American Music Education: A Struggle for Time and Curriculum

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Music teachers are normally an optimistic and progressive group. Over the past few years, however, I have heard more and more of my public school music colleagues say that they feel worn-out and frustrated by recent developments affecting American music education.

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In Illinois, where I teach, school districts have cut fine arts funding and even have eliminated music and fine arts programs altogether. Poorer and richer schools alike have experienced these cuts; few music programs have gone unhurt, including the district where I have taught music and currently serve as a middle school principal. During a two-year period, we cut one full-time staff position, eliminated our beginning band instruction, and canceled the school musicals and two performing groups. Our earned reputation as a school that supported music education did not stop these program cuts from becoming reality.

What is the current state of American music education? From my perspective as a public school practitioner, I believe that music education programs are in jeopardy nationwide. Aside from issues directly related to funding--issues that are vast, complex, and largely tied to the funding mechanisms provided by states and local school boards--I believe that music education must solve two lingering issues related to time and curriculum.

A NATION AT RISK?

Was the American education system at risk of failure? In 1983, the National Commission on Excellence in Education released its landmark report, A Nation at Risk, chronicling myriad problems in America's schools. Among the findings, the report concluded that American children spend much less time in school than their international peers. For example, American students attend for approximately one hundred and eighty days for six or seven hours per day, while students in England may spend up to eight hours per day and twenty more days per year in school than their American counterparts. The report also questioned the elective curriculum philosophy whereby students would choose their own course schedule and individual curriculum path in junior high and high schools. The report advocated a more prescriptive curriculum that focused on language arts, math, and science.

A Nation at Risk spurred a decade of additional studies and reports attempting to address these issues. Music and fine arts education were not immune. In 1988, the National Endowment for the Arts released its own ambitious study of arts education in American schools, Toward Civilization. The study found that American music education focused mainly on performance ensembles and performance skills, while largely ignoring musical understanding. It appeared to the authors that music education programs were providing talent education for a few children, instead of reaching a broader audience by teaching musical understanding to all children.

The ultimate impact of these reports was to question the amount of time needed to provide children with a well-rounded education. They also sparked discussions of what kind of content should be taught by music educators.

NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND: MUSIC BATTLES FOR TIME

In 2001, President George W. Bush successfully won reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), a law first passed by President Lyndon Johnson to establish the role of the federal government in local schools. The reauthorization, which has become known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB), established the new goals of high standards and achievement accountability for all children.

States were required to test all students in language arts, mathematics, and science. While most states were already testing their students, the law added new accountability standards that imposed sanctions upon schools which failed to meet prescribed benchmarks by the deadlines. These sanctions might include a reduction or cancellation of federal funding. …