David Bell recently retired as a public school teacher with 35 years experience and was awarded the “Virtuoso Award” by the Ohio Alliance for Arts Education in 2012.
Earlier this month, Enquirer reporter Janelle Gelfand asked, “Does Cincinnati realize what it has in the arts?” In her essay Gelfand noted, “Some blame these troubles (with arts education) on the ongoing weak economy. I believe that there is a cultural shift in our nation that has marginalized the arts. It’s nothing new; it has been happening over decades. It started with the erosion of music education in schools.”
That is precisely why it is so appalling to me that the President of the Ohio Board of Education would not even permit the scheduled testimony from the public at its November 11 meeting concerning the changes in state staffing requirements for qualified elementary arts teachers. School districts are now required to hire five full-time teachers specializing in music, art, physical education, library science, nursing and social work for every 1,000 students enrolled. A proposal before the board of education would eliminate that requirement.
By following the proposed path toward reducing arts staffing guidelines, not only are we failing to recognize the long term consequences of these decisions, but now are even discouraging informed testimony to inform critical decisions.
In a politicized environment that has no instructive rudder and continuously decreasing financial support, such as we are seeing now, only a few school districts will be able to afford the resources provided by qualified arts educators. It worries me greatly that the only districts that will be able to offer the arts via arts specialists will be the districts with more resources.
As a teacher for 35 years, I have seen too many kids denied arts opportunities for financial reasons, due to an inability to cover pay-to-play fees, and it breaks my heart. At times I have actually paid those fees out of my own pocket so that those kids without financial resources would not be denied the opportunity.
Brain-based research indicates that there is a developmental window of opportunity at the youngest grades. If we do not develop those neural pathways at this critical juncture, the neurons “self-prune,” thereby decreasing the potential for student success with those skills at later ages. When we deny the students access to arts specialists at the elementary level, we deny them the opportunity to develop skills during critical windows of personal growth, which results in lifetime consequences.
In addition, we say that we want to close the achievement gap in areas like reading. The arts, and particularly music, play a big role in closing those gaps by cultivating the building-block skills that are required for reading. The music literacy concepts music specialists are teaching are also fundamentals of reading at the primary levels, and actually serve to improve reading skills and help to close the achievement gap. However, these skills require a qualified music teacher, not a classroom teacher without the instructional background required.
The proposed changes go beyond naive. This is harmful to our children damages the soul of our culture and our communities. If we have any conscience, what is in the best interest of students must supersede political affiliations. As adults we should be ashamed: we are failing at our obligation to protect those who are most vulnerable.