NCLB: taking a toll on arts and music education

Shift in instruction noted in nearly all districts serving low-income students.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

As school districts across the nation respond to the challenges of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law, children are spending more classroom time on reading and math and as a result some are spending less time on music and art.

A study by the Center on Education Policy in Washington, D.C., released in March of this year, found that 71 percent of school districts surveyed reported that they had reduced instructional time in elementary schools for one or more subjects in order to increase time spent on reading and math. In 22 percent of the districts, elementary music and art instruction had been reduced, according to administrator reports.

Impoverished districts were the most affected by the shift in instruction. Nearly all the districts serving large numbers of low-income children, 97 percent, said they mandated additional time on language arts instruction, compared to 55 percent of districts with few poor families.

NCLB: theory and practice

NCLB includes the arts in its definition of core subjects, which would appear to be a boost for such instruction. Former Secretary of Education Rod Paige declared in a 2004 open letter to superintendents that “the arts, perhaps more than any other subject, help students to understand themselves and others, whether they lived in the past or are living in the present.” He said that states and districts have enough flexibility under the law to include arts in their curriculum and enumerated places where they could ask for discretionary federal money for arts programming.

In practice, however, a narrowing of the curriculum due to the law’s emphasis on testing results in reading and math is increasingly evident.

“I don’t think the arts have been singled out for cuts because of NCLB,” explained Larry Peeno, deputy director of the National Arts Education Association, which monitors trends in staffing and support for arts. “Now you have social studies people complaining just how arts people always have. . . . Now when we talk about the ‘core subjects,’ it’s really been narrowed down to just two [reading and math], despite what the law says.”

A story that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle is representative of the nationwide trend. Havenscourt Middle School in Oakland, in an attempt to boost test scores, requires students to take double periods of math and English every day. Electives have been eliminated, and children who want arts education have to get it after school from volunteer teachers. But schools with more resources, often in more affluent neighborhoods, have been able to retain electives by extending the school day.

In Philadelphia, where offering art or music is a school-based budget decision, the picture varies greatly from school to school. Such budgetary decisions are based on many factors, including the pressures for remedial reading and math instruction, cutbacks in overall allotments to schools, and availability of qualified teachers. A Notebook analysis of District teacher data found that only about a quarter of elementary schools have both a vocal music teacher and an art teacher, and one out of five have neither.

The Notebook analysis found no correlation in Philadelphia between whether a school has art or music instruction and whether a school makes adequate yearly progress (AYP) under NCLB, a benchmark based almost exclusively on reading and math scores.

The Center for Education Policy report has “set off a firestorm in policy circles, editorial boardrooms, and in Washington DC,” reported the blog of the Music for All Foundation.

One of the most outspoken critics of the reported trend has been Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, chairman of the National Governor’s Association as well as of the Education Commission of the States.

In a recent letter to the New York Times, Huckabee wrote, “Across the nation, schools are trimming back financing for music and the arts in the name of ‘efficiency’ and ‘core subjects.’ This is beyond short-sighted. It’s stupid…. Numerous studies affirm that a student schooled in music improves his or her SAT and ACT scores in math, foreign language, or creative writing. Creative students are better problem-solvers; that is a trait the business world begs for in its work force.”

Another kind of criticism came from 12-year-old Ulukaulupe, an Oakland middle school student, who, after his second math period of the day, told the San Francisco Chronicle: “No offense, but it’s kind of boring.”