Date: Aug 31, 2000 11:37 AM
Author: Wayne Bishop
Subject: Drill and Kill
[Mathematics is not inspired presentation of the same repertoire day after
day, as is often the case with music performers, but there is also a lesson
Subject: Take a cue from Charlie Parker
August 30, 2000
Take a cue from Charlie Parker
Kenneth Lloyd Billingsley
Born 80 years ago, on Aug. 29, 1920, saxophonist Charlie Parker inspired a
generation of musicians. But his career also holds lessons for American
education policy, now pointed in a promising direction but facing a backlash.
In many states, reforms focus on tougher academic standards, testing, an
emphasis on basics such as math and phonics - and a more rigorous
accountability for both students and schools. While yielding encouraging
results, these measures have drawn furious reaction from prominent
politicians and those who claim to be educators.
Polemicist Alfie Kohn, author of "The Schools Our Children Deserve: Moving
Beyond Traditional Classrooms" and "Tougher Standards," crusades against high
standards, tests and the rewarding of students and schools. The standards
movement, he says, makes people suffer and has turned teachers into drill
sergeants. Mr. Kohn is currently organizing a national boycott of high
Education administrators are his most receptive audience. Earlier this year,
600 "educationists" gathered at Columbia University to discuss strategies
against testing and high standards, which they believe are part of a
conservative plot designed to slander the public schools and lay the
groundwork for vouchers.
Standards critic Gerald Bracey, an education researcher, attacks the idea
that American students lag behind their foreign counterparts, despite a
miserable showing in recent math and science competitions.
Sen. Paul Wellstone, Minnesota Democrat, is sponsoring an anti-testing bill.
An Oakland, Calif., woman named Susan Harman perhaps best summarized the
anti-standards movement by selling T-shirts labeled "High Stakes are for
The anti-standards forces, who consider themselves progressives in the
tradition of John Dewey, complain that current reforms constitute a
drill-and-kill approach. They prefer that children discover things for
themselves. This school of thought believes tests are bad because some
children, particularly minorities, don't perform as well as others and might
not feel good about themselves. On both points the experience of the late
Charlie Parker is pertinent.
Parker's virtuosity is evident to the most casual listener and his solos are
intricate compositions in themselves. But how Parker achieved such virtuosity
is not evident to the casual listener, nor to viewers of the Clint Eastwood
movie, "Bird" - Parker's nickname.
He was born in Kansas City, home to some of the finest musicians in the
country. Tenor saxophonist Lester Young and many others found a tough proving
ground in the famous jam sessions at the Cherry Blossom, Reno Club and the
High Hat. Here it didn't matter what color you were or how you were dressed,
but how you could play. But the standards were high.
Parker listened to this music and tried to learn by observation. Left to his
own devices, he got some of the saxophone fingerings wrong and assumed that
all tunes were played in the key of C. His attempt to solo on "Body and Soul"
proved such a disaster that the drummer stopped playing. On another occasion,
a cymbal came flying at him.
Parker had failed the test but responded by learning the scales of all 12
keys and practicing them for hours daily, even the ones not commonly used in
jazz. He sought the counsel of Lester Young and learned from his solos.
Parker moved on to standards such as "I Got Rhythm," and "Cherokee," playing
them endlessly until he could hold his own. The hard work and long hours paid
off, and he easily passed the jam session test. His solos became the stuff of
legend and his exalted place in the history of music secure. But had this
genius been subjected to the counsel of education reactionaries, none of this
would have been possible.
Young Charlie's belief that all tunes were played in one key would have met
little objection from those who want children to discover things for
themselves. The jam sessions would have been rejected as too tough a test
that might leave some players distraught.
The low-standards crowd would have encouraged the young musician to feel good
about himself even after botching a solo, on the grounds that he intended to
play well. And of course, the long hours of practicing scales would be
rejected as a militant drill and kill that bores the student and quashes
Charlie Parker shows that natural talent is not enough, that dedication, hard
work and testing are necessary components of achievement. There are simply no
Education reactionaries tell children it's not important to master basic
math, multiplication tables, phonics, spelling and grammar. They shun tests
and advance students who don't know them to the next grade on the basis of
social promotion. But when those students get to college or the job market,
they find what Charlie Parker discovered in those early jam sessions. If you
don't know the basics, you can't fake it.
Reformers, policy-makers and parents interested in the pursuit of excellence
should take a cue from Charlie Parker. Stay the course of high standards and
gong the reactionaries off stage.
Kenneth Lloyd Billingsley is editorial director of the Pacific Research
Institute in San Francisco and co-author of a forthcoming study on teacher