School & District Management Opinion

The Arts: One More Victim of Common Core Testing - Part 1

By Starr Sackstein — August 02, 2015 5 min read
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Guest post by Douglas W. Green, EdD

Everywhere you look there are the arts, and their huge capacity to add value to our lives is something schools need to better understand.

Like many, I am convinced that the standardized testing that resulted from NCLB legislation and Obama’s Race to The Top has done significant harm to our educational system and the students it serves.

Here I take a look not only at its impact on the arts, but also some practices that schools commonly use and how I think they can be changed for the better. By the arts, I’m referring to music, art, drama, and dance as they are taught in schools.

Since standardized testing began, there has been pressure to spend more of the school day on the subjects being tested. From what I have seen, just about every district has increased lessons dealing with math and English language arts. In most schools the cost of extending the school day for such lessons is prohibitive so the extra math and ELA time has had to come from somewhere.

Certainly the arts have taken some of these cuts along with subjects like science, social studies, and physical education. In my school music was cut from twice a week to once every six days, which is a 60% cut. Art was only cut by 20% but it still took a significant hit. I haven’t seen a national study that details the average cutbacks for schools, but it is easy to find articles that focus on specific schools like mine.

Since much of the music program in a school falls into the extra curricular arena, it also tends to be a much bigger target for budget cuts in general. In New York State, for example, districts are generally limited to a 2% increase in their local tax levy each year unless they get permission of 60% of the voters to go higher. The drama and dance programs are also hit for the same reason.

How Music Education Should Change

As an amateur musician, I have a fairly good idea about this. I earned a varsity chorus letter in high school (please don’t laugh too hard), earned tuition money in college playing in a rock band, and have been a member of a number of church and community choirs since. As principal I played and sang for assemblies and for smaller groups. I still preform for school groups and do guest appearances in churches. My father played piano for a dance band in the 1920s and 30s so I guess I got my music gene from him.

In 1952 I began my music career thanks to a kindergarten activity called rhythm band. I don’t recall how often we did this during our half-day session, but it was far and away my favorite. The teacher passed out a rhythm instrument of some sort to each student and lead the band by singing and or playing the piano. In the last twenty years I have visited kindergartens in many schools and I have yet to see one with rhythm band in the curriculum. I think it’s time to bring it back. The instruments would be inexpensive but the teachers would need some musical skill. Perhaps the most musical kindergarten teacher in the school could do this activity with all kindergarten classes.

Over the years I have seen the work of many wonderful music teachers. I’ve seen schools with class sets of pianos and guitars and even one school with a class set of steel drums. Not only are the concerts great entertainment, but they also do a great job of pulling parents and other community members into the school. The lesson for all schools is if you want to get parents into your school, put their kids on stage. If there is a downside to what music teachers do, it can be traced to the fact that when they lead a group they are referred to as directors. What they essentially do is tell all students what to do, how to do it, and when to do it. This leaves little or no room for innovation or creativity on the part of the students. This is true to a lesser extent in sports where students have to do a lot of their own thinking once the game starts.

Some music teachers do, however, allow for creativity on behalf of the students. At just about any level you can challenge students to make up lyrics to a given melody. This can support the ELA effort as can reading lyrics while singing. After they learn a bit about musical notation, you can ask them to create their own melodies. At some point you can expect them to add harmonies. I suspect that students with better musical aptitude will go beyond class expectations and write more original music. I’ve even seen some music directors use student created work as performance pieces for school groups. Another place where students commonly improvise is the student jazz band. If your school has one or more of these groups be sure that the students create their own solo parts.

The Poverty Problem

Another problem the music program faces is growing participation with children who lack parental support and resources. Many performing groups have rehearsals in the evening. This almost always requires parents to get their children to school and pick them up. In my district many poor parents didn’t have cars and lived too far from the school to walk. While voices are free, instrumental groups often require the rental or purchase of instruments. Wealthier parents also routinely pay for private lessons to supplement what the school music teacher can do. Even though most band directors can play every instrument, there will be some instruments where they have little skill. This was the case for my daughter who played French horn. Without private lessons there was no chance that she would make the select band or the regional orchestra.

This problem became obvious to me the first time I attended a middle school concert that my daughter played in. At that time I was principal of a high poverty elementary school and my students feed into the same middle school as the elementary school my daughter attended. My school had a high minority and refugee population so our performing groups looked like a meeting at the United Nations. When I scanned the performing groups that night at the middle school, it was easy to see that only whites and Asians were included, and that almost all of the participants were from the wealthier schools. That prompted me to start my own little bus service to transport a car full of black kids to evening rehearsals.

This is part 1 of a 3 part series on the arts. Stay tuned as Dr. Green shares more ideas on drama, dance and the future in the next few weeks.

Dr. Doug Green is a former teacher of chemistry, physics, and computer science. He has held administrative positions of K-12 science chair, district director of computer services, director of instruction, and elementary principal. He teaches leadership courses for teachers working on administrative certification, and has authored hundreds of articles in computer magazines and educational journals. He retired in 2006 to care for his wife who had Lou Gehrig’s disease. After her death in March of 2009, he started his blog at //DrDougGreen.Com to provide free resources and book summaries for busy educators and parents. You can follow him on Twitter @DrDougGreen.

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