As our students and teachers return to school – either in-person or virtually – there have been a lot of valid concerns raised. Availability of high-speed internet, access to computers, parents’ work schedules, safeguarding vulnerable teachers at their workplace … these are just some of the issues confronting us in this unprecedented situation. And while there are a variety of back-to-school strategies across our nation, and even among the Mississippi school districts, I’m worried about a trend that may only increase with a move towards distance learning: cuts to music and arts curricula.
About 20 years ago we saw a shift to the “No Child Left Behind” and “Common Core Standards” programs. This led to more standardized assessments of student progress, prioritizing test preparation and a focus on English and mathematics while de-emphasizing less-testable subjects such as art and music. And while these state tests can fall short in showing off some of our students’ talents, all too often, when schools face budget shortfalls, it is the arts courses that get cut first.
If there is one thing that parents and teachers could agree on, it’s that each student is an individual, with unique strengths and needs.
Aside from the more obvious variability in socioeconomic status or racial heritage, some students come to school with different family support or even food security. And while some students thrive in a traditional classroom setting with its structure and testing feedback, having a creative outlet in the school band can provide an opportunity for success for students who learn differently. When it comes to self-esteem and a peer group, for many students these are the foundations that can snowball into success at school and for all that follows.
We all knew those classmates who were a little quieter or more creative; maybe you were one (I was). When given the opportunity to learn about music or art, many students can find an outlet for expressing themselves or even relieving anxieties. These subjects may be categorized as activities rather than core curricula, but they are invaluable to a “whole child” approach to education because of their ability to provide an inclusive environment. For school districts struggling to achieve benchmarks for student success, one of the best ways to address an “achievement gap” is to ensure access to the arts.
Many studies, including one from Missouri public schools in 2010, have shown that an arts education will significantly improve test scores and attendance and can lead to greater problem-solving and fewer disciplinary infractions.
It is not hard in Mississippi to find communities with higher rates of poverty or other challenges, where students may not have a two-parent home, let alone access to private music lessons.
There even have been reports of higher incidences of domestic abuse during the months-long COVID quarantines. For these children, access to art, music or theater at school may represent a literal lifeline.
This year our schools have been tasked with implementing an array of safety measures to prevent transmissions of COVID, or to enable distance learning, and the price tag has been significant. For administrators awaiting financial relief from state or federal lawmakers, they may be facing some very hard decisions as any legislative compromise seems to be getting harder to achieve.
Further cuts to the arts would have a serious negative impact on our students; let’s hope there will be another way to address 2020 budget shortfalls.
Chris Werle of Lamar County is Mississippi state coordinator for the Citizens’ Climate Lobby. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.