Music in our schools

Our high school band director sent out an email this week about the upcoming high school musical, and he also included a link to a petition supporting music education in our schools. He emphasized that he appreciates the strong support he has in our community, so the link to the petition is not a reflection in any way on that. But he knows that people supporting our music program would also want students elsewhere to have the same kind of wonderful opportunities.

I followed the link, thinking I would probably want to sign the petition. I’ve loved music as long as I can remember – though I found that I usually didn’t enjoy the same kind of music as my classmates. I grew up singing choral music in church, as well as attending organ recitals (our church had a beautiful pipe organ and an excellent organist). In the early grades I participated in a community children’s theater group, each year performing a musical not only in our own community but travelling to other towns as well. Later I started playing the violin, which I continued through college, and I came to love classical music.

I married a man with a wonderful tenor voice, and not surprisingly our older son is also gifted musically (he now sings bass, and participates in four extracurricular vocal groups, as well as playing the French horn). Our younger son recently joined the 3rd-5th grade song and dance team preparing for a special program on Mother’s Day at church. Physical coordination is not his strong point (nor mine!) but he loves to move to music, especially songs of praise to God.

I’ve read about how studies have shown the importance of music for learning. It’s not just the music itself that they learn, or the cultural benefits it gives them – though those are important by themselves. Music helps students with math, language, and other subjects. So efforts to cut money from the music program in order to strengthen core subjects such as reading and math are misguided, because the money spent on music education is actually helping students in those other areas.

When I actually read the petition, however, I wasn’t so sure I wanted to sign it. You can read the whole petition here – and sign it if you would like to (they have a little over 2000 signatures so far, out of a goal of one million). I wholeheartedly agree with parts of it:

  • Ensure music and the other arts are included as a part of a balanced education addressing the whole child, to prepare them for the creative thinking necessary for success in the work force of the future;
  • Ensure qualified music teachers and sequential curricula be recognized as the basis for providing all students with substantive education in music and the other arts;

 But the part that I question is this:

Be it therefore resolved that the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, also known as No Child Left Behind, not only identify music as a core subject, but also recognize music education as a mandatory component of every public education curriculum in the United States of America.

I’ve read in several places that one of the problems with NCLB is that it tends to result in resources being taken away from music, as well as art and foreign languages. This petition to reject the NCLB points out that it “drives art, music, foreign language, career and technical education, physical education, geography, history, civics and other non-tested subjects out of the curriculum, especially in low-income neighborhoods.”

If that is the case, is making music a “protected” part of the curriculum really the answer? What about the art, foreign language, phys ed, geography, etc.? I taught foreign language, and I think it also is very important, not only because of the skill it teaches but for what it teaches about other cultures and other people, a broader view of the world, and perhaps a better understand of our own language and culture. But I don’t think that requiring it as part of the core curriculum is answer.

I taught at a (private Christian) school where all seventh graders had to study Spanish. It’s hard enough to teach students who chose to learn a language but find it difficult or boring or are just having a bad day. Having students in the class who don’t even want to learn it makes it harder for everyone. I think it’s important for them to have the opportunity. But I don’t think that, at middle school level or higher, the answer is to make them all learn it, whether they are interested or not.

And what if those other subjects want to get their subjects similarly required? Who can say that our students should not know civics better than they do? Or that physical education is very important, especially when children are so much less physically active outside school than they used to be? But if every important subject gets added to the “core” curriculum, does the term have any meaning anymore? If the problem with NCLB is that it tends to give precedence to the kind of learning that can be most easily verified on a standardized test, and all other learning gets shortchanged, it seems that NCLB needs to be thoroughly revamped or discarded, rather than trying to add more mandated subjects to its scope.

One thing I love about our community’s schools is their music programs. Last night my younger son and I went to a middle school performance of “A Pirate’s Life for Me.” In a few weeks, we will go see our older son perform in “The Music Man.” Last month we enjoyed three concerts as part of Music in Our Schools Month. We enjoyed a wide variety of music, from sacred choral music to classical music to marches to pop music to the highly entertaining Concerto for the Triangle. (The school principal playing the triangle wasn’t paying very good attention and was always busy polishing his instrument or blowing his nose or talking on the cell phone when the conductor cued him.)

I agree with those who have signed the Petition for Equal Access to Music Education about the importance of music education, the benefits of it, and the need for access to it. I just question whether mandating it in the way the petition does is the way to accomplish those goals.

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