Don't lose the arts in Charleston County's public schools
In recent days I have heard that the Charleston County School District is considering the elimination of one of its crown jewels: the string and orchestra program in the public schools.
About 17 years ago, during a similar period of economic difficulty, I wrote an op-ed piece published by this newspaper ("Local students lose when arts are downplayed" — Sept. 2, 1992). At that time I pointed out that students in Charleston were not able to receive the same education as students in other parts of the state, because of the poor quality of the arts programs in the schools. At that time I pointed out that only three students from Charleston participated in the All-State Orchestras, or about 2 percent of the participants.
In the intervening years Charleston has built a string and orchestra program that is the envy of other school districts in South Carolina and beyond. This year, 36 students from Charleston will be participating in the All-State Orchestras, or about 17 percent of the total. This progress is now being threatened.
Why should the schools even bother with music? According to Bruce Boston in Business Week, "In every civilization, the arts have always been inseparable from the very meaning of the term 'education,' and today no one can claim to be truly educated who lacks the basic knowledge and skills in the fourth 'r,' the arts discipline. In truth, it is the arts that provide a cultural and historical context for our lives."
Research during the past few years has revealed that the study of music can actually influence a child's overall learning potential and his or her educational development. Much research has been done in this area, and these facts must be taken into consideration when discussing the future of our educational systems.
Fact 1) There is a direct relationship between SAT scores and arts study. According to a 1990 study, SAT scores tend to increase with more years of arts study and the more arts work a high school student takes the higher the scores.
Fact 2) A 2007 Kansas study found that students in high quality school music education programs score higher on standardized tests compared to students in schools with deficient music education programs, independent of the socioeconomic level of the school or school district.
Fact 3) Students who learn to play a musical instrument receive higher marks in school than their classmates who don't. Not only that, but according to a study of 5,000 students in Albuquerque, N.M., it was discovered that the longer the children had been in instrumental programs the higher they scored.
Fact 4) Approximately 90 percent of the brain's motor control capabilities are devoted to the hands, mouth and throat. According to experts, the fine dexterity involved with playing a violin can exercise the entire brain and stimulate general intelligence.
Fact 5) According to research at the University of Southern California, "Arts instruction has a significant positive effect on basic language development and reading readiness".
Fact 6) A study in Colorado found that "members of instrumental music performance ensembles tend to reach higher academic achievement and exhibit lower rates of absenteeism from school than nonmembers."
But what we are doing in the training of young people is even more important than this research shows. We are passing on our culture — a universal language of music which can cross boundaries and facilitate understanding. As a university professor, I notice it when students have the background and training they need to excel — we reward them with large scholarships. At my school, we give up to full-tuition scholarships to students who play string instruments.
These scholarships are available to both music majors and non-music majors who play at a high level. And we are not alone — most colleges do this now. I am sure you do not want to implement decisions today that will affect students' successes in the future.
Programs of excellence do not spring up overnight. There is a long period of growth required — but, they can be torn down very quickly. It is clear that this country is facing critical and unusual financial problems. But I hope that your school board will not cut off your district's wonderful programs and the future of the students in Charleston. Please do not undermine the excellent work that has been accomplished during the last 17 years. As the Charleston sculptor Willard Hirsch said when he addressed the cadets of the Citadel in 1948, "Art is a language, and a powerful one. All of us should know at least a few words in it."
DR ROBERT JESSELSON
Carolina Distinguished Professor
University of South Carolina
National String Project Consortium