Full-time art, music teachers: a dwindling breed?

Most schools cannot afford both a music and an art teacher; 66 schools have neither.

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

Once, the Philadelphia School District was a flagship for instruction in the arts, with certified music and art teachers in virtually every school. Today, it is struggling to rebuild that reputation as it faces tighter revenues, a shortage of qualified teachers, and pressure to spend more time on reading and math.

Today, less than a third of the city’s public schools have both art and music teachers. The majority of the rest have one or the other, but 66 schools have neither, according to a Notebook analysis of teacher staffing patterns.

Increasingly, students are getting art and music instruction through extracurricular programs and short-term visits from outside artists, not as part of their everyday learning.

Still, CEO Paul Vallas maintains that the District is not “shortchanging” the arts. Among other things, he said, it is one of the few in the country to write a core curriculum for the arts, has expanded partnerships with local arts organizations, plans to open at least two new creative and performing arts high schools, started programs in Asian and Puerto Rican music, and recently invested $1.7 million to buy instruments to restore high school bands and orchestras.

“We’ve made progress in all areas except for full-time art and music teachers,” Vallas said. “Nobody can tell me there’s been slippage here on my watch.”

As of May, 133 District schools – 50 percent – have no full-time music teacher, and 121 have no full-time art teacher (see list). These are higher numbers than four years ago, when Philadelphia Citizens for Children and Youth produced a report on declining numbers of art and music teachers just before Vallas took the reins of the District. That report said 82 schools did not have full-time art teachers, and 83 lacked full-time music teachers.

Since 2002-03, as District enrollment has declined, the number of art teachers in the District has declined by 16 percent, compared to a reduction in the overall teacher workforce of 5 percent. For music teachers, the decline has been about 7 percent.

Racially isolated schools, those at which more than 90 percent of the students are non-white, are somewhat more likely than other schools to lack music and art teachers. Seventy percent of the 66 schools with neither art nor music are racially isolated, compared to 62 percent of all District schools.

The median poverty rate of the schools with no art or music teacher is 79 percent, which is the same as the District’s rate. However, few magnet schools or schools in the Northeast, which have the highest percentages of middle-class students, lack both art and music teachers.

The decision whether to hire or retain art and music teachers rests with principals, who must juggle testing demands and wish-lists with available funds. Most schools have seen their budgets and teacher allotments shrink over the past several years, even as they are being held more accountable for student progress.

Vallas said that much of the increase in schools without music or art is due to decisions by education management organizations (EMOs) to drop those subjects, not to choices by District-run schools. Over 40 schools were turned over by the SRC to EMOs in 2002 as part of a privatization reform strategy.

Another factor in the increase in the number of schools without art or music, Vallas said, has been the creation of more than a dozen new small high schools, whose budgets cannot support a wide diversity of offerings.

“The ideal is to have 17 or 18 kids in each class and an art and music teacher and librarian in every school,” said Vallas. “But funding doesn’t permit that. We’re doing everything we can within the resources we have.”

The federal No Child Left Behind law requires schools to improve reading and math test scores each year. While most city schools haven’t reached NCLB’s targets, test scores have been improving overall, especially in the lower grades.

But for art and music teachers used to developing children’s creativity on a daily basis and finding and nurturing raw talent in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, that is small consolation. The neediest children may be denied art and music instruction even where it’s available because they must spend more time on reading and math skills, they say.

“One of the most serious omissions in the education of young people in Philadelphia is the shameful fact that most of our lowest-income children have no benefit of art or music in the daily program at their schools, not just ‘afterschool’ or ‘occasional enrichment,’ said Jo-Anna Moore, coordinator of art education at Tyler School of Art at Temple. “It is actually an income or class issue that the kids who could benefit dramatically from the richest and most diverse education opportunities have the least. Surely we know that this is wrong.”

Lynne Horoschak, her counterpart at Moore College of Art who spent 36 years in the District, said that the focus on reading and math skills has all but crowded out inventive, project-based learning.

“The ability to integrate is gone,” Horoschak said. “All the time is needed for reading/language arts and math.” Such projects as “having students write a play about the Renaissance” lose out because of the focus on test preparation. She said that when veteran art teachers retire, they’re often not replaced, and programs they’ve spent years building die out.

Dennis Creedon, the District’s administrator for creative and performing arts, acknowledged that No Child Left Behind has altered the priorities of many principals, who may opt to hire an extra reading teacher rather than replace an art or music teacher who retires.

So many principals decided to drop art that the District would have had to lay off teachers. But officials intervened to make sure all current teachers were placed, sometimes picking up the cost centrally, Creedon said.

“Art as well as social studies is not tested, so what is taught is what is tested,” he said. He said that principals and parents often don’t understand the academic benefits that art and music instruction can have.

Creedon also said that finding qualified teachers is a problem, especially in music. He said many colleges are turning out vocal music teachers who are not proficient pianists, which they must be to accompany their students. “We don’t hire you if you can’t pass a practical exam,” he said.

There are three kinds of music teachers in the District: those who teach theory and vocal music full-time, band and orchestra directors in high schools, and itinerant teachers who travel among schools teaching instruments to selected students. This year, he said, the District has 73 itinerant instrumental music teachers spread among 187 schools, five more than last year.

Some principals say they want art and music teachers, but can’t find them. Pat Mazzuca, principal of Roberto Clemente Middle School, said she advertised for a music teacher last year and got “no suitable candidates.” So she filled the position with a computer teacher instead.

Kerri McGinley, in her first year as principal of Dobson Elementary, a K-8 school in Manayunk, doesn’t have that option. With just 310 students, Dobson has just one class in each grade, and McGinley inherited two full-time prep teachers, who are in computers and gym.

Fortunately, she said, she has a literacy teacher who has set up an extracurricular drama and music program. The students put on “Cinderella” this year and plan to do “Annie” next year, raising the money for rights.

Yet, she worries about who gets to participate. Half of Dobson’s students are bused in, and many of them can’t stay after school because there is no late bus. Another issue is that students who need afterschool remediation are shut out of participating in arts activities.

Ralph Burnley, principal of Central East Middle School, has no music teacher and says he can’t afford to hire one. But his school has two part-time instrumental teachers, and a teacher with a master’s degree in theater education runs a drama program that touches most students in the sixth-through-eighth grade school.

“We haven’t seen any external pressure from anybody downtown to replace arts or music teachers with test prep or with programs that fit directly into reading and or math,” Burnley said. He noted that a new building being constructed for Central East will include a drama and music room.

“Art and music has been an ongoing, passionate thing here,” he said. “I’ve been to drama productions in the spring, and I’ve seen kids turn around as a result of it.”