21 March 2014

Arts & Education

[In the past several months, the PBS program NewsHour ran two reports on arts programs in public education, a subject readers of ROT will know is important to me.  The first report, “Arts Education,” covers the arts in all its manifestations, particularly visual and performing arts.  In the second report, “Making Sure Young Brains Get the Benefits of Music Training,” we learn about a program devoted to music education specifically.  As I hope I argued successfully in “Degrading the Arts,” 13 August 2009 on ROT, I believe the arts are a necessary part of our culture and that every child needs to be introduced to its many forms early so they will appreciates its values and benefits.  Unfortunately, as we all know, when budgets shrink, the arts are often among the first parts of a school’s curriculum to be cut.  We’ll see below several innovative ways some schools and districts are bringing back the arts into the lives and education of their students—and how much the children appreciate the experience and crave more exposure.]

Reported by John Merrow

[The following story was reported on the PBS NewsHour on 27 November 2013.  It was produced by Cat McGrath and edited by Jessica Windt.]

JUDY WOODRUFF: Schools nationwide are implementing new shared standards in math and reading, but what about for the arts? Are those required to be taught as well?

The NewsHour’s special correspondent for education, John Merrow, has this report.

JOHN MERROW: Most public schools in the United States offer some sort of music instruction, but according to a federal government report, about four million elementary school students do not get instruction in the visual arts.

WOMAN: Not by the hair on my chinny chin chin.

STUDENTS: Not by the hair on my chinny chin chin.

JOHN MERROW: Ninety-six percent of public elementary schools do not offer theater or drama and 97 percent do not offer dance.

These grim numbers contradict what most states say about the arts; 46 states require that the arts be taught in elementary school, including North Carolina, which mandates that every student receive equal access to art instruction. It’s a law that doesn’t seem to be enforced.

Jones County, in rural North Carolina serves 1,200 students, most from low-income families. While its four elementary schools do offer music instruction once a week, not one offers instruction in dance, theater or art.

JIMMI PARKER, Maysville Elementary School: Every year we kind of joke about it and we ask, oh, are we getting an art teacher this year? I mean, I was hired into this county probably 10 years ago. And I cannot remember having an elementary art teacher.

JOHN MERROW: With no art teacher on staff, principal Jimmi Parker of Maysville Elementary has had to rely on local talent.

JIMMI PARKER: We do our best. We have volunteers come in. All kinds of artists live in our area.

JOHN MERROW: These sixth graders remember when a professional artist came to their school for a month.

STUDENT: I liked the work we did with her, when we did the shadows with the trees.

STUDENT: Oh, this is really cool.

JOHN MERROW: Unfortunately, that was three years ago, when these students were in the third grade.

Would you like to have more art?


JOHN MERROW: Two hours west of Jones County, the picture is very different. Like Maysville, Bugg Elementary School in Raleigh serves mostly low-income families. But, unlike Maysville, Bugg has four full-time certified arts teachers in dance, music, the visual arts, and theater.

I asked these fifth graders how many minutes of the arts they have in a week.

STUDENT: During the week, the calculation would be about nine hours.

STUDENT: I would say about 15 hours.

STUDENT: I would say around 10 hours a week.

JOHN MERROW: OK. So we have got seven-and-a-half, 10, nine.

MICHAEL ARMSTRONG, Bugg Elementary School: I love the idea that the kids couldn’t fully answer that.

WOMAN: So she called up the doctor and the doctor said...

JOHN MERROW: Michael Armstrong is principal at Bugg Elementary.

MICHAEL ARMSTRONG: They definitely have 45 minutes a day with a true, trained arts teacher. And then, because all of our staff are trained in the arts, that will bleed over into more time.

MARIA EBY, Bugg Elementary School: I’m going to turn into the beanstalk now and I want you to understand the beanstalk’s side of the story.

JOHN MERROW: First grade teacher Maria Eby is using the story of Jack and the Beanstalk to teach drama and science.

MARIA EBY: We are studying plants and what they need and what they give and how they relate to the world.

What are three things that plants do for us?

STUDENT: They give us food.

MARIA EBY: They give us food, like beans.

And then the drama part of it, they had to improvise as that character.

You are the old lady that gave them the beans. And why did you let him in the castle?

STUDENT: Because...

JOHN MERROW: What’s the goal? Do kids learn more?

MARIA EBY: Well, children all learn in different ways. And its our job to make sure we’re presenting things in different ways.

JOHN MERROW: But nobody said dress up like a beanstalk.

MARIA EBY: Nobody made me do that, no. That was my own free will.

MICHAEL ARMSTRONG: Pull out your iPads with your portfolio on it, OK?

JOHN MERROW: This school feels rich.



MICHAEL ARMSTRONG: Not at all. There’s two parts to that. The money is one part. Mind-set is another whole thing. So if you really believe that the arts are of power, that alone can have an impact. And if you don’t have that mind-set, then I don’t think there’s enough money in the world to pay for a strong enough arts program.

JOHN MERROW: But money makes a difference.

Bugg Elementary is what’s known as a magnet school. Magnet schools receive additional resources to attract a diverse student body. Bugg gets an extra $406 per child, nearly $250,000 a year. Principal Armstrong spends much of that money on the arts, and says he has watched his students thrive.

MICHAEL ARMSTRONG: Students that have been in this program from kindergarten to fifth grade have a higher self-confidence, have a higher understanding of how they learn, and are actually making higher test scores.

JOHN MERROW: In contrast, instead of the arts, Jones County has focused its efforts on improving math and reading instruction. Over the past few years, both schools have improved, although Maysville Elementary has outperformed Bugg on most state tests.

This year, the mind-set in Jones County seems to be changing. The district hired an elementary art teacher.

CINDY O’DANIEL, Maysville Elementary: You see all the different kinds of coral.

JOHN MERROW: At Maysville Elementary, Cindy O’Daniel teaches seven art classes, back to back, with just one break and no time between classes to set up or clean up.

I was looking at your schedule. It’s a pretty hectic day.

CINDY O’DANIEL: We move quickly. But the 45 minutes is a better time slot to get something accomplished. And I have other schools that it’s 30 minutes, and so it’s hurry up and start, and hurry up and finish.

Hey, you guys, listen up. We’re running out of time.

JOHN MERROW: One of her classes is actually two kindergarten classes combined.

CINDY O’DANIEL: It is organized chaos, and it’s tough to get around to all the students in a regular class size in 45 minutes.

JOHN MERROW: And Maysville is not her only school.

How many schools do you teach in?


JOHN MERROW: How many kids do you work with?

CINDY O’DANIEL: I haven’t slowed down long enough to figure it out.

JOHN MERROW: Nationwide, nearly half of elementary school art teachers work in more than one school. I asked the students at Bugg how they would feel about having only 45 minutes of art a week.

STUDENT: I guess if I had never been in this school to start with, I would think it’s normal. But now that I’m here, I realize if I were to go to another school and it only has 45 minutes of art, I wouldn’t feel like it’s a real school.

CINDY O’DANIEL: I would love for it to be every other day. I would like them to have more time to think, more time to absorb, to assess information, instead of hurry up, hurry up, clean up, time is running out.

JOHN MERROW: Do the kids at your school get enough art?

JIMMI PARKER: No. They still don’t get enough art.

JOHN MERROW: How much is enough?

JIMMI PARKER: I guess enough would be when the kids are satisfied. When we ask them, do you get enough art, and they can say, yes, I feel like I have art in everything I do every day. It might not ever reach that point, but when they tell us they’re getting art, that will be enough.

JOHN MERROW: You’re a ways from there.

JIMMI PARKER: A long ways from there, a long ways.

JOHN MERROW: In 2014, a coalition of arts organizations will release new standards for the arts. But it will be up to each state to decide whether to adopt and enforce them.

*  *  *  *
[The following report aired on PBS NewsHour Weekend, 4 January 2014.]

Reported by JOSH ARONSON

[The percentage of students receiving music education has been in decline for decades. The Harmony Project, a music program for inner-city kids in Los Angeles partners with a neurobiologist to study the impact of music training on the learning skills of poor children.]

JOSH ARONSON: Vianey Calixto lives in one of the poorest neighborhoods of Los Angeles and like many of her friends she was struggling in school.

Vianey’s interest in learning music prompted her parents to enroll her in a music program in their neighborhood called the Harmony Project. In the three years since, much has changed in Vianey’s life.

ARTICLE TOOLSPrintEmailVIANEY CALIXTO:   Music is like a dialogue because we can play a certain thing  - let’s say the violin can play something back –it could be the same melody different notes and it’s like a conversation talking back and forth.

JOSH ARONSON: Serving more than 2000 students with a budget of 2.5 million dollars, the mostly privately funded Harmony Project is filling a gap in low-income areas where schools have cut music education programs.  Students get at least 5 hours of music classes and rehearsals each week year round. For poor students it’s tuition free including their instrument.

Fifty-nine-year-old Margaret Martin started the Harmony Project in 2001 after witnessing something on the streets of her hometown – Los Angeles.

MARGARET MARTIN:  This party of badass LA gang members comes walking through a farmers’ market and stops to listen to a tiny kid playing Brahms on a tiny violin. They had shaved heads, tats, gang clothing, and attitude. After five or six minutes without saying a word to one another I watched those gang members pull out their own money and lay it gently in the child's case. Those gang members were teaching me that they would rather be doing what the child was doing than what they were doing but they never had the chance. 

MARGARET MARTIN:  Harmony Project is a researched based replicable program and we commit to our students for their entire childhood.

JOSH ARONSON: The programs are started purposely in tough inner city areas to serve children of poverty.

MARGARET MARTIN:  We know that dropout rates are about 50 percent in the neighborhoods where we built Harmony Project Programs.

More than 80 percent of poor black and Hispanic kids do not read at grade level. 

JOSH ARONSON: It’s well documented that children whose mothers have little education, are rarely being read to and verbal interaction is minimal. Scientists believe that this not only puts them behind in school but those children rarely catch up because their brains are not be developing as rapidly as the brains of more stimulated kids.

MARGARET MARTIN:  Early sustained music learning is actually the frame upon which education itself can be built for low-income kids.

JOSH ARONSON: Margaret Martin was convinced of that because of the graduation rate of kids who have gone through her program. This year, she says, 93 percent of them finished high school in four years and went to college. But Martin acknowledges she does not have the formal training to prove that music helps kids grasp language better and become more proficient readers. So she enlisted the help of this woman. Her name is Dr. Nina Kraus. She is a neurobiologist at NorthwesternUniversity and for 25 years she has studied how the brain processes information – the neurobiology of auditory learning.

JOSH ARONSON: What is the connection between sound and reading?         

DR. NINA KRAUS: Well there's a connection with sound and reading in that when you're learning to read you need to connect the sounds of words that you've heard for many years with the symbol on the page. So you're making a sound to meaning connection.

JOSH ARONSON:   No one has ever proven conclusively that music improves learning, and some studies have found no link at all. But, after being contacted by Martin, the Northwestern scientist designed tests to measure the impact music had on this group of low-income kids.

Dr. Kraus started in 2011 with a group of 80 students from an LA gang zone. The students came from similar backgrounds and were all motivated to learn music at the Harmony Project. Half the kids were selected to start music study then and the other half, the control group, waited a year to begin. Dr. Kraus’s team took a mobile testing lab to LA at the beginning and then once a year for two years, to assess the change in the kids’ brain response in specific areas important for good reading and learning skills.

JOSH ARONSON:  What are some of the tests like that you actually do on these kids to measure these things?

DR. NINA KRAUS:  We’re very interested in children's rhythmic skills. And so we ask them to tap along with a steady rhythm.

So if you just present a beat like on a metronome and you ask a child to tap along with a beat, that ability is linked with reading ability.

LAB TECHNICIAN: Ready set go.

DR. NINA KRAUS:  We ask them to listen to words or parts of words…

LAB TECHNICIAN: Imagine that you are at a party – there will be a woman talking and several other talkers in the background.

DR. NINA KRAUS:  We ask them to listen sentences that are presented in noisy backgrounds and they have to repeat back as much of the sentence that they were able to hear . . .

SPEAKER RECORDING AND THEN KID IN THE LAB REPEATS:  The pencil was cut to be sharp . . . .

DR. NINA KRAUS:  And of course the background gets noisier and nosier and it gets harder and harder to hear the sounds.

CHILD IN LAB:   A toad and a frog each had to tell a tale

DR. NINA KRAUS:   People who had musical training are better at hearing speech in noise. And it's not that different from what you're asking your nervous system to do when you're listening for a teacher’s voice in a noisy classroom.

And so we just simply know that if we ask people to repeat back sentences that are presented to them in background noise that if you have musical training, that you are better at repeating back the sentences accurately than if you did not have that musical training.

JOSH ARONSON: I guess that’s especially true when a child is sitting in an orchestra and has to distinguish the sound he's making, and his section is making, from all the other sounds in the orchestra.

DR. NINA KRAUS: Exactly.

JOSH ARONSON: So the red is the group of kids who have had music experience and between year one and year two the perception in noise is a straight line up.

And the black line represents the Control Group that started music in year two. Their comprehension of meaning in a noisy environment goes up only then, after they started music.

DR. NINA KRAUS: And the kids who have now had 2 years of musical experience are continuing to make gains.

Music education is an important investment in teaching a child all kinds of skills.

JOSH ARONSON: Dr Kraus is still analyzing data. But she says preliminary findings suggest music may enhance the neurological development of kids in the Harmony program who had been behind in school.

DR. NINA KRAUS:  You can document that kids who have had musical education now have nervous systems that respond more accurately and precisely to meaningful elements in language.

VIANEY CALIXTO: In science I had very low grades and then once I started learning about music and being able to practice and concentrating, my science grades have gone higher and so have my other grade in other subjects. I would concentrate in my music and it was something to be focused on and not be bothered by anyone. I was using that on my homework and on any type of class work also. Science is now one of my best subjects.

JOSH ARONSON: And you like it now?

VIANEY CALIXTO: Yes I love it.

JOSH ARONSON: What do you say to those who say …well these kids all listen to music? They are listening all the time. Why doesn’t that work?

MARGARET MARTIN:  Nobody ever got fit watching spectator sports. Doing it transforms your nervous system. It makes you basically a better learner.

JOSH ARONSON: Who‘s to say that arts education in general whether it’s dance or painting might be as beneficial as music in terms of developing learning skills for these kids?

DR. NINA KRAUS:    There have been a number of studies. And the language abilities seem to be strengthened by the music instruction more than the art. And so these language-based skills seem to profit from music instruction.

JOSH ARONSON: The Harmony Project has 17 sites in Los Angeles and one in Ventura. And there are 16 more in three other states.

CONDUCTOR: Here we go. From the Allegro. Measure 37 . . .

JOSH ARONSON: What are the goals, where do you want to take this?

MARGARET MARTIN:  Oh man, my dream is to build Harmony Project programs in inner cities throughout the country because our students are achieving their unique potential. They are blossoming.


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