Dear Homeroom:

My son is a sophomore at Oxon Hill High School, where he is a member of the Symphonic Band. I would like to see Homeroom address the importance of, and funding for, music and art programs in the public schools.

Recently the announcement was made in Montgomery County that art and music instruction would be decreased in kindergarten and elementary school classrooms in order to focus on more "academic" subjects. I feel that this is a terrible mistake, and I hope that a similar effort will not be supported in Prince George's County. To consider art and music as "frills" is shortsighted. Studies have shown that children who study music learn discipline and how to work toward achieving long-term goals.

Children who are talented in art and music should be given just as much chance to develop those talents as a child who is gifted in math. An unfortunate result of a move such as Montgomery County's may be a further erosion of funding for art and music programs in other public school systems. In Prince George's County, instead of full-time art teachers at each elementary school, we have traveling teachers.

Are we to be so driven by test scores that we lose sight of an important part of our cultural and human heritages? If children are not taught to express themselves through art and music, then perhaps we should not be surprised that when they reach high school, some may express themselves through other means, even violent ones.

Ruth Gaumond

Oxon Hill

I don't often say this, but--poor, misunderstood Montgomery County. For those who missed it, there was a huge flap a few weeks ago when the Montgomery County superintendent appeared to propose eliminating art and, possibly, music from the kindergarten curriculum. The flap was based on an awkwardly worded memo to the school board signed by School Superintendent Jerry D. Weast, which then required many follow-up memos promising that he had no intention of eliminating art and music from the curriculum.

The good part of all this is that it may spur a real conversation across the region about the importance of arts to the curriculum and--even more fundamental--what makes up a quality education. One way to think about this is to define the characteristics of an educated person, which in turn leads to the question: How can we make sure that every high school graduate has the foundation to become an educated person?

It seems self-evident to me that no person can be considered educated without some understanding of the arts--music, painting, sculpture, dance, literature--just as no person can be considered educated without some understanding of science, math, history and technology. In fact, a reasonable definition of an educated person might well be someone who has at least a rudimentary grasp on all those subjects, with a sense of how they fit together, and also an expertise in one or more specialized areas.

Put that way, the arts appear integral to a good education. Within the broad field of arts, school instrumental music programs are important for a number of reasons, one of which is the practical one that it is very hard to duplicate the experience of being in a band or orchestra once you've left high school. Anyone with enough money and time can take a drawing class, an art appreciation class or even individual music lessons in adulthood. And many church choirs accept new singers. But it's very difficult to put together a band or an orchestra after high school. Adult bands and orchestras generally welcome only accomplished musicians. The wonderful part of school bands and orchestras is that they offer novices an opportunity to be part of a large group of artists.

We often wax eloquent about the character-building and team-building aspects of high school sports, but those same elements are there for bands, orchestras, choruses and that other creature of the high school arts curriculum, theater programs. All involve public exhibitions where individuals work to perfect their own performances while supporting the performance of the group. As such, they provide wonderful educational experiences while building strong school communities.

The arts can make a strong argument for their importance all on their own, but for the utilitarians among you there is also some evidence that participating in arts programs, particularly instrumental music programs, helps develop certain kinds of mathematical and spatial abilities, although we are still unclear as to why.

To get to practicalities, Prince George's School Superintendent Iris T. Metts doesn't appear to be cutting funding for the arts, but from what I could tell she isn't planning to increase funding either.

And this means, as said in the letter above, that many elementary schools in Prince George's will continue to have traveling art teachers. Some elementary schools, either because they have an arts focus or because their site-management teams have decided, have full-time art teachers. But the rest share only about 15 art teachers.

As for music and instrumental music, staff is allocated according to a formula: For 40 or fewer students, a school has a teacher 20 percent of the time (basically one day a week); for 40 to 60 children, 30 percent of the time; and for 90 and more children, half-time. That isn't a lot, but I've seen what skilled, knowledgeable teachers can do even with such little time, and it can be quite impressive--if children practice.

On April 2, the Kennedy Center will host some of Prince George's outstanding instrumental and vocal students--who, I'm sure, practice quite a bit--and I'm told it will be a fabulous concert. Tickets go on sale soon.

Calculating the Future

Dear Homeroom:

I think a grass-roots campaign should be started to ban calculators in schools through grade eight. I have seen calculators greatly diminish students' "math sense" to the point where kids don't know when they hit a wrong button and are off by a factor of 100 or more. I have seen teachers pass out work sheets that have icons of the buttons in the order they are to be poked--in middle school! Few of my students know that 0.10 is a smaller value than 0.9. I could go on, but I think you know what I am talking about.

Gary Wilson

North East

Most people probably have no idea how controversial this topic is among educators--it has driven huge wedges through the mathematical community. Some mathematics educators argue that we should consider calculators as ever-present tools that free children from the drudgery of calculation to develop much higher mathematical skills than they would if they had to spend their time dividing five-digit numbers by three-digit numbers. They advocate introducing calculators in kindergarten and using them right on through school.

Others say that without a profound understanding of arithmetical calculations, developed in part by doing those calculations by hand or mentally, it is really impossible to understand higher mathematical concepts. They argue that it is through arithmetic calculations that one develops what you call "math sense" and others call "number sense," which, among other things, allows mathematicians to know automatically and without thought that 0.10 is smaller than 0.9. Anti-calculator mathematicians advocate waiting to introduce calculators until arithmetic is firmly established, with some saying that they shouldn't be introduced until eighth grade and others advocating sometime earlier, perhaps fifth or sixth grade, but only for specific purposes, not relatively simple calculations.

Unfortunately, there is dismayingly little research that has been done that could guide a decision on this topic.

In Prince George's, the calculator policy "follows the standards set by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics," said Ken Schwartz, who helps coordinate the county's math program. That means calculators are used from kindergarten on. However, he added, in elementary school, calculators should be used to check work rather than be the main tool of calculation.

"Students should be able to look at a problem and decide, 'Should I do this in my head, should I do it on paper or should I use a calculator?' " he said. All children should be able to multiply, but when faced with long division, "they are going straight for the calculator," he added.

The new math textbooks require calculators for homework assignments, making calculators essential for Prince George's students. In the early grades, just about any calculator will do. But beginning in algebra, students need fairly powerful graphing calculators--a TI-82 or better, which runs $80 or more. Students who can't afford them are supposed to be able to use school calculators in class, but those students are at a real disadvantage when doing homework.

This is a problem that Schwartz said will have to be solved, especially with the state high school assessments in algebra and geometry being instituted in the next few years. Those tests will require the use of graphing calculators, and students in Prince George's somehow are going to have to make sure they have them.

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