Since the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) took effect in 2002, huge shifts have occurred in the amount of instructional time allotted for various subjects at the elementary school level. Schools under pressure to show adequate progress in math and English reduce, or in some cases eliminate, courses that are not assessed by NCLB. The arts, and music in particular, have been hit hard. Approximately 20 percent of school districts in the United States reduced instructional time for music by 75 minutes or more per week, according to Center for Education Policy. In California the numbers are even more dramatic. Between 1999-2004 86 percent of elementary students stopped receiving any form of general music instruction at school, according to the Music for All Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to music education.
But a new study suggests that schools don't have to choose between math and music. Researchers at San Francisco State University have developed a program to teach fractions, arguably the most difficult elementary school math concept, through music. The program, called Academic Music, is a hands-on curriculum that uses music notation, clapping, drumming and chanting to introduce third grade students to fractions. "We are providing high quality music instruction with math integration," said Endre Balogh, a music teacher who helped create the Academic Music Curriculum. Because of NCLB, said Balogh, "We focus on math and English but we are forgetting that learning is a unit and you can't necessarily narrow things down."
Academic Music produced tangible results in a formal study at a Hoover Elementary school in Northern California. The participants, 67 grade three students represent students who typically struggle academically: 94 percent of the participants identified as Hispanic or Latino and 68 percent were coded as English language learners. Notwithstanding significant challenges to learning, researchers found that the students who participated in the Academic Music were better able to demonstrate competency in fractions than their peers in the regular math class. Students in the music-based program scored 50 percent higher on a fraction test, taken at the end of the study, compared to students in the regular math class.
At Allen Elementary, a San Francisco Bay area school, principal Kit Cosfriff believes her students' significant improvement on state achievement tests is a function of the impact of Academic Music. After implementing the program in 2007 for all grade three math classes, she saw the percentage of her third graders who scored at or above the state average in mathematics go from 51 percent in 2006 to 72 percent in 2007 to 75 percent in 2008.
No one can say definitively why Academic Music produces results. While much is made of the connection between math, music and brain development, the creators of Academic Music suggest their program works simply because it's engaging. It's a fun way to learn difficult math concepts, explained Balogh. Cosgriff agrees that the interactive nature of the program is what makes the difference. "In every lesson I've observed, the children have been excited and enthusiastic about learning fractions," she said. "It's a picture of what you would like every class to look like."
Student engagement is a critical factor in ensuring kids actually learn and retain information, according to research by MRDC, an non-profit education policy group. While it is immensely important, it receives surprisingly little attention in education policy circles.
Academic Music curriculum:
This innovative program uses components of the Kodaly method, developed by Hungarian Zoltan Kodaly in 1935, which teaches music through experiences, listening, singing and movement. Like in Kodaly, Academic Music assigns notes specific syllables that are express durations. Quarter notes are expressed by the syllable "Ta". Eighth notes pairs are expressed using the syllables "Ti Ti." Larger notes are expressed by extending "Ta" to "Ta-a" for a half note and "Ta-a-a-a" for a full note.
"First we handed out drumsticks and drum pads (inexpensive mouse computer pads) and played the music measures by drumming," said Endre Balogh. As the students tapped with drumsticks, they said the Kodaly name for the notes. After learning the name of the notes students learned to arrange varied note patterns in each measure of four/fourths time.
"Fractions are one of the most difficult mathematical concepts to master in the elementary curriculum," said Susan Courey, principal researcher on the Academic Music project and assistant professor of education at San Francisco State University. One-reason kids have so much trouble with fractions is that until grade three they have only deal with whole numbers. "When you tell a student that there are as many numbers between zero and one as there are stars in the sky they think you are crazy," she said. "Of course the rational numbers are there but they are hidden on the number line so the kids can't see them."
But unfamiliarity with the concept of a rational number isn't the only challenge in explaining fractions to kids. "When kids look at fractions they see two whole numbers one on top of the other," said Courey. Our language is imprecise in explaining what a fraction is. "The word 'half' doesn't say anything about the relationship between the one and the two," she said. "Kids see the fraction ½ and think it means one of two pizza's."
Using music to introduce fractions helps alleviate some of these conceptual problems. "We used terms that conveyed the proportional quality of the notes such as 'whole note equals four of four equal beats' and 'quarter note equals one of four equal beats,'" said Susan Courey. "This language facilitated the introduction of fractional language and symbols in the subsequent lessons in which students completed worksheets problems that required them to connect values to notes and notes to various pictorial representations of similar fractions."
Why it works?
Both Courey and Balogh are reluctant to definitively say why Academic Music produces superior understanding of fraction concepts. In the case of the test subjects, Courey speculated that the fact that Academic Music is not language dependent makes it more accessible for English language learners. Gina Grites, a third-grade teacher at Allen Elementary School in San Bruno, Calif., noticed that more of her ELL students participated during Academic Math classes. "Just to have [these students] get up and present in front of the class is a really big deal," Grites said in an interview with NPR. "I'm seeing a lot of kids open up and want to try it, instead of hiding behind the desk and saying, 'Please don't call on me."
But the most important factor behind the success of the program is the way Academic Music encourages student engagement, according to both Balogh and Courey. "It isn't just a teacher standing in front of the class droning on," said Courey. "The students have a job: to tap out the notes." Being engaged in the value of the notes keeps the students focused and on task, Courey said. Balogh agrees. "Students are engaged in playing their instruments," he said, "when you are engaged it is easier to grasp concepts."
Getting students engaged in learning mathematics is no small feat. Extensive research suggests student engagement is a critical element for success and learning. Students who are engaged learn more, retain more and enjoy learning activities more than students who are not engaged, said Theresa Akey of MDRC, a non-partisan non-profit social policy research group based in New York. Yet while student engagement is crucial, it's a topic that receives surprisingly little attention in education policy circles.
Courey and Balogh want teachers around the country to use music to teach math. "We are suggesting that teachers put music in their arsenal of tools for teaching math," said Courey. "It's fun ...and it keeps music in the classroom." To that end she has applied for a grant from San Francisco State University, which would give her the time and resources to create an Academic Music curriculum to be used by grade three teachers around the country. She envisions a 12-lesson program that would include musical instruments, worksheets, and a DVD explaining the method to teachers. She is especially focused on making her curriculum accessible enough that a teacher need not be trained in music to teach it to his or her students.