Music Hits A High Note In Education -- Finally!

If our public schools are going to truly help their students reach their full potential, they need to be unified in the view that music is a necessary subject in all of our schools.
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The recent passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is music to my ears.

Indeed, for the first time, music is included in national legislation in the definition of what comprises a "well-rounded" education, thereby empowering every state to support music programs in public schools.

If our public schools are going to truly help their students reach their full potential, they need to be unified in the view that music is a necessary subject in all of our schools. Educators must now seize this new opportunity to open doors for our students, broaden their reach, enrich their thinking and prepare them for success later in life.

So, the timing of ESSA could not have been better. Reams of statistics show that American students aren't learning all the skills they need to succeed in today's workplace. For over a decade under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), schools have placed a laser-sharp focus on reading and math and often cut the arts from the curriculum as a result of budget pressures and stringent standardized testing guidelines. Despite this, the math skills of American students have dropped for the first time in a decade and their reading abilities have stalled, according to the "nation's report card" released in October.

In some of the world's top academic countries, including Japan, the Netherlands and Hungary, music is a compulsory part of the curriculum, woven into the education system from the early primary years. This may be because there is clear evidence of the beneficial effects of music education on academics, from improving cognitive skills to boosting focus and IQ.

One 2009 study published in the Journal of Neuroscience showed students who took music lessons for just 15 months experienced brain growth in areas that control hearing and fine motor skills. Three years ago, the German Institute for Economic Research found music improves cognitive and non-cognitive skills more than twice as much as sports, theater or dance, and that students with music training have better grades and are more conscientious, open and ambitious than their peers. Language skills, like verbal memory, literacy and verbal intelligence have also been shown to strongly benefit from musical training.

Of great significance, incorporating music into the curriculum can help close the massive achievement gap between students of all different socioeconomic backgrounds. Children from low-income families are not as likely to have access to the same skills-based, sequential music learning as their more affluent peers, who can easily obtain music instruction privately. As a result, many economically disadvantaged children who may be particularly gifted in music are denied the opportunity to realize their full potential as learners. Many educators would agree that given an opportunity to be excellent would lay the groundwork for a successful professional life.

As it pertains to standardized testing, a main focus of contentious debate among policy makers, thought leaders, pundits and academics, several studies reveal elementary schools with music education programs achieve higher scores, a fact we've seen first-hand at the Special Music School at Kaufman Music Center. Here, at the only New York K-12 public school with music as a core curriculum subject, music education and private instrumental lessons are integrated into the regular school day, and the impact on learning is very significant. One major indicator is that our students consistently score in the top ten of all New York City public schools on statewide reading and math tests. Last year, our fourth and seventh graders earned the highest scores in the city.

The success of our students is in large part because mastering music calls for making connections across multiple forms of knowledge. Students tackle algebraic formulas and chemical equations with the same precision and determination they use to put together a musical composition. They collaborate with their peers in groups as they would in an ensemble, leveraging each person's strengths and skills to create a masterpiece; and they take a creative and inquisitive approach to their learning, seeking ways to apply their education to practical situations as they interweave music into their personal lives.

In fact, all of the habits that music teaches -- accuracy, determination, focus, perseverance, collaboration and creativity -- are lessons that extend far beyond the classroom and a student's academic years.

We can no longer underscore the value of music. It's part of cultivating a diverse, well-rounded and more prepared generation of young thinkers -- our nation's future entrepreneurs, business and societal leaders, inventors, explorers and artists. The new Every Student Succeeds Act, which brings music back into the curriculum, hits all the right notes.

Lydia Kontos is Executive Director of Kaufman Music Center in NYC.

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