The Elementary Pull-Out Crisis: Using Research Effectively

The Elementary Pull-out Crisis: Using Research Effectively

by Robert Gillespie

The following article was published in the American String Teacher Journal, Spring 1992 (Alan MacNair, Editor), and is used here with their permission. ASTA’s Web page is

Robert Gillespie, associate professor and director of string education at the Ohio State University, is responsible for one of the largest and most extensive string teacher training programs in the country. He is an active violinist, conductor, researcher, and string clinician. Dr. Gillespie is founder and music director of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra Junior Strings Youth Orchestra. He is director of the ASTA Media Resource Center and directs the annual Ohio String Teachers Association Middle School Orchestra Camp and the Midwest Summer String Teacher Conference. His articles have appeared in numerous journals, and he is the author of two training videos on violin.

More and more string class teachers across the country are being denied regular access to elementary students by administrators and elementary classroom teachers because of academic achievement concerns. Building principals are pressured by superintendents, school boards, and even state legislators with demands for ever-higher student standardized test scores. Newspapers are filled with articles and editorials about the need to get back to “basics” in the schools, basics that eliminate time for the arts and strings. Correspondingly, elementary school principals are increasingly reluctant to allow young students to be pulled out of class for elective activities like strings.

Today, classroom elementary teachers are being held accountable for the academic progress of their students. Teachers’ evaluations are being based in part on how well their students perform on standardized achievement tests. As a result, some teachers are afraid to allow students to miss class for elective activities for fear the students will perform poorly on tests. In addition, parents are becoming so concerned about their children not doing well enough in classroom subjects like math and reading that they are increasingly leery about allowing them to sign up for string instruction. Fear of lowered academic performance due to missing class often guides their decision to refuse permission for their children to enroll for string study.

This situation of denying access to string programs to elementary school children because of academic concerns is reaching the crisis stage for string teachers who are faced with the need to remove students from the regular classroom for string instruction. What can string teachers do? One of the worst things they can do is to get angry and emotional. Things said heatedly in confrontations sometimes feel good but are often regretted later. In contrast, one of the best ways to effectively deal with the crisis is to begin to unemotionally and objectively lay out a strategy to solve the problem with facts and figures.

Results of Classroom Pull-Out Research

Six studies in the last decades have been conducted to investigate the academic effects of removing students from the regular elementary classroom for string instruction. The studies involve both urban and suburban school districts differing in size, socioeconomic mix, and racial balance. All six studies show that student math and reading achievement test scores are not affected by classroom pull-out. Here are the facts and figures.

In a study by Groff in 1963, a comparison of the academic achievement of elementary instrumental students to non-instrumental students showed no significant difference between the two groups.

In 1979 and 1980, string class instruction in the elementary schools of the Albuquerque City Schools occurred during the regular school day and involved students missing some academic classroom time for string study. Under the leadership of Dale Kempter, curriculum supervisor of fine arts for the Albuquerque Schools, a study was conducted to investigate the relationship between elementary student academic achievement and participation in the instrumental music program. In the study, the standardized reading, language, and math test scores of all fifth-grade students were compared to those of string students after they had been pulled out of their regular academic classroom for either one or two years of string class study. Results revealed that the string students scored 10 to 20 percentile points higher on all the tests compared to the general fifth-grade population after both one and two years of classroom pull-out. In fact, the longer the students were enrolled in string classes (two years versus one year of instruction), the greater the difference between the academic achievement of string students and the general student population. In addition, selected schools of differing racial mixes and schools whose student test scores were well above to well below the national norms were analyzed. No difference was found between the test scores of string students and non-string students. The entire investigation was replicated in 1986, and similar results were found once again. Complete descriptions of the studies may be obtained from Dale Kempter or from a summary of the research by Joseph Robitaille and Sandra O’Neal (see Bibliography).

An investigation in 1983 under the authority of David Circle, music supervisor for the Shawnee Mission Schools District, was undertaken to determine the effects on mathematic problem solving and reading comprehension test scores for students removed from their elementary classrooms for instrumental instruction. In the Shawnee Mission schools, a suburban school district of Kansas City, string classes begin in the fourth grade and meet twice a week for 30 minutes. The Iowa Test of Basic Skills was administered to all students at the third-grade level (prior to eligibility for instrumental instruction) and again at the sixth-grade level (following two years of string instruction or one year of band instruction). Test scores of the instrumental students were then compared to the test scores of all students. Analysis revealed that the string students scored higher in both mathematics problem solving and reading comprehension. In other words, string students’ academic achievement was higher than the general population of students despite the string students being removed from their regular classroom for two years of string study. The study was repeated in 1989, and the same results were obtained.

In a landmark study that incorporated four distinctly different school districts, excusing elementary students from their regular classroom activities for instrumental study was shown once again not to affect student academic achievement adversely. In 1980, Edward Kvet analyzed the reading, language, and mathematic achievement test scores of sixth- grade students from four school districts in the Cincinnati area. The schools differed in size, location, socioeconomic level, and racial balance. No significant difference was found in any of the districts between the test scores of students pulled out of class for instrumental study and students not studying instrumental music.

Effective Use of Research Results

The key to fighting the academic argument against removing students from their classroom for string study is to effectively use the research findings. Let’s begin by first discussing what the research does tell us.

The results do not indicate that students perform better academically because they study string instruments. That is a separate issue and is not addressed by instrumental pull-out research. We cannot argue that string students do better academically because they are removed from their regular classroom for string instruction. This is the old cause-and-effect issue that often plagues interpretations of research.

Next, the research does not show the value of strings in the
schools, only that their study does not impair students’ academic progress. The intrinsic value of experiencing strings and what students uniquely get from string study is not implicit in the results of pull-out research.

Further, it must be clearly understood that research does not prove anything beyond a doubt. Research only reveals, supports, indicates, shows, or points to something of which we can be fairly certain. Do not argue that research proves students do not suffer academically when they are pulled out of their regular classroom for string study. Someone knowledgeable about research will challenge you.

What can you say? You can state confidently that all instrumental pull-out studies show clearly that string students do not do more poorly than others academically because they miss class for string study as measured by standardized tests in math and reading. That statement can be easily supported by research.

How can you effectively use the results of pull-out research for string study? See the list of suggestions on the following page. Not all of them will work in your situation, but some will. You’ll probably be able to think of more that would be appropriate for your school district.

String classes in the public schools, beginning with Albert Mitchell in the Boston Public Schools in 1911, have been key to the development of instrumental music education in America. If students need to leave their regular elementary classroom for string study in your school district, then the results of instrumental pull-out research are vitally important to the success of string education in your district. Plan your strategy to respond effectively when you hear that “Mrs. O’Neal said her students can’t come to strings this week because she is presenting something new in math.”

Remember to involve as many people in getting the word out about the results of instrumental pull-out research. Educate your professional peers and the parents of your elementary students with the truth: missing class for string study really does not affect elementary student academic achievement.


Circle, D. Cognitive Growth of Students in Music as Measured by ITBS. Unpublished report.
Shawnee Mission Public Schools, Music Library and Fine Arts Center, 7200 Belinder Road, Shawnee Mission, KS 66208, 1989.

Groff, F.H. “Effect on Academic Achievement of Excusing Elementary School Pupils from Classes to Study Instrumental Music.” Abstracts, 25, 5014-5015. (University Microfilms No. 64-3536). 1963.

Kempter, D. Academic Achievement of Fifth Grade Band and Orchestra Students. Unpublished report. Albuquerque Public Schools, Curriculum Supervisor of Fine Arts, 725 University Boulevard, SE, PO Box 25704, Albuquerque NM 87125. 1980, 1986.

Kvet, E.J. “Excusing Elementary School Students from Regular Classroom Activities for the Study of Instrumental Music: the Effect on Sixth-Grade Reading, Language, and Mathematics Achievement.” Journal of Research in Music Education, 32, 1985:45-54.

Robitaille, J., & O’Neal, S. “Why Instrumental Music in the Elementary Schools?” Phi Delta Kappan, 63, 1981:21.

Taking Action: Using Pull-Out Research

Be Informed

1. Obtain complete copies of the studies cited in this article (see Bibliography).* Become well-versed in each study so you can clearly explain the methods, results, and implications of each study.

Inform Others

2. Write a one-page handout that clearly describes the type of school district involved in the studies and the methods, findings, and conclusions of each study. Include a bibliography and end with a statement summarizing the findings of all of the studies: no significant different was found between the academic achievement of students who were allowed to leave class for string study and those who did not, regardless of school size and student population background.

3. Either you or a parent who is articulate and clearly understands the studies should make a concise presentation of the results to the school board. Parents who are lawyers or doctors and have a child in the program are sometimes more appropriate to give the presentation; their opinion may carry more weight with some school board members because of their position in the community. In addition, give each member of the board a copy of your one-page handout describing the results and implications of the studies. If necessary, mail them a handout with a cover letter. You might include a copy of your orchestra curriculum guide or course of study, showing them the educational goals, sample teaching strategies, and methods of evaluation for the elementary string classes. End by inviting them to an upcoming concert.

4. You or a parent should present the handout and describe the results of the studies to your building principals. Parents carry so much weight with principals that the more you can use them in the process the better. Follow up the presentation with a formal letter thanking the principals for their time and interest in students. Include a summary statement describing in a single sentence the results of the studies one more time.

5. Inform parents of prospective or current string students of the results of the studies. Talk about the findings at elementary concerts and at recruitment meetings. Give parents a copy of your handout if they want one. Informed parents make informed decisions.

6. Discuss the results and the implications of the studies in your orchestra newsletter. Be sure all administrators in your district get a copy. Some school district-wide publications may be interested as well.

Stay involved

7. Work with parents if their children in strings are doing poorly in their classroom subjects. The studies do not say that every child will do well academically, only that string students in general will. Assure parents that you are really willing to help find the best solution for the academic needs of your string students. Perhaps additional work or tutoring outside of class will be effective in helping meet students’ needs. In this way, parents will be more likely to allow their children to sign up for strings or continue their elementary string study even if their children experience academic problems.

8. Be part of the life of the elementary school as much as possible. Principals and fellow classroom teachers are often more willing to negotiate student time if they think you are truly interested in their students and school.

Look Ahead

9. Be “kind but firm” when dealing with classroom teachers on the volatile subject of removing students from their classroom. You may need to educate them with the results of the pull-out studies because most teachers are intensely concerned about the academic progress of their students and as a consequence feel they can’t allow students to miss class. Try to be sensitive to the teachers in your conversations. Try to be their friend and understand their position. Listen to their point of view. Personally offending them only make matters much worse in the end, with a cost that may be high. Approach them positively: since missing class for string study does not harm students’ academic achievement, let’s enrich their lives through string instruction–let’s give them some hands-on music appreciation and performing skills they can use for the rest of their lives. If a teacher is still obstinate about allowing students to leave class, that does not mean you have to lie down and roll over. The classroom teacher does need to allow students out of class for string study. Be judicious in all dealings with classroom teachers, though, and allow the principal or parent to state the bottom line if necessary.

10. Consider approaching your music supervisor, fine arts supervisor, or curriculum coordinator about conducting an investigation in your school district on the effects of classroom pull-out on student academic performance. The results of the investigation may help you. Someone on the music education faculty of a local university may be interested in such a research project, too.