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The important role of the arts in education for all students
A column by Herkimer-Fulton-Hamilton-Otsego BOCES District Superintendent Mark Vivacqua
reprinted from the NYSASCD newsletter

April 1, 2015


Remember when the music

Came from wooden boxes strung with silver wire

And as we sang the words, it would set our minds on fire,

For we believed in things, and so we'd sing.


When Harry Chapin wrote “Remember When the Music” 35 years ago he was likely harkening back to a day when music was respected for its intrinsic value, as well as giving some sober thoughtfulness to the idea that those days had passed. They had, and they have. At least for some of the most economically disadvantaged children among us.  

The most recent National Center for Educational Statistics data on the status of arts education in schools concluded that there had not been significant declines in music education in the last decade nationwide, but that availability for the most affluent communities increased at the same time as there were decreases in the most impoverished. Further, researchers such as David Rickels at Boise State caution that “access” to music education should not imply “equity”, as in many secondary schools with music education programs there are far fewer minorities and economically disadvantaged students participating.

New York State has repeatedly been identified as among the worst in the country in regard to the difference between the adequacy of resources it allocates to wealthy children in comparison to poor ones. Tough choices continue to be made in under-resourced schools, with the visual arts, drama, and music always seeming to be on the chopping block. In response, the case for music education in particular has convincingly been made by linking participation in music programs to improved achievement in core academic areas.

Research evidences higher ELA and math scores, improved memory, strengthened neural connections, adeptness at science- all attributed to music instruction. While this may be a welcomed pedagogical principle, as a political argument we need to tread lightly.

We have come to a sad state of affairs if music must be justified by its ability to create a better computer hardware engineer or clinical informatics specialist. Sadder still if such a justification is reserved for poor communities only. This seems to increasingly be the case. In our current market-driven educational system, education is important only to the extent that it can help provide the skillset a future worker can bring to an employer. Otherwise, we cannot afford it. Certainly, we must assist those who struggle to remain in the middle class, and those who aspire to reach the middle class, by providing them college and career ready skills. But should our responsibilities venture beyond a purely utilitarian function? These are not conversations that are common in our better-to-do communities.

Remember when the music

Was the best of what we dreamed of for our children's time

As we sang we worked, for time was just a line,

It was a gift we saved, a gift the future gave.


Music must be valued for all children on its own merits. Music as a commodity, as an interchangeable input in the production of something seen as more worthwhile, diminishes its importance. Especially in our economically disadvantaged communities, the power of music as a source of well-being, hope, a respected skill, and an outlet for expression cannot be ignored. Celebrate the positive influence of art and music participation on academic outcomes. Transform STEM to STEAM. But please take care not to advance the utility of music education in improving academic outcomes as its sole purpose or reason for existence.

Otherwise we risk contributing to ever-reduced options for students and the narrowing of what it means to be educated. As Chapin laments in the bridge:

Oh all the times I've listened, and all the times I've heard

All the melodies I'm missing, and all the magic words,

And all those potent voices, and the choices we had then,

How I'd love to find we had that kind of choice again.

 


- Mark Vivacqua,
  District Superintendent of
  Herkimer-Fulton-Hamilton-Otsego BOCES

 
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