An extended version of my Huffington Post blog
The decline in music and arts courses in our schools is shocking. Even the most stressed-out classroom teacher will admit music and arts teachers have it worse than the rest of us. All teachers face the constant pressure of mandates that force us to dumb down education and center on teaching-to-the-test. All of us work in an environment of cronyism where teachers who speak out on the real problems in education are the target of intimidation and bullying by administrators to be silent. Teachers across the nation cringe every time we see an administrator change a failing grade to passing, because we know how much that hurts the child.
But on top of all this, music, arts, and electives teachers have to face the constant threat of eliminating their courses entirely. The worst part is knowing that cancellation is almost always based on two deliberate and intentionally misleading lies by school administrators covering up the real reasons for cancellation.
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The big lie – cancellation is a funding issue
In the urban high schools I researched over three years before writing Lifting the Curtain: The disgrace we can urban high school education, almost all of them had eliminated all arts, music, and electives during 9th and 10th grades. Hundreds of subsequent emails and posts reported the same in middle schools. In each case the reason given was “… a lack of funding.” But the real story was that funding had nothing to do with the cancellation – it was that there was no room in the curricula for these courses anymore. The elective class periods had all been preempted for standardized test prep.
Look at a typical 5-course freshman or sophomore day in school 20 years ago:
The electives slot was the joy for children. Here is where we painted, crafted, and learned about music. 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. But 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.
In most urban high schools, there are no electives, music, or arts courses in the freshman and sophomore years. Only in the last two years of high school, after the standard test are over, does a period become available for electives. But sadly, any elective that requires continuity and a progression of skills, like music and the arts, are no longer possible. It is akin to a football program – you sometimes get a freshman star, but the heart of a good team is the seniors who have been in the program for four years of development. A two-year football program will not be very good. A two-year band will have a hard time playing anything John Philip Sousa would be able to recognize.
The little lie – music and arts are too expensive
The second lie is one that sounds reasonable – music and arts are far too expensive for today’s school budgets. After all, it is true that equipping a large band or orchestra is expensive. But school administrators intentionally leave out an important factor in their effort to hide the need for test preparation classes. Today’s children love the low-budget music appreciation and arts courses, not the high-cost performance courses that administrators use as a red herring. There are plenty of great opportunities for music and arts without needing to purchase 76 trombones!
The newest lie — STEM
Recently there have been more and more instances of using “…the need for STEM” as the reason to usurp electives and the arts classes. (For non-teachers — STEM is Science, Technology, Engineering and Math — a set of courses centered on these topics.) Is STEM important? Yes — to those students whose passion is the sciences. Is it honorable or fair to focus on preparing all students into become engineers? I wonder what life would be like without Hemingway, or Mozart, or Rowling, or Angelou, or Lennon if they had been forced to go through some career DoE bureaucrat’s vision of a plain-vanilla, one-size-fits-all education?
STEM is a great idea for some, but it is just another lie to say it is a valid reason to eliminate the option of music and the arts for those whose passion is in the notes or the words that shape us all. Thankfully, there is a nationwide movement under the acronym STEAM (the “A” is for arts) to push back hard on this lie. I wish the above two lies were equally visible and resisted.
So, we have hit upon yet another unintended consequence of mandates that shortchange our children. In urban high schools across the nation, the freshman and sophomore children have at least one class each day dedicated to helping pass standardized testing – often one for both English and one for Math. This leaves no room for freshman or sophomore electives, art or music. Many schools are looking to add more test preparation classes for bio, chemistry, and history as those topics become part of standardized testing. In New York, a governor with no understanding of education and classroom realities is even looking at adding tests for music. And reprehensibly, many of the schools that still claim to have music and arts programs (largely in 11th and 12th grades, only) treat them as second class citizens with little support.
Nationwide, administrators focus only on protecting their positions and the school’s status 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 one or two classes each day are tied up with remedial test prep training? Where is there room for electives anymore? Where is there a space for creative writing? For law? For small business issues? For psychology? Where is can we fit band, art, home economics, study hall, or carpentry?
Once again, the real reason for the loss of arts and music in our schools is simple – too many mandates trying to compete for too little time. The career bureaucrats, year after year, do not understand something as obvious as that 7-8 classes cannot fit into a 5-6 class day – and our children are the losers.
We need to fix this.
KIRKUS and CLARION both praise the acclaimed book “…from the unique perspective of a classroom teacher” about our failing education system: Lifting the Curtain: The disgrace we call urban high school education. The 2nd edition includes dozens of teacher submissions from across the USA and nine new chapters.
Please get a copy HERE or on Amazon.