While the United States used to pride itself on the percentage of its young people who successfully passed through the higher education system, things have changed drastically over the last decade. Now, education policymakers are focusing all their energies and monies on preparing K-12 students for “college readiness” — and the best way they can come up with a quantifiable way to assess “readiness” is…
…wait for it…
…more high stakes testing! Testing that begins as early as second grade.
But the US has a bigger problem than limited college access; it has an issue with college completion.
As much and as often as our education system tests our kids, it is clear that many of them still do not have the tools it takes to survive four years of higher education. While systems spend all of their time, energy, and resources creating test-prep factories for our kids, the data continues to show that schools are barking up the wrong tree. In the wake of all this testing is a slew of cuts to arts programming. First on the list: instrumental music classes and lessons.
But the 5 billion pound elephant in the room is that the skills required to succeed in college — and in life beyond college — can’t be quantified on a test. Grit, curiosity, drive, and character are some of the most crucial characteristics a successful person can have, but since policymakers, superintendents, and principals can’t put a number to it on a report card, these skills are politically useless in our education system. Yet the mantra of many “reformers” is that our public schools must prepare ALL of our students for college; a path that does not seem likely to work out for the majority of them, especially in schools of poverty. The irony that music education teaches all the skills necessary for our children (and therefore our schools) to succeed, yet music programs are being drastically cut, is an issue that needs to be more on the forefront of all parents’ minds.
Here are 4 reasons why schools must embrace music as the nucleus of an education which gives students the tools to complete a college degree:
- All children have a ton of talent. Instrumental music instruction in school is a tremendous way of helping students realize all sorts of talents — not only musical talent, but creativity and a love of learning at the very least. Instead of helping students find these talents, many schools use an assembly line method and massive testing to push kids through the system and into college, where many end up failing to complete four years.
- Children shouldn’t be afraid to fail. Music is one of the few subjects where students can fail and it’s okay. Testing leaves students too frightened of being wrong, and they stop wanting to try. Since children at a young age are usually not afraid to fail, music instruction in schools can help continue to cultivate this fearlessness.
- Music as a core subject balances out the practice of conformity. If schools are interested in the true model of learning to be creative, they would shun the production line mentality. The growth of standardized testing and standardized curricula is exactly that — teaching all students the same things in the same ways. But that is not how you teach creativity and critical thinking skills, and the data regarding college retention rates is evidence of this. Teaching the arts on a daily basis — specifically instrumental music — opens up creative pathways in children’s brains that could never exist with a “standardization mentality” school schedule.
- Just because most educational leaders weren’t musicians doesn’t mean it isn’t exactly what children need. Sad but true, in my estimation most school administrators did not pursue music for a majority of their K-12 experience. I wish I could do a study of why — the findings may be fascinating. And now that these folks are running schools, they think creativity means letting oneself go and running around wildly (or something). But studying music is a disciplined process that requires skill, knowledge, and lots of control. It requires imagination and inspiration, and if administrators would be more creative with their approach to education, teaching creativity would be a disciplined path of daily instruction.
- Students perform better when they are inspired. All people perform better when they’re exposed to things that inspire them. Not everyone is inspired by learning an instrument, but most are, and certainly more than we have involved in school music programs up until now. The massive attrition in instrumental music after one year of study is due to a top down philosophy of an impersonal form of education — children sitting in rows and prepping for tests — which gives instrumental music teachers no time to guide students to be impassioned about playing their instruments. When children find things they’re good at, they get better at everything because their confidence is up and their attitude is different.
Everyone knows that instrumental music instruction is great for kids — of course, no one thinks it is bad for them. But our culture of standardized testing has led us all to believe that if you can’t put a number to something, it doesn’t matter. Ironically, all the skills our education system is trying to impart to our children in the spirit of “college readiness” are hard, if not impossible, to quantify. But that doesn’t mean they don’t matter.
My dream is that our educational leaders will soon realize that their policies do not work, and what is most important is that we educate human beings to be critical thinking, creative contributors to the world we live in. A marriage to scores on tests does not accomplish this, but an immersion in learning music does — and greatly increases the chances of our children succeeding in college and beyond.