Blaire Lennane was thrilled when a charity offered a year ago to provide the teachers and subsidies necessary to start a music program in her daughter’s elementary school.
Lennane’s daughter, Gala, attends Dorris Place Elementary, one of the poorest schools in Los Angeles. More than 80 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. So, when Lennane began fundraising for a state-of-the-art music program at her daughter’s school, she was not sure how many people in the surrounding community would donate.
That’s when Education Through Music-Los Angeles, an organization based on the Education Through Music (ETM) charity, stepped in to help. They provided Lennane’s group, Partners of Dorris, with both the instructors and matching funds required to provide a sequential, year-round music curriculum for every child in Dorris Place Elementary. The curriculum included professional development for teachers and performance opportunities for students.
Lennane says the impact of the program was enormous. She says she was particularly moved when the parent of a special-needs student hugged her and said that his son found a sense of belonging when he started playing cello for the school orchestra. The ETM organization, she says, “at first appeared to be too good to be true,” but they surpassed her expectations.
A formidable challenge
The mission of ETM is to ensure that every American child gets a comprehensive music education, but that is a formidable challenge. More than 2 million American schoolchildren receive no music instruction whatsoever, and those children are disproportionately poor, according to the National Endowment for the Arts. The organization estimates that nearly 20 percent of low-income K12 students are not offered music courses.
“We’re very, very concerned that we have a whole generation of people that do not have an adequate education in the arts,” says Katherine Damkohler, the executive director of ETM. “Our goal is to put ourselves out of business, but we have a long way to go.”
For over two decades, ETM has provided subsidies to Title I schools that could not otherwise afford music instruction. The organization operates in New York City and Los Angeles but hopes to expand nationwide.
Damkohler says the demand for the ETM program has grown in recent years due to shrinking school budgets and reduced public funding for music education. Michael Butera, the president of the National Association for Music Education, says that many U.S. schools have eliminated their music classes to focus resources on subjects like math and language arts that are evaluated by standardized tests.
“There’s been a narrowing of the curriculum, which does not bode well for America,” he says. “We need to get the public to demand an education that is beyond the bubbles, that is about more than just sitting at a desk and taking a test.”
Teaching music is one of the most effective ways to close the achievement gap between rich and poor students, Butera says. Research shows there is a strong correlation between music education and academic performance, and that this effect is particularly pronounced among the economically disadvantaged.
“Low-income students are in families and communities that have less access to enrichment experiences,” says Mary Leuhrsen, the executive director of the NAMM Foundation. “They don’t get the opportunities that other kids get to express themselves.” Because low-income children are less likely to get private music lessons than their peers, Leuhrsen says it is important that they are exposed to music in school.
A neuroscience study released this year showed that music instruction rewires children’s brains and improves their ability to process information. Nina Kraus, one of the study’s authors, demonstrated differences between the brain waves of students who received music instruction and those who did not. In her paper, she showed that these biological differences had real consequences in the classroom, since musically-trained students performed significantly better on literacy and memory tests.
Kraus spent years tracking the academic progress of disadvantaged students in Chicago and Los Angeles, comparing the performance of those who participated in music programs and those who did not. In a July webinar where she presented her findings, Kraus said music education is especially important for low-income students, because it can “offset” the academic disadvantages they face due to their economic status. Music education, she says, “seems to fundamentally alter the nervous system to create a better learner.”
The Education Through Music program shows the transformative nature of music education. Most schools that participate in the program have improved their standardized test scores and attendance rates, according to an external evaluation report written by LS Associates and sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education. The first school to implement the program, the Sacred Heart/Mt. Carmel School for the Arts in Mount Vernon, N.Y., was awarded in 1994 a National Blue Ribbon Award from the U.S. Department of Education.
In 2008, during an anonymous survey of ETM participants funded by the Department of Education, a New York City principal told researchers that his students’ test scores “dramatically” improved within a year of starting the program. The school climbed from a C to an A on its New York State Report Card.
Irene Rogan says she also has seen the positive impact of ETM, first as a principal of a participating school and later as an administrator in the New York City Department of Education. She was especially impressed with ETM’s work in Hunts Point Middle School, which is located in one of the poorest sections of the Bronx.
“We had kids in that school that almost never came to class, but when the music program started, they came in early to get extra lessons,” Rogan concludes. “It was a hook that was able to grab students we hadn’t been able to catch before.”
Ilana Kowarski is a freelance writer in Annapolis, Md.