instead struggle with an instrument as big as she is, an instrument she will not possibly continue to play as an adult.

It reminded me of my son, who also wanted to play the saxophone. Unfortunately, by the time he went in for his appointment with the music director, the students with the earlier appointments had already filled the band’s need for saxophone players, and so my son was assigned to the clarinet, an instrument he hated. At least his music instructor was honest about his need for a clarinet player trumping my son’s need to play the instrument he wanted, unlike the instructor who invented the ridiculous story of my niece’s daughter having the perfect mouth shape for the euphonium.

It seems to me that this musical instrument selection problem is symbolic of a key problem with education in general. Students are forced to adapt to the needs of the institution, while the institution sees no need to adapt to the needs of the student. It also seems to me that one of the greatest benefits educational technology can provide is to eliminate this problem. All it requires is that institutions have the courage to use it.

In an earlier article I wrote about the business department of a major college requiring second year calculus for students wishing to major in business. A business professor explained to me that requirements like that were designed to be filters, not so much to make sure that people taking the courses were worthy but more so to keep the numbers down. If all the students who wanted to major in business were allowed to do so, the department would be overwhelmed. They would have to hire more and more faculty, and faculty members in other departments would have to be laid off because of lack of student interest. By putting requirements like that in place, schools could keep students out of the popular majors and force them to take courses that would otherwise go unfilled.

I asked why they did not use a different requirement for this filtering process. For example, they could require the ability to swim two miles at a particular pace. He said that being successful in business did not require swimming skill. I replied that success in business did not require second year calculus, either. Schools, it seems, can more easily pretend that there is an academic reason for calculus than for swimming.

In many high schools, student class selection is determined in large part by available faculty members or the number of like-minded students. A student can only take foreign language courses in languages for which the school has teachers. In one school I know, the choice of available foreign languages was determined in part by the school’s need to have a coach for a particular sport, a coach who happened to be certified to teach a specific language. Students wishing to take special interest courses like AP Art History, or students whose abilities drive them to take courses like AP Physics C, are often out of luck because the school does not have enough enrollment in such courses to offer them.

The full integration of online education could solve almost all of these problems, but it would require a rethinking of some policies. Even today a student who wants to take Chinese can do so, even if there is not a Chinese teacher in the state and even if that student is the only one in the school who wants to take it. The student’s classmates might be spread all over the nation, but they would still be learning from a qualified teacher with fellow students who wanted to take the class. High quality online classes are available in almost any subject a student could want to take.

At the high school level, this is happening in many places already, but in most places the full potential cannot be realized because of policies that prevent it. Some of these policies are simply antiquated, like funding formulas that are based on providing a certain number of physical teachers for a school of a certain size, with little or no discretionary funding for alternative education. These problems can be easily solved. In other cases, though, they are fully intended to prevent the realization of this potential.

One district I know instituted a policy of limiting students to two online classes that could count toward graduation, unless those classes were taken to recover credit for classes they had failed. Like my son’s clarinet teacher, they openly said they needed to protect existing faculty who might be squeezed out of positions if students had a full range of options from outside sources. Other schools are more subtle in their protectionism. Like the music teacher forcing the euphonium on my niece’s daughter, they talk about maintaining academic quality when what they really want to do is make sure that the coach who only teaches one unpopular foreign language will keep his job.

When Garfield High School in Los Angeles realized that its students were woefully deficient in reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic, they made major changes, celebrated in part in the movie Stand and Deliver, to remedy that problem. Few people know that the successful remedy they implemented took them from 12 art teachers to 2 art teachers in one year. I’m sure you can imagine what kind of opposition they faced. How many schools have the courage to make such a change?

Using online education to provide a full range of academic options to all students is possible right now, but it will take a major rearrangement of policies and procedures. Few schools are taking advantage of that because few schools have the courage to put the needs of their students ahead of the needs of their institution.

2 Responses

  1. John is exactly right — in theory.

    The problem schools face goes beyond what he mentioned. Someone has to vet the online courses. They come in many flavors and in a range of qualities. The costs to the schools also vary and not necessarily in any way related to their quality.

    We all (me too) glibly talk about online education as though it’s just great. I’ve been involved in it too long now to believe that it’s so. Especially when you’re dealing with a for-profit entity, you cannot be so sure regarding whether profit or student learning comes first.

    Some online schools do not assign students to a specific teacher. Others assign very large numbers of students to teachers. Some don’t check out their teachers to see how comfortable they are with online teaching.

    In science, I have strong opinions regarding how labs are handled. Some online schools use very expensive (around $200 for A.P.) lab kits delivered to student homes. Others settle for a suite of animated simulations (essentially cartoons).

    Kits can work but may fall prey to becoming “verification labs” or ‘procedure labs,” neither of which provide decent science experience.

    Animated simulations provide a false view of the nature of science.

    Both of these approaches depend heavily on course designers to do several important things.

    1. Tie labs to course material clearly and in a timely fashion.
    2. Make sure that the lab goals are well known by teachers (very important!) and students.
    3. Focus lab time on learning science, not verifying already-known results or learning lab technique.
    4. Ensure that labs involve exploration of the universe from micro to macro, emphasis on exploration.
    5. Have students formulate a question to be answered or a prediction to be tested.
    6. Support students who make errors; these are huge learning opportunities.

    Chances are that any given online science course is no better than classroom science courses in these respects and may be much worse. It’s easy to pass those standardized tests without spending a single moment in a lab and without doing a single true scientific investigation. Online schools are measured by their students’ test results.

    Just as in a classroom, it can seem as though students get a great science education when they’re being woefully let down.

    So, by all means get those online courses going. Just be sure that they’re at least as good as in the classroom. They ought to be better.

    • As I said, you can get high quality online education courses in almost any subject you can want. You can also get low quality online education classes in almost any subject you can want. The choice is up to the consumer. It isn’t all that hard to tell the difference if you actually compare them side by side.

      The reason low quality online courses exist is because when the high and low quality courses are compared, school districts will usually prefer the low quality courses. They are usually cheaper to purchase, and they are especially cheaper to implement. An online writing course that is assessed solely through multiple choice quizzes requires no costly payments to a teacher, so such a course is often preferred to one that requires paying a teacher to read essays and provide guidance. The school district’s assertion that the course meets the state standards for writing instruction is laughable, but the district has gotten what it wants.

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