Frills they're not Culture and youth: Music and art are too often seen as easy marks in school budget cuts.

February 23, 1996

AS LOCAL GOVERNMENTS scramble to balance next year's school budgets, many administrators have again targeted school-based music and arts programs for cutbacks or even elimination. It is a short-sighted strategy that not only hurts the students, but ultimately may damage the community's ability to sustain important cultural institutions.

All too often, art, music, dance and drama are considered dispensable areas of instruction. They are deemed to be "frills" that don't contribute to the basic mission of the schools -- teaching reading, writing, computation and critical thinking.

However, a growing body of research demonstrates that participation in these endeavors enhances learning. In an age when children are all too passive -- watching television or playing video games -- learning to play an instrument, create a picture, act in a drama or follow a dance step introduces them to values such as discipline and practice so necessary to succeed in academics. Elementary school children who have learned to read and play music often are better readers and listeners. Other studies have demonstrated that students who have participated arts programs obtain higher verbal and math scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test.

The loss of music programs at the elementary school level means that only children whose parents can afford private lessons will learn an instrument. Most middle and high school instruction is focused on playing in an ensemble such as a band or orchestra, the assumption being that these students already know how to read music. Without students capable of participating, school bands and orchestras will suffer.

The rest of the community also will feel repercussions. Many musicians and artists earn their livings by teaching in schools. Institutions such as the Maryland Institute-College of Art and the Peabody Institute in Baltimore will lose students if there are few employment opportunities when they graduate. Moreover, adults who have little or no exposure to the arts are less inclined to attend performances, or to lend financial support to orchestras or drama and dance companies. The cultural seeds that schools help nurture ripple far into the future.

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