Is it time for AP Band, Choir, and Orchestra?
Last winter, as I stood in the back of a packed room in the McCormick Place while attending The Midwest Clinic, I watched an interesting storyline play out. With me in the room were over 100 music educators from all over the country, gathered to listen to ten big names in the field of music education talk about how they advocate for their own programs. For seventy minutes, the microphone transferred down the line as these experts described methods or ideas they had about a strong music education or performing arts program. The event was well attended: a reflection of the fact that the topic has become popular since many districts find themselves strapped for cash and are looking for ways to squeeze their budgets.
Of all of the wonderful things that this panel had to say, there was one comment that stood out for me as having a potentially profound impact on the profession:
Why are there no Advanced Placement (AP) courses offered in performance classes such as band, choir, and orchestra?
I wish I knew the answer (or, simply, if the question has any merit to begin with), but I will attempt to discuss the question in the hopes that others will have their own thoughts, ideas, and comments.
What is an Advanced Placement (AP) course?
Even if you teach something other than high school, the hunt for AP courses is taking place at school district curriculum offices all over the country. Basically, the College Board, a for-profit company that makes and runs the SAT and ACT, has curricula written for multiple subjects. Schools purchase those curricula and then prepare their students for the AP tests that occur in May. The students purchase the exams out-of-pocket directly from the College Board. According to the their website, AP courses were offered in 16,464 schools in 2007 with over 2.5 million exams administered to 1.4 million students. The reason the tests are so popular is because many colleges recognize and award credit towards graduation from the exams. This decision is up to each higher academic institution, but generally, most public and many private schools accept the credit.
From what I have read on the subject, the AP courses are designed to ensure more academic rigor in the high school curriculum. I have many students who take multiple AP courses at school, and they certainly have more work in their classes (if that equates to more “rigor” is another question altogether). Why would schools want to push for more AP courses, though? Couldn’t they just make their own rigorous non-AP courses? The reality is that AP courses are used as a metric in U.S. News and World Report coveted “Top 100 High Schools” annual ranking for “college readiness” (add reference). The pressure to be competitive on lists like this has come from school boards, excited parents, and peers. Central office administrators have developed considerable funds to getting more AP courses in their high schools. In short, AP courses legitimize the school to the general public. The more AP courses, the better the school.
In order to help us investigate this topic, let’s rephrase our original question a bit:
What are the positives and negatives to offering AP courses in band, choir, and orchestra?
Why would it be a good idea?
There are two main reasons why AP would benefit the performing arts. First, and perhaps most importantly, it would offer a strong, nationally recognized standard of excellence for students to judge their performance. Second, in the eyes of students who are looking to be recognized for taking more rigor in their schedule with AP, or weighted grades, it would put arts programs on more equal ground with other academic subjects such as math and science that currently offer those incentives.
In terms of attempting to assess performance ability, many ensemble teachers judge their success on whether or not their group was invited to perform at any professional conferences. Has your band played at the state conference? What about Midwest? Often times, teachers use these performances to assess their abilities in the classroom. Unfortunately, for a wide variety of reasons, these goals are difficult to obtain for groups and they do a poor job of telling us which programs are excelling from year to year.
As a profession, it is crucial that we recognize excellence and do it often. We must learn from each other. Having a curriculum that would provide comparative feedback that any school could access would benefit the field. Not only that, but feedback such as AP exams that highlight rigor and give us comparative feedback within our own building (subject to subject) would help many. For example, being able to compare the AP scores between science and math is important. The data would be even more powerful if the arts and other subjects were part of the equation. Remember, your school board will equate AP courses to legitimacy. Why would you not want that advantage?
What would it look like?
That is a good question. I think there are two main paradigms we could use to build an AP curriculum. Students take AP classes with the assumption that they can handle a harder curriculum and have a better grasp of the material prior to the beginning of the AP class. With that in mind, it might make sense for ensemble teachers to use their “capstone” ensembles as AP courses. (“Capstone” means the highest-performing band, choir, or orchestra in the curricular progression.) However, compared to other subjects, we teach a highly heterogeneous classroom. We differentiate instruction mainly by having students perform musical concepts on different instruments interdependently.
Since I’m a band teacher, I’ll use the favorite lament of high school band directors around the country: “I have terrible (insert bassoons, tubas, bass clarinets, etc.).” If we offer AP curriculum through the capstone ensemble and a teacher finds themself in a district with limited resources, a smaller music program, or, simply, an ensemble that does not perform at a level that the profession would consider appropriate, having a section of instruments that cannot perform near the level of the group is fairly common.
So, if we use AP curriculum with our capstone ensembles exclusively, something has to give. Either we leave some kids in the dust who would struggle, or we have ensembles with odd instrumentation, which adversely affects performance. Pick your poison.
We could do it the other way and let each student in the capstone ensemble decide if they want to enroll in the AP curriculum. The words, “independent study,” come to mind. This approach would solve our earlier problem concerning instrumentation and ability, but it presents some new ones. The most troublesome would be logistical. Managing the progress of multiple students working independently would add to the workload of many overworked music teachers. Figuring how to define student progress would have to be up to individual districts, something that most districts struggle with already. There are countless issues I can conjure up while thinking about how this would work in my own school district.
Why would it be a bad idea?
Why do students need more “rigor” (for lack of a better term) in high school? I think the most cited reason is so children can increase their knowledge, which would better prepare them to succeed in college. College credit is nice, and so is having classes with difficult-sounding titles on your transcript, but, in my opinion, these are secondary to actual learning. Somewhere along the way we started believing that simply because students are taking AP classes, they actually are ready for high academia at an earlier age. And yet, colleges are telling saying that their freshman students require an increasing amount of remedial classes. (add reference). More rigor and more remediation at the same time? How does that work? That is completely different article.
Music programs all over the country already create rigor. We have been doing it for a long time, just listen to the wonderful Cass Tech recordings of Dr. Harry Begian from the 1950s. That recording did not happen through an AP course, it happened with excellent teaching. Why do we need the help of a company that wants to make money off our kids? Why would we give up local control, one of the pillars of American education, so that someone else can tell us what to teach our kids? Many critics argue the arts deal with rigor better than any of the other disciplines. Instead, we might need to focus our attention on how to meet the needs of students who struggle. Would AP compound this argument?
If a student takes an AP Music Performance course, are they really going to be better at performing music than others? Would more schools be eligible for their state conventions and other prestigious performances? Would art become a larger part of students’ lives? Before we take the plunge on AP, we have to consider these questions. To be honest, I have no idea where I stand on the issue. I have tossed the idea to some of my more curious friends and they all seem to waiver as well. Despite having no concrete answers at the moment, I do know this: we have to take this issue on. We need to figure out what an AP band, choir, or orchestra class might look like and then start testing it out. If it fails, at least we’ll know, and then we can continue to explore new ways to both reach our students and satisfy the needs of administrators. If AP ensembles are successful, in that they create more proficient musicians and performers, then it is time well spent.
There’s only one way to find out.
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