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New York City
September 2003

Music Education Being “Left Behind”

Local interpretation of the federal “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) education law is seriously affecting access to music education for America’s public school students. “The law clearly identifies the arts as a core academic subject,” explains American Music Conference Executive Director Rob Walker. “However, the requirements for standardized testing in literacy, math and science are leading local districts to divert resources away from other subjects. As a result, the arts are truly being left behind.”

Walker advised concerned parents and educators to visit a Web site, www.support-music.com, which provides resources for grassroots music advocates. The site is maintained by the Music Education Coalition. Paul Young, principal of West Elementary School in Lancaster, OH and a former president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, has seen this phenomenon from both the national and local perspectives. “I see the decisions my fellow principals are making, and I understand the pressure, but they need to remember the big picture,” he said. “I certainly believe everybody needs to be able to read and do math, but they also need to know how to think. What we’re doing now is creating kids who are able to pass tests.”

Under “No Child Left Behind,” each state must measure every public school student’s progress in reading and math in each of grades three through eight, and at least once during grades ten through twelve. By the academic year 2007-2008, assessments in science will be underway as well. These assessments must be aligned with state academic content and achievement standards.

In California, music educator Anne Fennell says people should look beyond those requirements to the spirit of the legislation. “If you look at NCLB Title Nine, it includes the arts as a core subject, but I think people get stuck on what’s getting tested only,” she says. Fennell is the Orff-Schulwerk Specialist at the Vista Academy of Visual and Performing Arts near San Diego, CA, and is also the founder and project director of MusicVentures, which helps train classroom professionals to make the most of music instruction.

“People think of literacy as reading and writing the printed word, but literacy is how we make meaning in our world,” Fennell says. “We know arts programs work. But because they’re not included in state formulas for funding and testing benchmarks, they’re the first to be zapped.”

The effects of these interpretations of NCLB and its effect on school music education come at a time when local budget pressures have already placed music classes in danger in many parts of the country. In New York City, pressure to find time for the extra English and math classes required by the Education Department’s new standardized curriculum has led junior high schools to cut art, music and other electives. Across the country, as reported in major media, state-level fiscal woes have led to repeated cuts in school arts programs. Even before NCLB, the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) showed only 25 percent of eighth graders nationwide had the opportunity to take a music class.

Ironically, the benefits of music instruction for young people are better understood than ever before: A new study led by Dr. Agnes S. Chan of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, published in July in the journal Neuropsychol-ogy, found that school-age students who had participated in music scored significantly higher on verbal memory tests than their classmates who had not.

A 1999 UCLA study showed that students who participated in music programs three times a week scored an average of 40 percent higher in math, reading, history and geography than those who did not.

Other research over the last decade has linked music participation with enhanced brain development, higher performance in other academic courses, better socialization and improved wellness.

Concern about the unintended but serious consequences of NCLB has even reached the districts identified as the “Best 100 Communities in America for Music Education” in AMC’s annual nationwide survey. In Syosset, NY, district Art & Music Chair Steven Schopp says, “I see the threat of scheduling problems due to NCLB as far more serious than budget problems. Budgets are obvious, but when students are quietly scheduled out of music in the name of increasing standards, nobody notices. It happens in small increments so there is no outcry.”

In another of the “Best 100” communities, Nevada, IA, high school band director Wade Presley observes, “More emphasis is being placed on academics, and students are being told to drop band or choir in order to beef up their classes in English, math and science.”

Despite these pressures, Walker notes that the final decisions about educational priorities remain in local hands across the country. “I call on all teachers, parents and school administrators to keep music and arts instruction alive and well, so that local schools can produce the truly educated graduates that the authors of ‘No Child Left Behind’ envisioned,” he says.

SupportMusic.com was created by the Music Education Coalition, a cooperative undertaking by MENC, the National Association for Music Education, and NAMM, the International Music Products Association. It is the largest initiative of its kind dedicated to positively impacting community resolve and inspiring action to support music education in the United States. The site offers resources to help people work on behalf of music education in their own communities, including a “Build Your Case” section and a bulletin board that lets people share their problems and successes. The American Music Conference (www.amc-music.org) has extensive resources available on its website, including the “Einstein Advocacy Toolkit” for grassroots music education advocacy.#

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Education Update, Inc., P.O. Box 1588, New York, NY 10159.
Tel: (212) 477-5600. Fax: (212) 477-5893. Email: ednews1@aol.com.
All material is copyrighted and may not be printed without express consent of the publisher. © 2003.