Our 3rd finalist for inclusion in the chapters of the 2nd edition of Lifting the Curtain: The disgrace we call urban high school education is a powerful look at the loss of arts and music in our schools. Regina Paul looks at the need for such courses, the high student interest in them, and in the process debunks much of the false “budget” excuse school administrators routinely use to justify cancelling these important courses. Her excellent analysis follows this introduction.
Ironically – while administrators blame cancellations on budget issues, the real culprit is an unintended consequence of standardized testing and non-teaching mandates. The elective slots for freshmen and sophomores in urban high schools have been preempted for test preparation classes. And non-teaching mandates take up so much urban high school classroom time that teachers are prevented from the level of teaching that would make prep classes for standardized tests totally unnecessary.
Look at a typical 5-course freshman or sophomore day in school 20 years ago when today’s parents were in school:
The electives slot was the joy for children. Here is where we painted, crafted, and learned about music (other than Elvis and the Beatles!). Here were study halls and gym (more than just one day per week). But look at the same 5 course schedule today:
- STANDARDIZED TEST PREPARATION!
The real reason for cancelling arts and music now becomes clear. Disingenuous administrators claim it is a “budget” issue – after all, it is true that equipping a large band or orchestra is very expensive. But they intentionally leave out two factors. One is that their real reason has nothing to do with budgets – it’s that there are no open freshman or sophomore open course slots for electives, because all are being used for test prep. The second is superbly addressed in the Regina Paul submission, below – today’s children dearly want (low-budget) music appreciation courses, not the high cost performance courses administrators use as a false red herring.
So, we have hit upon yet another unintended consequence of mandates (standardized testing and penalties to schools with low results, and non-teaching mandates in the classroom) that shortchange our children. In almost every urban high school I researched, the freshman and sophomore children had at least one class each term dedicated to helping pass standardized testing – often one for both English and for Math. All but two had no freshman or sophomore courses for electives such as art and music. Dozens of emails and FB posts I have received confirm the same situation in schools nationwide. Many schools are even starting to look at adding more such “test preparation” classes for bio, chemistry, and history as those topics become part of standardized testing. After all, the sanctions on a school that does not meet mandated test results can be very severe.
In every one of the urban high schools I studied, I found administrators focused only on protecting their positions and the school by concentrating curricula on passing the tests, rather than helping teachers be freed up from micromanaging mandates so those same teachers could teach again in their classrooms, making test prep classes unnecessary.
So do the math – who loses when 1 or 2 of a day’s classes are tied up with remedial test prep training? A typical school has just 5-6 classes per day. If two (and soon to be more than two) are for additional Math and English training to help with passing standardized tests, where is there room for electives anymore? Where is there a space for creative writing? For law? For small business issues? For psychology? For that matter, where is there a slot for band, art, home economics, study hall, or carpentry?
Once again, as with inclusion classes, the issue is simply math – too many mandates trying to compete for too little time. The career bureaucrats, year after year, do not understand something as obvious as 7-8 classes cannot fit into a 5-6 class day – and our children are the losers.
Here is our 3rd finalist. It’s extremely encouraging to find that a noted national organization which helps schools develop curricula shares teacher concerns about the loss of arts classes in urban high schools. Regina Paul is the President of the highly respected Policy Studies in Education, a non-profit organization that has created K–12 curricula in all subjects, assessments for school districts and states, parent materials, and policies for school boards, working with over 400 school districts and 150 colleges. She co-hosts NYCollegeChat, a free podcast for families about choosing a college.
For some students, music or art is the only reason to come to school.
When my nonprofit organization conducted educational goals surveys (in cooperation with the National School Boards Association) in communities across the U.S., we gave citizens, school staff, high school students, and recent graduates an imaginary $1,000 and told them to spend it as they pleased across a dozen school subjects to show their educational priorities. Every time, some respondents spent their entire $1,000 on music or art.
When given a dozen fine arts goals and asked to rate how important each of them was to teach, respondents voted every time for “spectator art and music,” not “varsity art and music.” In other words, making students into appreciative and knowledgeable consumers of the fine arts was far more important to children than making them into performers. The public knows that relatively few individuals can make a living as performing musicians and artists, but everyone can enjoy the arts as a spectator in the audience.
Schools that do not offer music and art—both performance courses as well as history and appreciation—are shortchanging students now and in their futures. I understand that the great Quincy Jones said that, sadly, no country thinks as little of its music heritage as we do of ours. What a crying shame, given all that we have created in music—and in art and dance. Far too few public schools require the study of fine arts history and appreciation.
It is time to change that.