Wis. District Requires Piano Lessons for K-5 Students

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The Kettle Moraine district in Wales, Wis., is requiring piano lessons for the remainder of this school year for all K-5 pupils after seeing encouraging results from a district pilot program.

Private funding will enable the district's music teachers to provide piano lessons to 1,800 elementary students for 90 minutes a week.

The pilot program was started in 1996. District officials based it on research that has linked music to improved learning through its enhancement of students' spatial-temporal reasoning skills. Those skills aid in understanding proportion, geometry, and other mathematical and scientific concepts.

Kindergartners in two of the 4,200-student district's four elementary schools were given piano lessons twice a week for 20 to 30 minutes at a time. They were tested before the lessons began and then at four-month intervals.

At the end of the school year, tests showed that the kindergartners who had the lessons scored 43 percent higher on solving puzzles and 53 percent higher on block building than those who did not have the lessons.

Even with the increase in scores, "we don't know yet how [piano lessons] will play out in the children's lives," said Mary Anne Zupan, a music teacher at Wales Elementary School who was instrumental in starting the program. But, she added, "I love seeing the change in their attitudes and seeing them focus on tasks."

The expanded program is being subsidized by about $40,000 in aid, which includes a $15,000 grant from a local printing firm, as well as funds from the parent-teacher organization and a local music center to help buy 30 to 40 electronic keyboards and sheet music.

Doing No Harm?

The district turned to Frances H. Rauscher, a developmental psychologist at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, as a consultant for the project. She and a colleague conducted a study in 1992 that brought research on music and learning to the forefront. ("Music on the Mind," April 8, 1998.)

Despite the pilot program's success, Ms. Rauscher acknowledges that more research is needed before anything definitive can be said. Piano lessons "certainly will not do any harm," she said. "The worst that can happen is that kids will learn to play the piano."

But other experts are not so sure. John T. Bruer, the president of the James S. McDonnell Foundation, a St. Louis philanthropy that supports research in cognitive science, says that having teachers focus on music takes away from more important subjects. He contends that there are other areas educators should focus on first.

"It's odd that educators are willing to base reform on one study," Mr. Bruer said. "It points to how desperate schools are to help children and how little educators understand research."

The district, meanwhile, is reporting strong support from parents, teachers, board members, and the community.

"It's not the only thing that we do ... but this program has been nothing but positive," Superintendent Sarah Jerome said.

Vol. 18, Issue 7, Page 3

Published in Print: October 14, 1998, as Wis. District Requires Piano Lessons for K-5 Students
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