Music education is a necessity, not a luxury
At this time of year, many of us gather to hear the sweet voices of children raised in holiday song. And yet, some of these voices are in danger of being stilled, at least in our public elementary schools. More and more public elementary schools statewide are giving up their music programs in answer to the pressures put upon them by No Child Left Behind. Music is not a tested subject, so it is not considered to be a priority.
It seems to many people that having an elementary school music program, taught by a specialist, is just a "pie in the sky" ideal -- not realistic. Most schools are so worried about raising test scores that a great deal of their money winds up invested in reading and math programs, consultants or anything else that can be seen as having a direct effect on those scores. It would be "nice" to have a music program, but it is not "necessary."
Why is it, then, that most public elementary school districts in the rest of the country have retained their elementary music programs, despite being under similar NCLB constraints? Why do our top private schools still maintain rigorous elementary music programs?
Music is not a luxury; it is an important part of a well-rounded education. Countless studies have proven how music education helps to improve IQ and even improves test scores and skills in reading and math. The introduction to music can be a life-changing event for some children, who might develop talents they never would have known they had otherwise. There are public schools in Hawaii that still believe enough in music and the fine arts to make them an important part of each child's education, but they are becoming rarer each year.
That is the crux of the problem -- the decision lies mostly with the school. While Act 51 has done many good things by giving back the power of decision making to the school, it also comes with the weight of having to decide what is important. One can hardly blame a school for being scared and putting most of its money toward resources proven to directly improve test scores. The consequences of not passing Adequate Yearly Progress under NCLB cause anything seen as a luxury to be dismissed.
Although not tested, music and the arts are still considered core subjects under NCLB. The integration of music and the arts into other subjects is being encouraged right now as a partial solution. But while integration is a part of the picture, it does not really address music and the arts deeply enough in their own right. Elementary teachers without music backgrounds do the best they can, but many feel intimidated when required to teach music. While May Day and holiday programs give the students a chance to perform and interact with the community, they do not stand alone as a substitute for a complete music program that addresses the state and national standards.
It should not be an unrealistic goal for every elementary school to have access to a qualified music teacher. Music is an integral part of culture. Every child, no matter their socioeconomic background, deserves to know who Beethoven and Bach are, and to be able to read, sing and play music. They need to have a concept of music that is broader than what they hear on the radio.
Our job as elementary school educators goes beyond the basics, or at least it should. We need to educate the whole child, not just potential test scores, to give our keiki the opportunities that each of them deserves.
Jenifer Tsuji is an elementary school teacher in Hilo, Hawaii.