The Music Education Paradox
The state of music education is quite grim. In these times of economic turmoil, music education is often seen as a luxury when it comes to balancing public school budgets. In addition, increased demand for standardized testing leaves little room in the school day for music instruction. As a result, we see more and more school districts either downsizing music departments by cutting music teacher positions or scrapping the department altogether, helping to cause student enrollment in music courses and ensembles to be the lowest it has been in decades. This is clearly portrayed in the “Sound of Silence” report from the California Music Project. This report analyzed information from the California Basic Educational Data System (CBEDS) and found staggering results. Between the years of 1999-2004, there was a 50% decline in student enrollment in music education, which equates to 512,366 students. As a result, 1,053 music teachers were cut in the state of California.
As an undergraduate music education major, I have a unique viewpoint on this issue. Since it is required as part of a music undergraduate program to observe teachers in different settings, I have had the opportunity to talk with many teachers about the state of the profession. These teachers, most of whose departments are victims of staff cuts and downsizing, see their programs as “hanging in there”. While this is certainly good in the sense that the program is still in existence, it is quite unsettling when put into context of the purpose of music education. After all, as stated in MENC’s The Value and Quality of Arts Education, “…arts instruction should be carried out with the same academic rigor and high expectations as instruction in other core subjects”. Clearly, we cannot expect music education to perform to this expectation given the situations many departments are in.
The overwhelming majority of music departments that I have observed have had declining student enrollment. Bands that just ten years ago had a force of 150 are now struggling to get 70. What were full choruses are now reduced to mere chamber ensembles. This is where we see a huge paradox in music education. The importance of music education is widely recognized, from politicians to business leaders. We can see this clearly from a response given at a town hall rally by then-candidate Barack Obama in 2008:
The research has been done – music education is a positive influence on students in many ways, both emotionally and academically, which better prepares them for their futures. Students in Los Angeles proved that when music was integrated with other core subjects, they performed better, and had better behavior. A research project done in Texas reports that students who are actively involved in band or orchestra have the lowest current and long-term use of illegal drugs. So, if it is recognized and backed by research, how is it that music departments are at a higher chance of getting cut or downsized than they have been in decades? How can school districts simply cut out such an essential part of the educational process with no reprimand except for whatever attempt the community may make in reversing the decision? There is no requirement for school districts to have a functional music department. States set forth standards to be achieved in arts education, but despite the research, schools are not required to have music. So when it comes time to balancing the school budget, the easiest things to cut are the programs that the schools aren’t required to have – and unfortunately, music education is included in this.
In education today, standardized tests mandate the subjects that are emphasized in our schools. The unfortunate truth is that untested subjects are often seen as unimportant, and therefore receive less support from administration. This lack of administrative support is the major cause in disintegrating music programs across the country. Unsupportive administrators and school boards can too easily dissolve the music program simply because it takes up part of the budget and it isn’t required to have in order to receive funding for the school.
When we consider the state that our profession is currently in, both in terms of quality and longevity, I think it is important to consider the biggest factor affecting every aspect of the profession. This factor has to do with support – financial and political. If the support isn’t there from the administration of the school, it will directly impact the teaching of the teacher. Scheduling automatically becomes more difficult for arts programs and has severely negative effects on enrollment. Financial cuts can directly affect music teachers’ teaching quality when they are forced to stretch themselves too thin to cover cut positions or take on extra responsibility to make up for lost funds. Students feed off of a music teacher’s energy and enthusiasm – both of which are rarely present when a teacher is overwhelmed. Financial cuts not only adversely affect the bottom line of a music department, but take a toll on the ability of the teachers as well.
In conclusion, to improve the state of our profession we have to get advocates to “put their money where their mouth is” – literally. It is not enough anymore for politicians and administrators to tell us that what we are doing is important. This verbal support has been present for years, but it is the lack of action that has put our profession in its current state. Many times advocates of music education talk to themselves. We speak, tweet, and share emails about the importance of music education in the lives of our students to other advocates. While this dialogue is important, it is essential for us to start talking to representatives, administrators, board members, and others who ultimately decide the fate of music programs in public education. Advocates in the past have made great strides in proving the value of a quality music education in schools. It is our job to take that value, that philosophy of the importance of music education, and put it into practice.
Want more great music education content?
Keep in touch with Leading Notes by following us on social media or subscribing to our newsletter!