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The Music Man

Steven Angel uses drumming to teach literacy. Across L.A., juvenile-detention centers, schools, and libraries have fallen in love with his program. But scientists say there’s no reason to believe it should work.
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JOSÉ XUNCAX FIRST LANDED IN JAIL at 13 for armed robbery. Since then, he’s been in and out of the system, as he calls it, six times. Now, at 15, tall, muscled, with close-cropped brown hair and a scar over his left eye, he’s serving six months for another robbery. He lives at Camp Mendenhall, a juvenile-detention facility tucked between the mountains at the northern edge of Los Angeles County.

School never meant much to José, and he stopped going entirely after probation officers showed up in his classroom to execute a warrant. When he arrived at the camp, he was, by his own account, functionally illiterate. He asked others to write letters to his girlfriend. But most of the 90 or so fellow campers were in the same boat. According to Norberto Zaragoza, a tall, heavyset probation officer who helps run Camp Mendenhall, reading levels among the inmates generally range from about the second to the fourth grade. The average age is 16. “It’s low, very low,” he says.

The social ills of illiteracy and crime in America are bound together so tightly that it’s difficult to consider one without the other. In study after study, the reading ability of incarcerated youth has been shown to be abysmal. One widely cited study found it to be five grade levels below average.

Michael Krezmien, assistant professor of education at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, has studied reading levels at juvenile-detention centers across several mid-Atlantic states. “You have a large group who are just fundamentally different,” he says. Some kids, he says, can't even read the word cat. In one recent study, he found 60 percent of those behind bars were in the bottom 20 percent of readers. Not a single kid scored in the top 10 percent. For decades, reformers have argued that teaching reading skills is one of the most powerful methods of crime prevention.

But it’s also one of the most difficult. The kids in Camp Mendenhall, along with the 2,000 or so others in Los Angeles County’s network of juvenile jails, are among the toughest to teach. Many have already passed through a series of well-intentioned efforts—charter schools, bilingual education, after-school programs, special-education classes—and can still barely read. By the time they wind up in one of the county’s 22 juvenile-detention centers, they are launched on a course that has few exits. More than 70 percent of minors who spend time in detention in California are rearrested within two years.

Yet, against these odds, José’s reading has taken off. From barely being able to get through a paragraph a few weeks ago, he now can read a book and has begun writing his own letters. Behind the turnaround is a program called Reading & Rhythm. It bears few of the formal trappings usually associated with reading methods. Its founder is Steven Angel, a 59-year-old former drumming prodigy who has no college degree or teaching background. Angel has a slight frame, a goatee, and glasses, and likes to cover his clean-shaven head with a Kangol cap. He exudes the intensity of a believer, ready to extol the virtues of his program to whoever will listen.

Most of his instructors are, like him, professional percussionists. Twice a week, an instructor visits the camp to work with José and eight other inmates. The method is simple. The instructor gets all the kids to concentrate on a steady drumbeat. Once they are relaxed and focused, they begin to read—reading to the rhythm of the beat. As the beat quickens, so does the pace of reading.

Reading & Rhythm is now being used throughout the county’s juvenile-justice system and in special-ed classes in the behemoth Los Angeles Unified School District, at more than a dozen libraries around the city, and in numerous after-school programs and community centers. More than 3,000 kids—almost all either in the juvenile-detention system or from economically disadvantaged backgrounds—have passed through the program since it was established a decade ago.

According to Reading & Rhythm’s own tally, many of the participants have shown improvements as dramatic as José’s, raising their reading levels by two or more grade levels in a matter of a few months. Though critics are quick to point out that the program’s results have never been verified by independent research, teachers who use it report how students for whom they had given up hope suddenly blossom in self-esteem and mood.

“When you get a juvenile delinquent to buy into something like this, that’s a breakthrough,” says Elena Johnson, who has taught at juvenile halls in Los Angeles for 21 years. “I’ve seen these kids go from reading 30 words a minute to three or four times that.”

Yet the program occupies a precarious perch. Many educational professionals and academics dismiss it as gimmickry. Pairing drumming and reading doesn’t help the brain break the code of language, they argue. Learning to read is an intricate process that requires linking sounds and symbols, breaking them down into their component parts, and then blending them together to form words that have meaning. It requires a series of skills that begin long before a child even encounters the alphabet. These include being read to, learning nursery rhymes, and other activities that foster “phonemic awareness”—the consciousness that language is made up of component sounds. Once a child begins formal reading exercises, actually learning to read still takes months. Gaining fluency can take years.

“In the absence of rigorous research, there’s just no way to account for whether this is successful or not,” says Edward Kame’enui, Dean-Knight professor of education at the University of Oregon and former U.S. Education Department official. He suspects that because Reading & Rhythm works mostly with at-risk youth, people aren’t as demanding about results. “They are dealing with incarcerated youth,” he says, “so no one expects much from them anyway. So why not have them beat a drum? It’s gratuitously insulting.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by others in the field. Over the past decade and a half, research in education has become increasingly professional and exacting. Research methods have improved, as have educators’ expectations that programs show concrete results. The rising benchmarks are due in part to advancements in science. Innovations such as functional neuroimaging—using magnetic-resonance imaging to scan the brain while it does a particular activity—have allowed researchers to peer inside the brains of kids with dyslexia or attention deficit disorder.

Many educators have also grown wary of approaches that appeared to show great promise but later fizzled out when they were tested against rigorous methodology. The ’90s saw a bruising battle known as the reading wars, which pitted proponents of phonics-based learning against another reading method called whole language. Despite numerous studies that showed that whole language was ineffective, it still took years for the educational establishment to move away from it.

As the science around reading and learning has improved, so has the amount of research data. Educators now can get detailed studies on the effectiveness of every brand-name reading program they use. It’s also big business. Companies such as Scholastic offer numerous reading programs that come with software, textbooks, teacher training, and copious amounts of evidence attesting to improved reading scores. For example, Scholastic says its Read 180 program, which comes with a 72-page compendium documenting more than a decade’s worth of trials and studies, is the most thoroughly researched reading intervention program in the world.

But that can’t paper over a stubborn problem: literacy levels in the country have barely budged. The National Assessment of Educational Progress measures reading levels across the nation. Last year, fourth-graders scored at the exact same level their age-group had four years earlier. The average score for eighth-graders on the NAEP scale was 265, a mere point higher than nine years earlier. “If we actually have found the key to reading, shouldn’t we have seen a higher increase?” asks Gregory McGinity, managing director of policy at the Broad Foundation.

This created an opening for Steven Angel, the founder of Reading & Rhythm.

“People are so frustrated with poor reading levels,” Angel says in his typically short, clipped sentences as we ride to class in his 14-year-old Toyota. “That leads people to try something they otherwise wouldn’t want to try.” Angel concedes that his lack of formal credentials often puts educators on guard. “That’s when I tell the story of my childhood, and they say, ‘We’ll give him a shot.’”

Angel was a standout drummer from the time he could walk. At age 6, he performed onstage with Buddy Rich at a New York nightclub. At 12, he played drums in a band that opened for Herman’s Hermits and the Rascals. At 16, he recorded a track with Jimi Hendrix. But drumming had always come with a heavy dose of parental pressure. He spent a chunk of his adolescence touring in a band with his brothers, and by age 20, he was burned out. He spent the next two decades floating between jobs as a telemarketer and a composer of music for soap operas.

Over the years, he visited psychics and shamans, and entered therapy, all the while searching for something that would give him the same fulfillment he had once enjoyed with the drums. He began reading widely, mostly about psychology and physics. In his early 40s, he says, he had an epiphany that linked his musical past with his intellectual present. “I began to see a connection between drumming and psychology,” he says. He developed a therapy technique that sought to open up the unconscious through drumming: “The beats represent the conscious; the spaces between the beats represent the unconscious.”

Angel designed a drumming therapy for recovering addicts, which was picked up by the Betty Ford Institute and others. Gradually, he began to wonder if there was a connection between drumming and reading. He hooked up with an elementary school in Venice Beach and began observing the teachers. There, Angel noticed something that would become the foundation of his program. When kids stumbled over a word, they would retreat into “shame mode.” “When you watch kids read aloud, it’s so clear how they panic when they can’t read a word,” he says. “The brain shuts down. Fear takes over.” Drumming, he thought, could be the solution. The beat of the drum, he claims, helps kids focus on a word and push on even when they hit a snag.

The school in Venice Beach let him try a drumming-and-reading program. “They tested kids every six weeks in that school, so we could figure out if we were making progress. After a few weeks, we hit the jackpot. We shot past even the gifted class in reading scores.”

One of Angel’s early champions was Marvin Southard, the head of the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health. With a $1.8 billion budget, 4,000 employees, and several hundred thousand clients, the department is among the largest mental-health operations in the country. Southard concedes that it can be difficult to keep track of which programs are effective across such a sprawling bureaucracy. In 2005, he decided to take a gamble on Reading & Rhythm and allow Angel, directing a team of a dozen instructors, to try it out in the juvenile-detention centers. “If it turns out to be literally true that it is improving reading scores, then that’s really a discovery,” Southard says.

AT CAMP MENDENHALL, Reading & Rhythm is taught by Xavier Marshall, a 54-year-old African American whose bright-white shirt and tie clash with the drabness of the prison’s cement walls. Marshall spent most of his career crisscrossing the country as a percussionist, touring with Patti LaBelle, Destiny’s Child, Jessica Simpson, and others. Today, he waits for his students to be marched into the camp’s “library,” a rectangular cinder-block room lined with a few bookcases.

Eight students, José among them, are led in by one of the guards and take their places around rickety tables. On Marshall’s call, the boys pound out a basic rhythm with their hands, using a book as a drum. In unison, and with their eyes closed, they shout out Reading & Rhythm’s seven rules, which include “All words are created equal” and “See the whole word.”

Taking turns, they work their way around the room. Each student reads while Marshall pounds out a beat. If the student is reading smoothly, Marshall accelerates, pushing the student to go faster. If a student stumbles, he slows down. After each student finishes, he asks him to close his eyes and recall what he’s read. On this day, it’s a story about young boys in Africa who have to fight a lion to prove their manhood.

The pace is painfully slow. After an hour, the boys have covered only a few pages. But it’s hard not to notice how, even after all this time, the normally unruly bunch is still focused on the task, listening for Marshall’s next command. Those who have overcome difficult words, such as misfortune and conflagration, are wearing satisfied grins. Some ask Marshall to tell them how many words they’ve read in a minute, and how much they’ve progressed.

Marshall grew up in the tough Watts section of Los Angeles. The first school where he was assigned to teach the program happened to be a few blocks from his boyhood home. The kids were nasty, he recalls, and blatant in their disrespect. A few turned out to be the grandchildren of boyhood friends. “I’m thinking,” he says, “these are the kids that everybody just throws away.”

He recalls one kid who was dejected and shy. “This kid says, ‘I can’t read. I suck.’” After a few sessions, the kid’s reading began to take off. Marshall was hooked. “I went home and told my wife, ‘I’m in.’”

Most everyone who has come across the program can share an inspirational moment about a student who suddenly blossomed. Those testimonials have powered the program’s growth.

The Teaching Channel recently produced a 15-minute documentary about the program, funded in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The BBC did a story about it and Angel recently gave a talk about it at a TEDx conference. That has helped spread the word about the program, and spark interest among educators. A low-income Chicago-area school is looking at adopting Reading & Rhythm. Schools in Seattle and London serving disadvantaged youth are also planning on using it.

But Angel still hasn’t gained broad acceptance. Many are suspicious of Reading & Rhythm’s inherent quirkiness. Angel makes no apologies for the program or its eccentric approach. The fact that it was developed outside the traditional framework, he thinks, is a strength, not a weakness. He has his own scientific theory about why the program is effective—a theory he’s developed himself, and uses during his training sessions.

One breezy afternoon, at his tidy one-bedroom apartment in Santa Monica, he chats via Skype with an educator in Australia. It’s their second session, and Angel is trying to explain why drumming triggers certain responses in the brain.

“What’s happening is that when kids struggle while reading aloud, they automatically go into the fight-or-flight response,” he says, as the Australian takes notes. “The rhythm is releasing the energy from the fight response and allowing neurons to travel instead into the cortex of the brain, which is where the learning happens.”

It’s an explanation I’ve heard him give several times before, and I ask him how he arrived at it. “It comes from the reading I’ve done,” he says, “my understanding of the brain.” When I press him on whether he’s floated that theory past brain researchers, he shakes his head. After a pause, he adds, “Not everyone gets it on a deeper level.”

The skepticism is intense in academic quarters. At the University of California, Los Angeles, Lorie Humphrey, an assistant clinical professor at the Semel Institute of Neuroscience and Human Behavior, says that Reading & Rhythm appears not to build on any of the recent scientific breakthroughs about the brain and reading. “The ethical breach here,” she says, “is that it is really well-known what you do for kids with real reading disabilities.” Indeed, while most readers activate the left hemisphere of their brain while reading, those with dyslexia, for example, generally activate the right hemisphere. Recently, new methods of intensive, controlled reading instruction have been shown to change the pattern of brain activity in a way that improves reading skills.

Humphrey says she’s seen plenty of programs that seemed promising at first but didn’t pan out when put up against thorough research. “OK, so maybe something cool happened,” she says. “But they have no idea what happened or what’s being impacted.”

Unsurprisingly, given the broad skepticism, many of Angel’s most ardent supporters come from outside the establishment. Robert Gupta, a musical child prodigy like Angel, is a member of the first violin section of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which he joined at age 19. But he has also done turns as a neurobiology researcher at Harvard and elsewhere, and teaches violin to Nathaniel Ayers, the homeless schizophrenic who was the subject of the movie The Soloist. Gupta, now 25, also runs a nonprofit called the Street Symphony, which brings music to the homeless on Los Angeles’s Skid Row. He believes, and has attempted to demonstrate, that music can work as medicine, particularly for the mentally ill.

The first time he saw Angel’s program in action, Gupta says, he was floored: “You can really see it. They stumble through, and then they have a breakthrough. They get to the end, and they’ve got huge smiles on their faces. It’s remarkable.”

Gupta is well aware of how distrustful some are. “There is a lot of vitriol against this kind of thing,” he says. “I’ve experienced it myself.” What skeptics are missing, Gupta says, is that the program actually does build on a growing body of research that looks at how music, and specifically rhythm, affects the brain. “If you’ve seen The King’s Speech,” he says, referring to the Oscar-winning movie in which a maverick tutor helps a future king overcome stuttering by, among other techniques, playing music while he speaks, “it’s not so different.”

While Angel was developing his drumming-and-reading program, researchers elsewhere were making breakthroughs in the use of music to heal the brain. Melodic-intonation therapy, a technique developed in 1973, had already been successful at helping stroke victims regain speech. Former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords used it to improve her own speech after she suffered a brain injury from a gunshot wound. Recently, a team at Harvard Medical School conducted a study that used musical intonation and drumming to help nonverbal autistic children learn to speak.

Others are conducting research into how rhythm affects different areas of brain function. A project at the University of California, San Diego’s Temporal Dynamics of Learning Center showed that children who synchronized a beat together were also better able to focus their attention.

In the classroom, however, it’s the lack of progress that is emboldening some educators. Don Macintosh, for example, an administrator in Los Angeles’s public-school system, in 2010 helped create a new program, Intensive Diagnostic Educational Centers, for students who had been languishing in the district’s special-ed classes. The students had been exposed to plenty of traditional methods backed by mountains of research, but the results didn’t always measure up. So Macintosh says he was also on the lookout for more “off the wall” approaches. “These are kids who haven’t responded to any interventions we’ve tried before,” he says.

A psychologist told Macintosh about Reading & Rhythm. He gave Angel a call. Then he asked his 14 head teachers if they wanted to try the method. Ten raised their hands.

One of the L.A. classes—nine kids and three teachers—meets at Orchard Academies, a spotless new building in a predominantly Latino working-class neighborhood south of downtown. A large Smart Board, the latest in classroom gadgetry, stands at the front of the room. Each child uses a laptop with a special program to track his or her progress in reading, spelling, and pronunciation.

The kids, all between 11 and 13, chatter happily as they go about their morning routine. Then the teacher tells them to take out their books and begin banging out a beat. They repeat the same seven rules as the inmates in camps. “See the whole word,” they say in unison, eyes closed. But when it comes time for the first student to read aloud along with the beat, the smiles are replaced by looks of intense concentration, even despair. I soon see why. The first student, a girl of 12, stumbles just a few words in and stops. She tries again, but can’t get past decorations. Then she falters on care.

Reading is a struggle for all of them, and clearly a source of anxiety. After 40 minutes, they’ve advanced a few paragraphs and look exhausted. I ask their teacher, Claudia Garcia, about whether she thinks the drumming is having an impact. She likes the method, she tells me, because it relaxes the kids and helps them become less self-conscious. And the results? “I’ve seen kids move up a grade level in less than two months,” she says, but quickly adds that there is no way of knowing whether the drumming is behind that. The kids are bombarded with a battery of learning programs, she explains, so it’s impossible to pin the success on just one method.

Angel is trying to rally support for a large, intensive study of his method that, he believes, would show the kind of results that would quiet his critics. The county’s Department of Mental Health, encouraged by all the anecdotal data about the program’s effectiveness, has thrown its support behind a major study of whether and how Reading & Rhythm works to improve literacy levels among incarcerated teens, to be conducted by Laura Abrams, associate professor at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. The study, at a cost of about $50,000, will examine students in the juvenile-justice system who have gone through the program, and compare them with a control group that has not. County government still must sign off on the study’s funding, a decision that could happen late this year.

Running the Reading & Rhythm program for 11 years hasn’t been easy for Angel. The funding, though steady, has always been tight. During a trip across Los Angeles, I ask what keeps him going even as he encounters so much skepticism. He answers right away. “This is extraordinary for me,” he says. “When I see a kid have a breakthrough, it’s wonderful. It’s like being at Disneyland.”