January 29th, 2012

DISCUSS: The Value Of Music Education

We live in a testing-centric world. What, then, is the role and value of music and arts education? We convened several experts to discuss that idea. You may also be interested in our report on this topic for PBS NewsHour, embedded above.

Doug Israel, The Center For Arts Education

Rigorous coursework must include the arts

Doug Israel is the Director of Research and Policy for the Center for Arts Education.

In his State of the Union address this year, the President shined a much-needed spotlight on the impact of the high school dropout rate on students and the economy.

While his proposal to require students to stay in school until they graduate or turn 18 can help address the dropout crisis, it is important to ensure that all students are engaged in their education. Research shows that the arts, and other elements of a well-rounded education, can play a key role in keeping students in school and on track to graduate.

Here in New York City, while we’ve seen some improvement in recent years, our public schools struggle with low graduation rates — about 65 percent by the latest measure. Rates for black and Hispanic students are even lower. One of the elements that the high schools with the highest graduation rates have in common is a well-developed arts education program.

A two-year study by The Center for Arts Education of over 200 public high schools in New York City found that those schools with the highest graduation rates had more arts teachers on staff, more dedicated arts spaces, more partnerships with cultural institutions, and more opportunities for students to go on a field trip to a museum or attend a performance.

These findings are consistent with national studies that attest to the success of strong arts programs as a means to prevent the disengagement that typically precedes dropping out. The opportunity for students to engage in the arts — through band and chorus, dance and theater productions, exhibitions of their art work, and publications of original literary pieces — has always been a strong motivator for students and can play a key role in tackling the dropout crisis.
As we seek to improve our education system, and ensure greater equity in the educational and economic opportunities afforded our students, we need to make sure we’re providing all students with rigorous coursework that includes the arts.

Rachel Sawyer, HS Choral Teacher

Music is the most honest expression of humankind

Rachel Sawyer is currently the director of the Robert L. Patton High School Choral Program in Morganton, North Carolina. Choirs and soloists under her direction have consistently earned Superior ratings at district and regional music performance adjudications.

I’m always intrigued when people ponder the value and necessity of music education. We teachers are constantly reminded that our ultimate goal as educators is to create lifelong learners in our classrooms, yet the present educational climate works in precisely the opposite manner. According to Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy, creativity is the highest rung of the cognitive ladder. Despite our knowledge, the idea persists that the three core subjects — reading, writing, and arithmetic — far outweigh other educational disciplines in both merit and importance, thereby making music education expendable during an economic crisis. What’s worse, we assess student gains in these “primary” disciplines by providing the correct answer in the midst of three incorrect answers on a computer-based standardized test, thereby eliminating a student’s opportunity to create any original ideas during the assessment. This Henry Ford-esque educational assembly line, at best, may improve a student’s factual recall, but according to Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy, recalling information is the bottom rung of the cognitive ladder.

Consider music’s impact upon student achievement. I speak from experience as both a musician and a music educator: Musicians form original thoughts, create original compositions, and share our knowledge of our own creativity on a daily basis. While music education incorporates reading, writing, and arithmetic daily, it does not exist to complement other disciplines. Anyone with personal experience in a quality music classroom knows better. As a musician, I know from experience that music is the most honest expression of humankind. As a public school educator, I understand that I am a member of the bureaucracy, charged with the task of generating productive citizens annually. I can confirm that I generate real human beings, equipped with the ability to feel compassion, to embrace different cultures, to think critically, and to create original compositions using standard notation or abstract symbolism. Assuming the goal of American education is to foster creative citizens who think critically, we cannot afford to eliminate even one music program from American public education.

April Estep, HS Music Teacher

Music can help all students excel

April Estep is a secondary music teacher in West Virginia. She is also a Teacher Consultant with the National Writing Project.

Students who participate in music have higher levels of achievement than their non-musical peers. Across the board, research supports this claim. I challenge anyone to find research to contradict this from a reputable source. Music, as well as the other arts, helps us find meaning in the world around us. Sadly, the arts are often the first subjects cut so more time and resources can be devoted to those classes that are assessed on state standardized tests.

When I think about what music education means to my students, higher math and reading scores don’t immediately come to mind. My mind goes to my students; these are students who are desperate to be heard even when they’re not sure what they’re trying to say. I think about my special education students who can barely read but play guitar like they were born with it in their hands. I think about the kids who use their iPods and ear buds to find an escape from parents who fight and scream. Music gives them a way to express themselves when they can’t find the right words that convey their emotions. With music, a student who struggles in more traditional classes can excel. Music gives them a voice, a means of expression and a chance to be successful — that they may not otherwise have.

It’s important that every student have access to quality music instruction. Every student must have the opportunity to create and perform. It is the responsibility of our schools to provide this access and opportunity. With music, we can help students understand the world around them as well as help them understand themselves.

I teach in a very rural area. School is the only place for them to learn to play an instrument or perform in front of an audience. The only discussion they have about why a certain piece of music affects them a particular way happens in my classroom. How can we not do our best to make sure that every child in every school has these opportunities?

Kristen Engebretsen, Americans for the Arts

One reason? How about 10?

Kristen Engebretsen joined the staff at Americans for the Arts in 2011 as the arts education program coordinator. In this role, she works with the Arts Education Network and its elected council to ensure the advancement of arts education throughout the country. Prior to her arrival in DC, she worked at several arts organizations in Los Angeles, including the LA County Arts Commission and the Music Center: Performing Arts Center of LA County.

Oftentimes, when people ask me for resources to help make the case for arts education, I direct them to reports like the one the President’s Committee for the Arts and the Humanities, “Reinvesting in Arts Education.” It compiles all of the classic arguments in favor of arts education: it boosts student achievement, it increases student engagement, and it helps to close the achievement gap.

However, when I think back on my own experience in the arts, I remember that I didn’t participate in them (or still now continue to work in the arts) because they boosted my SAT score. I danced and played music because of the intrinsic benefits of the arts.

So for me, when I make the case for the importance of arts education, I almost always turn to this piece by Elliot Eisner, about ten lessons the arts teach:

1. The arts teach children to make good judgments about qualitative relationships. Unlike much of the curriculum in which correct answers and rules prevail, in the arts, it is judgment rather than rules that prevail.

2. The arts teach children that problems can have more than one solution and that questions can have more than one answer.

3. The arts celebrate multiple perspectives. One of their large lessons is that there are many ways to see and interpret the world.

4. The arts teach children that in complex forms of problem-solving purposes are seldom fixed, but change with circumstance and opportunity. Learning in the arts requires the ability and willingness to surrender to the unanticipated possibilities of the work as it unfolds.

5. The arts make vivid the fact that words do not, in their literal form or number, exhaust what we can know. The limits of our language do not define the limits of our cognition.

6. The arts teach students that small differences can have large effects. The arts traffic in subtleties.

7. The arts teach students to think through and within a material. All art forms employ some means through which images become real.

8. The arts help children learn to say what cannot be said. When children are invited to disclose what a work of art helps them feel, they must reach into their poetic capacities to find the words that will do the job.

9. The arts enable us to have experience we can have from no other source and through such experience to discover the range and variety of what we are capable of feeling.

10. The arts’ position in the school curriculum symbolizes to the young what adults believe is important.

Debra Lindsay, Music Educator

Joy, solace, and learning

Ms. Lindsay is an elementary general music educator, and published author, composer and arranger. She is the past president of the Virginia Elementary Music Educators Association, the current Virginia chair of Music in Our Schools Month and is a National Board Certified Teacher in early and middle childhood music and teaches a class for beginning music educators through the Great Beginnings program with Fairfax County Public Schools.

Music touches every human from infancy through adulthood. The power of musical sound is a vehicle for expression, creativity and human emotion. Music is joy. Music is solace. Music has the ability to invigorate and calm us and influence our moods. Music is the poetry of our hearts. Music is our universal language and can bridge our international community; and music is a thread through which we elementary general music teachers can reach our students. It is only natural then, that music, language arts, science, social studies and math are so connected.

Teaching music enables my music colleagues and me to hold a torch for our students’ entry into understanding culture and beauty. A good musical foundation is the life-long gift well-trained and experienced elementary general music teachers can give our students.

We, who see our children in a classroom setting that includes each student — not just those who do not take instrumental lessons during the school day — further all our students’ foundational learning experiences by providing rich and meaningful lessons that include singing, playing instruments, dancing and performing songs from different time periods and genres and cultures. We enable our students to explore sound and science. We teach lessons that enable students to experience the relationship between music and math. The learning activities mentioned here only begin to address the benefits of having music classes be all-inclusive in that they, in addition to teaching music for music’s sake, are often one of the best ways in which to pull the big picture into focus. (Let’s not forget the more fortunate students get to take private lessons which so much enhance their classroom experiences.)

It is in through working with my classroom teachers I see results of my students’ extrapolation of what they have learned. With all the studies professing the wonders of classroom teachers and specialists working together in Professional Learning Committees and Communities, this is the opportune time for all educators to work together for the common good of our students.

I am proud of my thirty-seven years of teaching elementary music. I am hopeful that all our state and jurisdictional superintendents and school boards will continue to support the funding for, and encourage our administrators to schedule, two weekly elementary general music classes, a 60 minute chorus period during the school day and the opportunity to be in band and orchestra.

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What a wonderful conversation, I just stumbled on your site.

Debra- will you tell us more about Great Beginnings program with Fairfax County Public Schools?


Dear Glenn,

Thank you for your comments. Please contact me at DebraK.Lindsay@fcps.edu. I would love to talk about our program for 2nd year and new to Fairfax County Public Schools elementary general music teachers.

Best regards,

Very good article, do you mind if I link it to http://areteacademy.org for our students to read?

In my high school education from 1982-85 my English teachers were insisting that “the arts” teachers were insisting that us students read many Shakesperean plays. They said that all of us students would benefit from its elements toward employment. We students were saying that that Mathematic, Science, History benefit all. Then, we were saying that Mathematics, Science, History/Social Studies were important elements to employment and not all students would benefit from reading classic plays and listening to symphonies. What is your response to this general comment from High School students?

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