Five years ago I wrote a somewhat controversial essay called The Perfect Storm where I predicted that the combination of proposed federal laws, now known as No Child Left Behind, and an eroding economy meant we would face the loss of programs in the coming years. I am not happy that I was right… Nor am I happy for the pain and suffering this situation has caused many of our schools and many of our students. But I can tell you with all conviction that we now have the greatest opportunity in our history to advance music and arts education. And no I haven’t been drinking.
Why, you may ask? Very simply… and you are the first to see me say this publicly…
No Child Left Behind – as we know it – is dead… and I might add… may it rest in peace! That is not to say that the effects will not linger. They will. But we are entering a new era where the testing frenzy and the fear that has gripped our classrooms has been recognized, the narrowing of the curriculum has been documented, and the public is now beginning to understand the suffering we, and more importantly their children have endured.
Here is my case:
A new report from the Center on Education Policy was released last month entitled From the Capital to the Classroom: Year 4 of the No Child Left Behind Act.
The report documents the fact that 71% of the school districts (11,000 school districts) in the US have “narrowed the curriculum” to focus on reading and math. This includes 22% (3,500 school districts) that have reduced or eliminated music instruction.
The report, first made public on the front page of the Sunday New York Times has set off a fire storm in policy circles, editorial board rooms, and in Washington DC.
Editorials in newspapers across the country are calling the narrowing of the curriculum a “national disgrace.” Congressmen on both sides of the aisle are writing op-eds urging reform. And in a letter to the editor of the New York Times Governor Mike Huckabee, chairman of the National Governor’s Association and also the Education Commission of the States 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.”
The discussion no longer centers on if NCLB will be changed… it now centers on what the changes will be. Music and arts education will be the beneficiaries of this debate.
To add fuel to the fire a new National Commission on No Child Left Behind has been established. They are holding hearings on the law as I write this. In addition, they are accepting online comments about the problems with the law. I urge you to share your comments with the commission. This commission was appointed on the heals of a report released from Harvard University that documents how all the various state exemptions that have been granted regarding NCLB have made the whole idea of comparable information between the states no longer valid! Most importantly, the law is up for reauthorization in 2007 in what will be a brand new Congress. What has started out as a trickle of criticisms is now a full-fledged dam burst which will only increase over the next year.
To further illustrate the point – just today, as I am literally writing this, the Associated Press reported that more than 2 million minority students will be "Left Behind" because, get ready for this one – no one is going to count thier test scores!
In contrast to the impact of NCLB, Another report released last month came from the Partnership for 21st Century Skills. This group, made up of prominent business leaders from Apple, Verizon, Microsoft and Ford Motor, to name a few released a report on High School Reform – speaking clearly about the skills our students to succeed in life – the skills they require are many of the same you produce in your students. This includes a direct request to Secretary of Education Spellings to use her clout to push for other subjects including the arts.
Beyond this … at the highest levels of education and public policy in this country… with our Governors, Commissioners of Education and the chairs of the education committees from the bicameral houses of government in most of our states… the discussion has started to change from testing to learning.
And this is all driven by one thing:
What is driving our businesses and economy today is not the ability to fill in an oval neatly with a #2 pencil. And it is not even anything you can make or program a computer to do. Innovation is today’s capital of the realm. Innovation comes from only one place. Innovation comes from people. People who are CREATIVE.
In order for businesses to survive they must constantly innovate and change. Business themselves are not innovative. People are. Unleash the creativity of the individuals and you will unleash the creativity and innovation of a business.
Why is innovation so important? Here is one example:
In 1957, the S&P list of the top 500 corporations was first published. In 1997, 40 years later, only 74 of the original 500 were still on the list. Some experts believe that by 2020 about 75% of the S&P list will be made up of companies we don’t know today, some in forms of business that have yet to be invented. (Source: Out of Our Minds, Sir Ken Robinson)
Creativity is driving the global economy. And what is one of the best ways to unleash creativity?
Music and the Arts
A recent newspaper report showed how this is playing out in other parts of the world:
China's education system is currently undergoing the most massive transformation of any country in the world. China's leaders have come to see that a system that turns out students who can't think for themselves isn't going to help their quest to become a global economic power. In response, they're replacing the old system, dependent on rote memorization, with a new focus on communication skills, critical thinking, problem-solving and creativity.
In Singapore, There is now urgent concern that the old education system, and its relentless focus on examinations and grades, has bred all passion and conviction out of its students. (Editors Note: Sound Familiar?) Efforts to reduce this trend are extreme. Where you could once get arrested for spitting chewing gum, the government recently sponsored a graffiti contest allowing students to decorate city buses.
The Minister of Education sees awakening originality and ingenuity as the key to unlocking Singapore's economic potential. "We are redesigning our concept of meritocracy to include a broader range of merits, not just results in standardized exams, to help stimulate creativity and innovation. The arts are a big factor in this”
This new educational focus has given way to HUGE investments in arts education to stimulate creative thinking for them to compete in a global marketplace of ideas and innovation.
Our nation, because of competition, will soon embrace this path.
Thomas Friedman in his New York Times column discussed the global focus on getting the right educational balance:
Innovation is often a synthesis of art and science, and the best innovators often combine the two. The Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, in his compelling Stanford commencement address last year, recalled how he dropped out of college but stuck around campus and took a calligraphy course, where he learned about the artistry of great typography.
“None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life,” he recalled. “But 10 years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography.”
A friend of mine, and an advisor to our board, Sir Ken Robinson has been a leading thinker in this area and has been advising the Singapore government and has been an adviser to several other nations on this topic. He has been invited to present to all of our nation’s Governors this summer his thinking on where we as a nation need to go in this new economic environment, and strategies for how our schools may better prepare our students for this new world.
I mention this to you because it is within the realm of music and the arts to unleash the creativity of our students. It is through the work that you do that we create the kind of citizens we will need to lead this evolution based on creativity and innovation. Making your contribution to education our children much more valued in our society in the future than it has been in the past.
The darkest days of No Child Left Behind are now behind us. We are about to reach the dawning of a new era.
For me, it cannot come fast enough!
All of the documents in this report and things you can do are available at http://music-for-all.org/nclbinfo.html