A few days before the inauguration of the 46th President of the United States, art critic Jason Farago published an interesting piece on The New York Times with some ideas about how the new administration can address the current state of the arts education crisis. Mr. Farago explained how the U.S. is a country in dire need of turning to the arts as a means of healing from all the ailments Americans suffered throughout the previous year. The argument is undeniable: Art is an excellent form of catharsis, and it could definitely help American society at the present time.
Unfortunately, Mr. Farago also reminded us that artistic education has been in a crisis mode for decades, and this is something that music educators know very well. The continuing decline was something that everyone saw coming, and there was nothing political about it. For those who are outside the music education sphere, the worsening of the crisis is almost imperceptible because it has been unfolding for decades.
We know about the roots of the music education crisis in public schools; we know it boils down to higher operation costs prompted by a preference given to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). We also know about the perception of athletic programs having greater lucrative potential because of the outsized revenue generation capacity of the professionals sports industry. This perfect socioeconomic storm has resulted in music education budgets being severely cut. This has been going on since the 1990s, and it is partly due to a widespread belief that the grass is greener on the STEM side.
The aforementioned NYT article goes on to propose a few government programs that other countries have explored as a means to fix the additional mess the coronavirus pandemic brought on the arts. The proposals are mostly at the national policy level, but they also touch upon education. There is some hope in this regard, and it is directly related to Vice President Kamala Harris, whose marriage to Douglas Emhoff was sparked by a mutual appreciation for jazz. The Second Gentleman's children, Cole and Ella, are respectively named after the legendary jazz musicians John Coltrane and Ella Fitzgerald.
Should there be a refocusing on music education during the Biden administration, and we strongly hope there will be, it will take a few years before we can see granular results. In the meantime, we must start thinking in terms of what music educators can do to address the crisis at the stakeholder level. If we focus on music teachers and school administrators, we may notice a gap between these two stakeholder groups; this is not a situation that arises exclusively in times of crisis, but it can exacerbate things to the detriment of students.
How Much Can School Administrators Support Music Education Programs?
Before we get into discussing specific disconnections between school administrators and music teachers, let's review some of the roles of the former in the case of public schools:
- Execute the plan formulated by the school district.
- Work within the approved budget.
- Ensure curriculum standards are being maintained.
- Enabling communication between all stakeholders.
Granted, the functions above are just the tip of the iceberg for most school administrators, but those are the ones we will discuss within the idea of bridging gaps with the music department. Assuming that a public school music program is in place in spite of the crisis, chances are that it is underfunded and underestimated; for all practical purposes, herein lies the nature of the gap.
For the most part, school administrators can only work with what they are given. If a public school district is giving preference to STEM programs while sacrificing music education, the gap starts over the heads of administrators, but this does not mean that they cannot go the extra mile foe the purpose of making sure that students get the best education even when the odds are stacked against them.
Preventing the Gap From Getting Wider
Teachers who are aware of the music education crisis should make it a priority to not worsen the crisis. We already know about the gap originating at the district level, but simply going through the motions will only help to gradually widen the gap. There should be commitment to bridging the gap in the first place, and this requires the following:
- Establishing a good working relationship with administrators.
- Establishing an even better and closer relationship with other music teachers in the district.
- Understanding what administrators know about the music program.
- Going the extra mile when necessary.
The steps above can go a long way in terms of ensuring that the divide between the academic staff and the administration of the school does not become more pronounced.
Thinking Beyond the Classroom
If there is one thing that teachers and administrators will always agree on is that any academic curriculum should be beneficial to the community. In the case of STEM programs, the benefit has been hard-coded into the societal consciousness because we keep hearing about how technology innovation will save the world. In the case of music programs, the proof needs to be tasted from a bowl of pudding.
Teachers and administrators need to be on the same page with regard to the benefits that the community can derive from a music program. There needs to be a contribution, and we might as well be frank here: This means a performance, and it puts music teachers on the hook. Administrators will love to know that their underfunded and underappreciated music programs are bearing fruit despite all limitations; what better way of proving this than through a performance?
Even if the funding situation is so dire that not a single instrument can be procured for the program, a crafty music teacher will know how to put together some sort of vocal ensemble such as a choir, a tenor group, or an a cappella "band." A more ambitious project would be to get students into composing electronic music and performing with synthesizers on tablets and smartphones. The cherry on the cake would be invite parents and other members of the community to the performance.
Showing Administrators a Solid Music Program
Even when administrators know that their school music program gets little funding and attention from the district, they still hope that the curriculum is delivered and that students actually learn from it. As long as music teachers are able to establish a good professional relationship with school administrators, the latter will certainly accept an invitation to observe the classroom in action.
Although music teachers should always strive to create the most interesting and engaging lesson plans, it is always a good move to invite administrators over on a day when a special plan will be taught, and the administrators should be aware of this. Teachers need to be frank about their intentions; if the program is underwhelming, they must communicate this to administrators, but they should also let them know that not all hope is lost.
Let's say a teacher is able to invite a musician from the community to perform and interact with students during a class; this is showing that the educator not only cares but is willing to go the extra mile. Keep in mind that this does not always require a school visit because we now have the magic of video conferencing. The idea is to let administrators imagine how much more could be done if school district officials increased their attention and budget towards music programs.
Tapping Outside Resources
School administrators who are fond of music on a personal level are known to encourage parent-teacher associations (PTA) to put their minds together and figure out how to boost the music curriculum. When this is not encouraged, music teachers can take the lead and let administrators know about their intentions.
Putting together music booster groups will require approval from the administration and district officials; unfortunately, such approvals are not always granted because of potential legal issues, but the requests send a clear message about the desire to improve the music curriculum. When the PTA presents ideas that include the involvement of respected foundations, booster organizations are more likely to gain approval even at the district level.