Using Data to Increase Enrollment and Diversity in Music Education
Like many music educators, I attend various conventions and workshops for state, regional and international music education organizations. While the scope of the conventions is as varied as its intended audience, one topic is making its way to the forefront of each convention: Advocacy. The idea is that music educators should use their expertise to “prove” to the rest of educational community the value of music or in the fine arts in general. The most popular arguments center around the notion that students involved in music education have higher test scores and are better prepared for the core curriculum because of the development of the “whole mind”. While some may find these arguments compelling, they only go to the level of correlation, not causation.
As I have witnessed many schools slash music programming, it has become clear that simply presenting this “music makes us smarter” approach is becoming an increasingly futile measure. It seems that once school boards and administrators start crunching numbers, this argument becomes completely ignored.
In short, the popular idea of music advocacy may be misguided. This is not to say those that have put together similar arguments are wrong, but the effort is just not always effective in this economic climate. Many times teachers will not be able to fight hard budgets with soft arguments.
I decided to advocate for my music program without trying to show correlation between test scores and music involvement, or without any other argument subject to opinion. My advocacy technique is simple: increase enrollment. By reaching out and marketing to a large and diverse population of students, and pushing the music department numbers up 25%, while also increasing diversity, I no longer have to prove the worth of my music department. The enrollment proves it.
In an effort to increase enrollment, my music colleagues and I asked three questions:
1. Who are we teaching?
2. Who aren’t we teaching?
3. Who are we unable to retain?
Most school districts record internal enrollment data allowing teachers to determine the types of students they serve and compare them to the overall population of the school. When we charted this information we realized the Hispanic population, which was growing in the district, was being underserved in the music department. We talked about possible causes for this enrollment discrepancy, and determined that a lack of relevant course options and too many prerequisite requirements were causing this issue. By removing some prerequisite requirements, expanding the numbers in our general music courses, and adding “The History of Rock and Roll” to the curriculum, we were able to increase the enrollment of our music department by just over 100 students in one year. We used a simple three-step process: analyze internal data, recognize a problem, and brainstorm a few ways to fix it. All of this analysis occurred on a micro level, using available and easy to understand enrollment data. This is nothing more than simple demographic marketing. It would be the most boring article ever written in a business magazine, but for some reason schools have not yet caught on to this approach en masse. While this first step is very simple, there is another step, and this one requires us to take our cues from the world of corporate marketing.
What are businesses doing that schools could do after they master the simple use of internal data?
I asked myself this question when I received exactly 47 baby-related mailings in the month following our first ultrasound. How do companies know when I switch target demographics so quickly? It’s really quite simple – businesses use data collected by Experian and stored in the “Longitudinal Data System”. Experian markets this product and sells it to any group willing to buy it. The product is called the “Mosaic Profile Builder”, and it profiles every single household based on thousands of data points such as response to print marketing, response to electronic marketing, access to automobiles, spending patterns, etc. There are so many data points included in this system it is impossible to hide, even if the subject is not a legal US citizen.
Imagine if you were able to take a look inside the households of every student in a district that has not enrolled in a music class by their senior year. With thousands of data points available, there would certainly be commonalities in the sets for these students. Educators could brainstorm possible causes for these lags in enrollment, based on common data points, and address them. You could do the same for the students dropping music form their course-load.
The opportunities to gain a greater understanding of student enrollment, and tailor marketing directed to attract specific demographics is huge using this product. It is not cheap, probably about $10,000 to $20,000 for the average community. This would likely be a district-wide purchase. There are certainly other groups that would be interested in purchasing the data – community colleges, villages, universities, etc. – and it is possible to share the costs.
As we fight for our proverbial lives in the education world, it may not be enough to simply explain our importance. We have to prove it through enrollment. These systems of data analysis and marketing are commonplace in the business world, but they can be revolutionary in education, and they might just save a music program.
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