Working in a daily dose of the arts
INDIANAPOLIS -- Sixth-grader Camarry Hall adjusted her sheet music, waited for her teacher to give the go-ahead and then started belting out low notes on a bass clarinet nearly as big as she is.
Camarry is one of about a dozen students in an after-school music program at Indianapolis Public School 70, an arts magnet that has partnered with the city’s Butler University to provide more arts instruction to youngsters in one of Indianapolis’ poorest districts.
“We have a lot of fun playing notes and different songs,” Camarry said before the group broke into small ensembles with Butler students to rehearse for a concert.
Arts have long been a part of education, but advocates say such classes are often first on the chopping block as schools face tight budgets and pressure to perform on academic tests. A Center on Education Policy poll released this year showed that more than 40% of the districts surveyed have cut time in elementary schools for non-tested subjects, including art and music.
Such moves have forced schools in cities such as Indianapolis, Los Angeles and Dallas to find creative ways to squeeze arts into the day -- such as partnering with arts groups, nonprofit organizations and universities to bring more cultural experiences to students.
“I think we’re seeing a resurgence of the arts,” said Mary Fulton, a policy analyst for the Education Commission of the States. “There’s been a push-back by parents and others who want to keep the arts in schools and want their children to have a well-rounded education.”
The National Assn. for Music Education says skills learned through the discipline of music transfer well into study skills, cognitive abilities and improved communication that are useful in other subjects. Studies have shown that students in high-quality music programs score higher than students in schools with deficient music programs on standardized tests, regardless of the school’s socioeconomic factors.
Yet the No Child Left Behind education reform act, which requires schools to meet annual progress goals or face sanctions that include reorganization, has in many cases shifted the focus from musical scores to test scores.
The Center on Education Policy survey found that U.S. students have been spending more time on math and reading and less on other subjects since 2001. The 2007 report, which examined how No Child Left Behind had affected curriculum and instructional time, showed that 16% of districts surveyed had reduced class time for art and music.
“We’ve raised the stakes now for schools so high that the decisions are different,” said Julie Bell, education program director for the National Conference of State Legislatures. “That ultimate determination of whether your school’s going to succeed or not -- that’s obviously what’s driving the budgets.”
Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said schools don’t have to choose between reading and math and the arts.
“This notion that these things are mutually exclusive, I completely reject,” she said.
Mike Blakeslee, deputy executive director of the National Assn. for Music Education, agrees.
Outside groups and after-school programs can’t replace daily efforts by certified teachers, he contends. “Music is a discipline like any other. It needs ongoing, planned, sequential delivery. If the kids are only getting nominal exposure to music education, that’s frankly not enough.”
In some districts, the solution is to partner with community groups to provide extra arts opportunities, such as field trips to museums or performances at school assemblies, while hiring more teachers to provide daily instruction.
The Los Angeles Unified School District uses community arts groups to work with teachers on professional development. The district is also working to put at least four arts teachers -- in dance, music, visual arts and theater -- in every elementary school. So far, 340 out of 500 schools have teachers in all of those subjects, said Richard Burrows, director of arts education for the district.
“It’s the right thing to do,” Burrows said. “When students see the arts as part of their daytime learning, they see it as equally important as math and reading.”
The Dallas Independent School District, with help from community partners, is creating arts “hubs” in libraries and other community facilities. The district also plans to hire 140 new music and arts teachers in the next three years, with a goal of exposing elementary school students to 45 minutes of art and music in school each week. It will cost the district about $7 million out of its budget of more than $1 billion.
Advocates say it is money well spent.
“It’s a huge need in urban areas,” said Craig Welle, executive director of enrichment curriculum and instruction for the district. “It’s not just about preparing kids for careers -- it’s about preparing them to lead good lives.”
These districts stand out as examples because school boards and superintendents carve out time and money for the arts, said John Abodeely, of the nonprofit Americans for the Arts. “Whether arts are provided or not -- or how much -- is a function of the will of the leadership of the school, not a function of money.”
Chuck Flowers, who is Camarry’s music teacher, agrees.
He said he’s taught in more wealthy suburban schools where one of a student’s two electives would be used for an additional math or reading class if the child didn’t pass statewide tests.
Academics are important at Indianapolis Public School 70, which last year made the progress required by No Child Left Behind. But Flowers also sees a renewed focus on the arts.
“We’re given the resources to succeed, and we are,” Flowers said. “All schools are concerned about test scores. But our school -- we definitely are very interested in the arts as well.”
Blakeslee, of the music educators group, said more schools must take that approach if the arts are to remain viable in schools.
“To some extent as a society, you get what you pay for,” he said. “You’ve got to put some resources behind that.”