Note: This is the first of three stories about music education. It examines how tight budgets and state and local laws affect the music curriculum. Part two tells the stories of four states and their approaches to music,and the third profiles a California music teacher.
African drumming groups. Mariachi bands. Advanced music composition classes using electronic keyboards and computers.
Scott Shuler,arts consultant for the Connecticut State Department of Education,said all of these and more can be found at schools in some parts of the country.
“Then you could go to other school districts where,sadly,you would see that the local school board or administration has decided that in order to raise test scores,they can't afford the small amount of time they had previously invested in music or the other arts,” he said.
The state of music education in the U.S. varies widely according to where you look. Music programs across the country,Shuler said,range from “very exciting” to “very disheartening.”
“The environment for music and arts education right now is a challenging one,” said Bob Morrison,founder of Music for All,a national music and arts advocacy organization.
“In the past several years,there has been a steady,documented trend toward reduction in school music and arts education programs,” said Kenneth Liske,an associate professor of music,education and human services at the University of Washington.
Unintended effects of No Child Left Behind,state budget problems,lack of community commitment and local budget and curriculum decisions can all threaten school music programs,and educators and advocates are posing a myriad of solutions to these threats to save their schools from silence.
Why it's happening: national effect
Many arts education consultants and music advocates blame the No Child Left Behind Act for declines in music and arts education. On paper,the law deems the arts just as significant as other subjects.
Title IX of the Act lists the arts as one of the nine core academic subjects,and Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings has repeatedly stated the law's support of arts education.
“The importance of the arts in No Child Left Behind is clear,” Spellings stated in a 2006 Education Commission of the States report. “They're an important part of a well-rounded,complete education for every student.”
But music education advocates from many parts of the country agree that,despite the law's written stance on the arts,its effect at the state level has been adverse.
“I don't think that No Child Left Behind was intended or designed to narrow the curriculum,but the practical impact is that it has done just that,” Morrison said.
High-stakes reading and math testing,Morrison said,creates an educational mentality of success at all costs – even if those costs mean reducing or eliminating arts instruction.
“The pressures are so great on schools and on states as a result of No Child Left Behind that they have far less flexibility in determining their educational priorities than they used to,” Shuler said.
To preserve their jobs,Shuler said,state and local school administrators must do anything they can to improve test scores,including expanding classroom time and school budgets for reading and math. And more time and money for these subjects means less time and money for non-tested subjects,including music.
Shuler said it would be unfortunate if,in the law's well-intentioned attempt to improve education,schools ended up losing the “spark of education” – the music and arts programs that keep children excited about learning.
But Doug Herbert,special assistant to the assistant deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Innovation and Improvement,said it's up to the states and local districts to make smart decisions about how they use classroom time and resources.
States decide for themselves what to do to reach reading and math proficiency,Herbert said,and these choices are not dictated by the federal government.
“We,under the law,are checking those most critical factors that are going to create a foundation for children in their K-12 careers and beyond,” Herbert said. “It doesn't mean the other systems don't deserve attention on a regular basis by the state and local districts.”
The federal government leaves the responsibility of maintaining these other systems,including the arts,to states and local districts,Herbert said.
Why it's happening: state and local effect
State budget problems can pose particularly significant threats to music education,as well.
In California,as state budget cuts hurt education in general,music programs are suffering in particular,said John Larrieu,executive director of the California Association for Music Education.
Larrieu said that whenever California schools or school districts are short on money,the first things they cut are music programs.
“It's almost a general theme,” he said.
Also,in California and other states,local school districts have a great deal of flexibility in forming their own curriculums and budgets. Without a system of monitoring and consequences,said Nancy Carr,music consultant for the California Department of Education,local districts can cut music programs no matter how rigorous state standards may be.
“The policies are there,” said Laurie Schell,executive director of the California Alliance for Arts Education,of California's arts curriculum standards. “It's the implementation of those policies that is so haphazard.”
How to fix it: integration
Shuler said one way schools can maintain a healthy arts program while improving their reading and math classes is to integrate the arts into these curriculum areas. That,he said,allows children to learn the subjects more effectively.
“What we have learned about children is that they learn best when they learn from all of their senses,when they're moving and singing and using visuals,” Shuler said.
Such a strategy has already been demonstrated in a number of experimental education programs,including HOT Schools in Connecticut,Project Zero at Harvard and A + Schools in North Carolina.
Gerry Howell,executive director of the A + Schools Program,said that over the past 14 years,students in A + schools have made the same academic achievement gains as all other students in North Carolina,but without a narrowed curriculum.
A+ schools use a system of two-way integration: students go to arts classes each week while also experiencing the arts in their regular classes. All the academic subjects are taught,with arts integrated into lessons,and students are not pulled from arts classes to attend reading or math tutoring.
“If you're doing what you know is right for children and teaching well and not segregating the curriculum but keeping it integrated,” Howell said,”then the test scores will take care of themselves.”
“It can be done,it should be done,it's simply not done enough because of the lack of leadership and foresight and insight as to what a complete education is,” Herbert said.
Shuler said the hesitance to start more of these programs comes from parents,educators and communities more comfortable with older,more simplistic ways of doing things.
“It just makes so much sense that it always amazes me that it's not being done in some form in all schools,” Howell said.
How to fix it: accountability
Another solution could be an accountability system for arts education.
Morrison noted that while math,language arts and reading all have their own accountability systems,music and arts programs don't.
“We need accountability for the arts,but it doesn't need to be testing,” Morrison said.
Morrison said accountability in the arts means measuring the access and equity of learning opportunities and participation.
The Sound of Silence report,released in 2004,could provide an example of this kind of accountability investigation at the state level. The report documented the condition of music education in California's public schools and found a 50 percent decline in the number of students in music programs over five years.
The public response to that report's findings,Morrison said,became one of the catalysts to spur Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to reinvest money into music and arts programs in 2006.
As far as federal accountability goes,Herbert said arts subjects are unlikely to have the same accountability standards in the law as reading and math for some time,because math and reading are “generative subjects,” meaning they provide a foundation for all other subjects.
“There's no question that the federal law has focused the primary attention and many of the resources of accountability on the generative subjects of reading and math,” Herbert said.
Studying these subjects,Herbert said,is necessary for arts education.
“You can't have a strong arts education without literacy,” Herbert said. “If you can't read by third grade,you're probably not going to do well in the arts or any other subject for that matter.”
Many music educators and music advocates are hopeful about the future of art in schools.
“When there is solid information provided to the public and policymakers,they will usually take positive steps to ensure that children have access to these programs,” Morrison said.
Morrison said he believes the upcoming reauthorization of No Child Left Behind will provide significant changes to ensure that the arts are included as part of the basic education of every child.
“I am always positive and optimistic that the tide sort of changes,” Howell said. “I've been in education for over 40 years now and I've seen the ebb and flow or how the arts have been valued and how they've been treated. I certainly don't expect to see the demise of the arts.”