Missing the Beat: Schools Without Music

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Members of our nation’s music community came together in 1990 in a coalition to focus national attention on the need to include music and arts at the center of school curriculum.

This excerpt is from a report released by the coalition.

Public education in America is losing it soul. As music and the other arts are pushed steadily to the edges of schools’ curricula, our schools are losing touch with a unifying force that can help young people connect what they learn to its enduring meaning for the human spirit.

The best teaching has always insisted that music and the other arts be present at the center of curriculum – and for an excellent reason. The soul of every people is found in it s songs, its images, its dances, its stories. The arts are basic to education because they are a universal language.

The growing perception and treatment of music and the other arts as diversions from the “really important” subjects of reading, mathematics, physical science and social science run contrary to the wisdom of every educated people.

For our children’s sake, we believe the time has come – now – to present to the American people a compelling case for bringing music and the other arts to the core of our public school curricula. Much of what we say can be said of all the arts. However, the case that follows focuses on music education, because that is what we know best, understand best and love most. Music is what we believe in most deeply, and that is where our own hearts lie.

Since primitive man first beat out a rhythm with a stick or sang a death song over a fallen companion, human beings have recognized in music an element of the ineffable – and there lies its value in all other contexts. The myths and religions of virtually every society portray music as a gift from the hand of a God or gods.

Music is a form of beauty. It needs no one to justify it. We want our children to know and understand music precisely because it has this intrinsic value, and on many levels. Music is a dominant force in American life; it is ubiquitous, molding and shaping the public’s senses – and not incidentally, the values of our children – as no other force in our culture.

Music, too, is the memory of our people brought to life. It connects us to our history, our traditions, our heritage. It is critically important that our children, as Americans, make this connection. In music, we discover who we are: In the folk songs of Appalachia, in the emotional reverberations of the blues, in the soaring spirituality of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass, in the vigor of Aaron Copland’s Rodeo and in the driving beats of rock and rap, our children can awaken to a knowledge of themselves – their community and their country – in ways that cannot be duplicated.

Part of music’s intrinsic value is visible, too, in the way it reinforces one of the primary reasons we educate: to prepare our children for citizenship. Membership in an orchestra, chorus, band or jazz ensemble mirrors the requirements of living in a civilized community.

This arresting analogy was drawn by John McLaren, President of BBE Sound in Huntington Beach, California: “The school band or orchestra is a powerful metaphor for civilization itself. It teaches the child with immediacy and intensity all the basic lessons of life in a civilized community. [It} teaches children to live and work together…to learn the law as the community has established to govern itself and to peacefully abide by those laws. In a band, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It is ironic,” McLaren concluded, “that we are still arguing about the importance of music education.”

Part of our difficulty in understanding the intrinsic value of music and music education stems from what Robert Marsh, the music critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, identified as the confusion between short-term and long-term objectives in education.

Marsh said that the chief long-term objective of education is defending and preserving the values of civilization; its value here far outweighs that of any short-term objective. Decrying an America in which the ability to run a business is considered the highest skill a man could possibly have, marsh made a significant point: Commerce does not create civilizations, art does, because that task requires grappling with the deepest questions of human life and meaning.

Marsh argues that schools must provide students with the means to discover what is within them and help them develop it, not just for the sake of their own self-satisfaction, but for the good of the society – indeed, the civilization. And that cannot take place if music is not a basic element of the curriculum.

It is obvious that proficiency in music must be taught and learned. Not so obvious, but equally true, is that meaning appreciation of and participation in music must be taught and learned as well. Thus, the full worth of music demands music education as its natural counterpart.

What School Music Programs Must Include

To achieve the full benefits that lie in music, school music programs should include at least the following:

  • Music should be available to all students, not just the “the gifted and talented” or those with special abilities or interests.
  • A broad spectrum of exposure to and participation in music should be available to students, including a full range of instrumental and choral music, music theory and composition, music history and music appreciation.
  • Students should have the opportunity to study a variety of types of music from various historical periods and world regions.
  • Music requires a sufficient amount of time to learn it well enough to play or understand. Thirty minutes a week is not enough o learn mathematics. Neither is it enough time to learn music. Music education, like other core subjects, should have the time it needs.
  • Schools should make available adequate resources and materials to meet students’ learning needs.
  • Students should have a comprehensive music curriculum available in grades K-12, not merely an entertaining experience.
  • Students should have ample opportunities to produce music and perform.

These considerations are minimal to music education. They are attempted in few places and accomplished well in fewer still.

Adults in America universally acknowledge, applaud and respect great accomplishment in music. But in the schools to which they send their children, music is not acknowledged; it is avoided. Great accomplishment in music is not respected, it is ignored. Most sadly of all, musicality is rarely applauded in the schools; too often, it is dismissed as little more than play.

Recent educational reform efforts have – by and large – omitted cultural concerns. We are slowly becoming aware that despite nearly a decade of dire warnings, relentless self-examination and well-intentioned attempts at reform, too much educational change has occurred only on the surface. A spate of educational reports, beginning with A Nation at Risk in 1983 and culminating with the 1990 statement of national education goals advanced by the nation’s governors and the White House, have either ignored music and the other arts altogether or given them uneven attention.

The typical answers provided in the education reports – national pride, a productive and well-trained work force and flagging international competiveness – are only partial. The nation must educate to provide [members of] the next generation with the knowledge, skills, values – and the sentiments and sensibilities – they need to live fully human lives.

There can be little doubt that education in music and the other arts is being pushed toward the periphery of public school curricula. Evidence abounds that is cause for alarm.

Some Indicators of the Problem

  • State-level graduation requirements. At the state level, only 29 states have enacted graduation requirements that in some way involve music and the other arts. For 25 of these, however, that requirement can be met by fewer than two units of instruction. In six of the 29 states, the requirement is applied only to those seeking an honors or regents diploma, or who are college bound.
  • The “sham” arts requiring some instruction in music and the other arts for graduation, 13 accept course in domestic science, industrial arts, humanities, foreign languages or computer science as alternative ways to meet the requirement. Only nine states require arts courses per se for all high school students.
  • College entrance requirements. Because most colleges do not require courses in music and the other arts as credit for admission, college-bound high school students have little incentive to take them. This situation forces students to make choices about secondary school curriculum they should not be forced to make.
  • District-level graduation requirements. At the school-district level, only 36 percent of all school districts nationwide had graduation credit requirements in music or the other arts in 1988; another 31 percent permitted such credits as an option for meeting graduation requirements.
  • A steady pattern of decline. Taking a historical view, the percentage of junior and senior high school students enrolled in music classes (band, orchestra, chorus, music appreciation, music theory, music history) was about 30 percent throughout the 1950’s; by 1982 it had decreased by almost a third, to 21.6 percent. Music budgets and enrollments have fallen to record lows. Stuart Gothold, superintendent of the Los Angeles County unified School district reported that 99 percent of the children in one of the nation’s largest school districts do not receive a comprehensive K-12 arts program.
  • Music as “kid stuff.” Forty-two states require school districts to offer instruction in music and the other arts in elementary, middle or secondary school. At the secondary level, enrollments in these subjects are highest in grades 7 and 8 – about half; enrollees drop precipitously to fewer than one in five after grade 9. For general music, the participation rate is 9 percent in grades 11 and 12. The message to older youth, who are acquiring the intellectual equipment to understand music and the other arts at deeper levels, is abundantly clear: “Music is kid stuff.”
  • Federal spending. The U.S. government is willing to spend on support for the arts only .095 percent of what it spends on support for science; it spends nearly 29 times more on science education than it spends on arts education.
  • Not enough music specialists. At the elementary level, 55 percent of all school districts in the nation are either unserved by a music specialist (a teacher with a degree in music education) or served only part-time. The problem is most acute in both urban and rural areas, where nearly 60 percent of school districts do not have a full-time music specialist on staff. Often the lack of money for music specialists means the largest teaching burden falls on elementary teachers who are untrained in music education.
  • Student-teacher ratios. Figures on student teacher ratios tell a story in which more and more students have less and less access to any music teacher, let alone a trained one. Of 41 states from around the country for which figures are available, South Dakota ranks best with 151 students for every single teacher. Moving down the list. New York’s ratio is 390:1; Alabama’s is 819”1’ Utah’s is 1.141:1 and California ranks last with 1.535:1. Only 15 percent of California music classes are taught by a qualified music teacher.
  • Fewer music teachers graduating. In the 1978-88 period, the number of bachelor’s degrees in music granted by U.S. colleges and universities dropped by 15 percent; master’s degrees dropped by 8 percent. Although no direct cause and effect relationships have been demonstrated, common sense conclusions about employment opportunities and a declining job market seem to have prevailed.


Grass-Roots Effort

If anything is obvious from the recent history of education reform, it is that change cannot be imposed from the top down; it must grow from the roots up. Change must be brought to government by the governed.

Our focus, therefore, is grounded in a deep-rooted respect for local decision-making, community-based advocacy and locally responsive institutions. Our hope is to build a powerful community constituency among parents, students, teachers, principals, board members, musicians, arts advocates and the music industry.

What Parents Can Do

Parents: You are your child’s first teachers. It is your values that your children adopt. It is your responsibility to make music an integral part of your family’s life and your children’s education. You, above all, know that your child, as an infant, delighted in music, song and dance. If you do not insist that the schools nurture your child’s innate love for music, no one will. Here is what you can do:

  • From your children’s first days, make sure music is an important part of their environment. Encourage them to become music lovers and to believe they can become music makers, as indeed, they can.
  • Strike an alliance with your child’s music teacher. Find out how you can support at home what the teacher is trying to accomplish at school – and follow through.
  • Make sure your local school board and school administrators know of your steadfast commitment to music education in the schools, not as a matter of educational principle. Work to prevent music from becoming a bargaining chip in the annual battles over the local school budget.


Growing Up Complete: The Imperative for Music Education, The Report of the National Commission on Music Education, March 1991, Music Educators National Conference(MENC). MENC, The National Association of Music Merchants and the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, Inc are developers and coordinators of the campaign that produced this report.

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