Readin', Writin', Rhythm

By Kantrowitz, Barbara | Newsweek, April 14, 1997 | Go to article overview
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Readin', Writin', Rhythm

Kantrowitz, Barbara, Newsweek

After years of losing out to budget cutters, music and art are making a comeback in public schools

TWO YEARS AGO CHARLES R. BUGG Elementary in Raleigh, N.C., was a school in trouble. Test scores were below the county average, and there was little parental involvement. But now the school sings--literally. In a science class, students grasp the vastness of space by listening to Gustav Holst's symphonic suite "The Planets." Third graders studying language arts create original poems with a writer-in-residence and learn how to choreograph a dance to go with their verses. In music class, pupils learn about fractions as they study whole, half and quarter notes.

Bugg Elementary is one of 27 schools in North Carolina experimenting with ways of using the arts to improve basic skills. R's too soon to make any definitive judgments about whether the four-year pilot program, begun in the 1995-96 school year, will boost reading and math scores. But school officials say there's already plenty of evidence that integrating music and poetry into the curriculum stimulates kids' interest in other subjects. "Attendance is up and behavior problems are down," says Jim Fatata, principal of the Bugg school.

North Carolina isn't the only state taking a second look at the arts. Districts around the country are beginning to restore programs once eliminated as "luxuries" by financially strapped educators. According to a survey by the National Art Education Association, 28 states now require some arts study before high-school graduation, compared with only two in 1980. Even big urban systems are re-evaluating the arts. In Los Angeles the school board recently approved a motion to provide elementary-school students access to music lessons at least once a week. And New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani is pushing to bring art and music classes to all of his city's public schools.

Some of the renewed interest in these subjects grows out of research that shows kids learn best when they are exposed to a wide range of disciplines; that means art and music as well as reading and science. There's even some evidence that learning music can stimulate development of critical areas of the brain. One recent study of 78 preschoolers in California, for example, found that individual piano lessons did a better job of improving abstract reasoning skills than computer instruction.

Another inspiration for including the arts is the work of Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner.

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