Schools Losing Ground in Arts
This is tragic.
by Robert A. Frahm
In New London High School, where an award-winning concert band depends
on a steady supply of talented young musicians, band director Scott
Morgan fears that the ranks are thinning.
When schools opened last week in New London, there were no longer any
instrumental music classes at elementary schools. At the middle school,
the sixth-grade band was eliminated, and seventh-grade band classes were
cut back to a half year.
"I'm getting a lot more students who have never played before," said
Morgan, one of four remaining music teachers in the 3,000-student
district. Three others lost their jobs this year.
Faced with serious budget strains, the city's public schools have made
some painful choices in recent years. More often than not, those choices
have tipped the scales against subjects such as music, art and physical
In part, the cutbacks reflect the intense focus on reading and
mathematics as schools in New London and elsewhere struggle to meet new
testing requirements, including the demands of the federal No Child Left
"If they're breathing down your necks about No Child Left Behind, what
are you going to cut?" Morgan said.
The No Child Left Behind Act focuses on testing children in reading and
math and will require testing in science by the 2007-08 school year.
Across the nation, educators worry that the combination of financial
pressures and the testing movement's growing influence has made other
"We are losing ground," said Scott Shuler, a specialist in dance, music,
theater and visual arts for the state Department of Education. "There
are some bright spots, but in general, elementary and middle school
[arts] programs in particular are under pressure because of the
reallocation of time to support the tested curriculum. ...
"The irony is, for many of these children, those subjects are the ones
that engage them in school."
A national sampling of school districts last fall by the Center on
Education Policy in Washington found that about 20 percent had reduced
time spent on arts and music to make more time for reading and math.
About 10 percent cut time in physical education, and 27 percent reduced
time in social studies, the survey found.
Those shifts are more likely to occur in school systems in impoverished
urban centers, said Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education
"They are feeling the pressure and putting extraordinary effort on
reading and math at the expense of other subjects," he said.
In New London, where more than two-thirds of the students are from
low-income families, the middle school and two of the five elementary
schools are on an academic watch list because they fell below standards
for No Child Left Behind.
As schools weigh financial options, "everything gets defined as
essential or nonessential - and the arts fall on the wrong side," said
Christopher Clouet, the city's superintendent of schools. With the
latest fiscal crisis, "we lost three art teachers and three music
teachers," he said. "That's huge for us."
It was discouraging, too, for students like 11-year-old Chris Baker, who
took alto saxophone lessons in elementary school last year and planned
to continue studying music as a sixth-grader this fall at New London's
Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School.
"I'd be in the middle school band," he said. "I was hoping, but they cut
The emphasis on raising reading and math scores has diminished the role
of everything from the arts to history to science, especially at
elementary schools in some of the poorest cities, said Sally Reis, an
education researcher at the University of Connecticut.
"It's a very serious concern," she said. "If learning isn't enjoyable,
you don't want to do it. ... The very kids who need to have an enriching
experience - it's being taken away in the guise of getting [test] scores
That kind of complaint has reached the U.S. Department of Education,
where officials insist that the suggestion that No Child Left Behind
squeezes out room for subjects such as art and music is inaccurate.
"It is both disturbing and just plain wrong," former U.S. Secretary of
Education Rod Paige wrote in a letter to the nation's school
superintendents a year ago.
The federal law identifies the arts as a core academic subject and
provides funds that can be used by schools to help disadvantaged
students through the arts, Paige said.
Assistant U.S. Secretary of Education Susan Sclafani said schools can do
a better job of incorporating the arts into the curriculum without
sacrificing basic reading and math teaching.
"Just saying you have 90 minutes of reading [a day] may sound good, but
if the kids are bored, ... then it's not an effective use of time. ...
What are they reading about? They could be reading about the history of
art, about great composers, about social studies and science."
In Hartford, officials saw an exodus of music teachers several years ago
when many were assigned to teach reading classes and were dismayed as
schools reduced time for bands, choral groups and the arts.
Although the school system no longer assigns music or art teachers to
fill in as reading instructors, the emphasis on raising test scores has
altered the nature of instruction in the arts, some teachers say.
"We're often told we have to tie all our objectives in with the
Connecticut Mastery Test," said Kay Saur, an art teacher at Hartford's
Teachers say that reading assignments - even when the subject matter is
related to the fine arts - limit the amount of time that students can
actually sing, play musical instruments, perform on stage or create artwork.
"At the high school, we definitely have to incorporate reading somewhere
in [class]," said Lori McCants, an art teacher at Weaver High School in
Hartford. "Whether it's five minutes, 10 minutes, some writing has to be
in there. It takes away from our production."
In the struggle to preserve arts programs, educators cite research
showing a link between strong arts programs and high academic
achievement. For example, Shuler, the arts consultant for the state
education department, points to studies showing that students who are
pulled out of regular classes for instrumental music lessons often
perform as well or better than other students in general academic subjects.
In New London, school board Vice President Kevin Cavanagh hopes that
schools can restore some of the art and music programs.
"We're trying to do more than educate people to take tests," he said.
"If you want children to read and do math, you have to make sure they're
interested in being in school.
"I'm very strongly pushing for arts and music. You look at the kids. You
see the excitement."
Robert A. Frahm
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES