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Arguing for Arts Education

Music and art training is essential to 'growing up complete,' says a major US report

IN a display of unprecedented unity, the nation's music and educational communities have sent an urgent message to federal and state policymakers: "America is losing its soul" - musically speaking, that is. Composers, rock musicians, music teachers, principals, and others have raised their voices demanding that music and other arts be included at the center of school curricula, because experience in the arts is "fundamental to what it means to be an educated person."

In a report presented to members of Congress in March, the recently formed National Commission on Music Education calls for a more balanced approach to education reform efforts. Government leaders have expressed alarm over falling math and science scores, the commission says, but when it comes to student participation in the arts, they have been silent.

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"We believe such nearsighted concern shortchanges our children because it leaves them only half-educated," the report states.

One example of disproportionate funding and attention, it says, is that the United States government spends 9 1/2 cents on arts support for every $100 it spends on support for science. Indeed, the National Science Foundation expenditures for science education ($180 million out of $1.8 billion) exceed the entire budget of the National Endowment for the Arts ($170 million).

Beginning last fall, arts advocates held public forums in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Nashville to gather data for the report and to hear witnesses tell of a decline in music and arts education in the public schools.

Stuart Gothold, superintendent of the Los Angeles County Office of Education, testified that 99 percent of children in his district do not receive a comprehensive K-12 arts program. When budget cuts loom, music and art programs are considered the most expendable, other testifiers said, because of a perception that the arts are a diversion or "curricular icing."

"This perception has been around for a long time," says Karl Glenn, president of Music Educators National Conference, in a phone interview. His organization sponsored the forums and the report along with the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences Inc. and the National Association of Music Merchants.

"It's important not to separate the arts out from other parts of life. Art and life are one," says Mr. Glenn, who is also orchestra director at Cass Technical High School in Detroit.

THE report was prompted, says Glenn, by the omission of any reference to the arts in the 1990 statement of six educational goals outlined by the president and the nation's governors.

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"Growing Up Complete: The Imperative for Music Education" follows a 1988 report called "Toward Civilization: A Report on Arts Education" issued by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) at the request of Congress. "Growing Up Complete" is meant to be a private-sector extension of the latter, Glenn says.

More than 60 national and international groups have endorsed the report, including Future Business Leaders of America, the Educational Testing Service, the National School Boards Association, and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

The report maintains that music and the arts have played a vital role in the education of civilizations. The document also says participation in the arts promotes achievement in other subject areas by developing motivation, self-esteem, and discipline.

"We think about the arts as somehow inspirational or entertainment, but the actual fact is, when you're engaged in arts production, you're using your mental capacities in a very intensive and broad way," says Eric Oddleifson, president of the Center for Arts in the Basic Curriculum in Hingham, Mass., a national arts advocacy group of business people. This "spills over into academic subjects as well."

Mr. Oddleifson cites mounting research by psychologists who link the arts to the learning process, and the center's own documentation of poorly performing schools whose test scores improved after incorporating the arts into their curricula.

Similarly, "Growing Up Complete" spotlights findings within the research community, including the work of Howard Gardner, a psychologist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., who believes that "musical intelligence" is present in everyone as a possible avenue for learning.

In considering skills like creativity, problem solving, and being team players, "we know the arts contribute increasingly to people being able to do those things," says David O'Fallon, director of arts and education at the NEA. Yet when it comes to school reform, he says, "there isn't ever going to be a single magic bullet that says the arts by themselves are going to do it."

The report also emphasizes the need to teach music and art for art's sake, for its sheer beauty and intrinsic value.

SPEAKING at one of the public forums, Robert Marsh, classical music critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, described music education as a "moral force." Quoted in the report, he says, "Commerce does not create civilizations, art does, because that task requires grappling with the deepest questions of human life and meaning."

Stating that change "cannot be imposed from the top down," the report concludes that "it must grow from the roots up" - meaning that it is up to the music community, parents, school faculty, and officials on state and local levels to work for reform.

"I think it's important for parents to go to the board of education and say, 'we want arts programs,' " says Tammy Steele, a member of the Chicago Coalition for Arts in Education. She agrees that grass-roots initiatives are a key element. Parents can "get involved with parent-group arts committees, or start an arts committee for their school. Sometimes you can get corporations to adopt your school and help to provide arts," she says.

Fund-raising by parents enabled the John Eliot Elementary School in Needham, Mass., to have a poet-in-residence program. "Parents can make a huge difference," says Principal Miriam Kronish. When an arts activity is seen to be beneficial for children, she says, "what happens is, the school system says, 'That was really good. Why can't we see how we can get this as part of the regular school day?' "

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