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Hoping to Turn The Beat Around
Even as Attention to 'No Child' Law Squeezes Class Time, Teachers in Manassas Champion the Value of Music

By Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 17, 2007

Seventh-grader Jessica Dodson walked into class and yanked Eric Clapton from the wall -- the guitar, not the guitarist. Classmate Corey Cook already had Carlos Santana cradled in his lap, plucking out E-minor, C and G chords.

"On the C chord, I'm hearing some funky sounds," teacher Darlene Dawson said after her 17 students at Metz Middle School in Manassas played "Eleanor Rigby" in unison. She played along with the students, having taken up the guitar just a few months ago.

This isn't the kind of music class Dawson, a teacher for 25 years, is used to teaching. Or the kind students are accustomed to attending. Or what most students in U.S. schools are offered.

The elective class at Metz -- with guitars named after guitarists -- is being given as music education programs across the country are facing difficult times. Despite research showing that students who study music have better attendance, achievement and lifetime earnings, music classes are struggling to survive.

Supporters of such classes place some of the blame on the federal No Child Left Behind law. They say the focus on high-stakes testing leaves little room for other subjects.

"There are things you need for a healthy society," said Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. "Music is one of them," he said. But the No Child environment "sucks the juice out of everything else."

Music and the arts are listed in No Child Left Behind guidelines as "core" subjects, but there is no money in the law to support such programs nor any mandate requiring schools to provide them. As instructional time in math, language arts and other subjects students must achieve proficiency in has risen, time devoted to other subjects has declined. Time spent on arts and music in 2007 is about half what it was before No Child Left Behind became law in 2002, according to a report recently released by the nonprofit Center on Education Policy.

Educators are lobbying legislators to raise the profile of music education when No Child Left Behind is reauthorized, action that had been expected this year but has been delayed until next year. They are pushing for more money for arts programs and seeking a requirement that school systems report to the federal government on the status of their music education programs.

The federal law was one reason Dawson said she wasn't sure whether the guitar program at Metz would ever happen. Some see electives as expendable, she said, and "there is so much emphasis in Virginia on test scores." But administrators at the school were very supportive.

Manassas school leaders see music as critical to developing a well-rounded student, said Michaelene Meyer, deputy superintendent of the small district of nine schools in Virginia. Teachers are encouraged to experiment rather than stick with a rigid curriculum. Even administrators participate; Haydon Elementary School Principal Rebecca Stone is singing in the school's choral concert tonight.

It was Manassas's commitment to music that helped it join the top 100 school districts for music education in the country for 2007, according to an online survey by several music organizations, including the National Association for Music Education. No other Washington area school system was cited.

Administrators responded positively several years ago to Stacey Rubach, a music education teacher at Haydon, who became enamored with the guitar and began holding voluntary classes in school. The students loved it, she said, and Metz teachers wanted to try it, too.

Dawson and another veteran music teacher, Wendy Pierce, took part in a summer guitar seminar to learn to play. "Guitar: A Course for All Reasons" was co-sponsored by the National Association for Music Education and other music organizations.

Metz got 20 guitars and a board to hang them on the wall, transformed a health room into a music classroom and gave students a new option beyond the traditional offerings of orchestra, band and chorus.

About 50 students signed up.

"It's so cool," said Corey Cook, 12, who was in chorus last year but had trouble with the different pitches.

Jessica Dodson used to play the flute in her school orchestra but found the guitar far more enticing. "This is more fun," she said. "We play songs I know."

In one of Dawson's classes last week, students practiced songs by the Beatles ("Eleanor Rigby") and Beethoven ("Au Clair de la Lune"). This year, they have learned "Hound Dog," "This Land Is Your Land," "Rock Around the Clock" and "Ode to Joy."

Dawson stood in front of the class, teaching music theory as students struggled to stop strumming their guitars.

"Let's work on the C chord," she said. "Fifth string, third fret. Fourth string, second fret. Open third string. Second string, first fret. Open first string. Let's hear it one string at a time. That's five strings. . . . I'm hearing some of you playing six."

At the start of the year, the students offered names of great guitarists. Teachers chose from their suggestions and named the instruments for guitarists that span the world of music. Each student then selected a guitar and wrote an essay about whom he or she liked and why.

An essay by Steven Alvarez, 13, posted on the wall, reads: "Elvis Presley is my favorite guitarist. Mainly because he is one of the few that I know." He wound up, though, with the Bob Dylan guitar: "I think I've heard one of his songs."

Michael Monte, 13, picked the Jimi Hendrix guitar "because he rocks my socks."

But even in such an encouraging environment, school officials must meet the goals of No Child Left Behind. Dawson said Metz administrators changed the school schedule to provide more instructional time for math and language arts in an effort to raise standardized test scores. That means students no longer have music class every day; they have it two days and then skip a day.

"We've made everything in education instrumental to economic issues," said Houston, as he argued why cutting music is not the way schools should be moving. "And the truth is, we can't win if we want to do this by competing with numbers. China and India have more people.

"But we can be the most creative. You can always win that battle. Look at American music forms: jazz, bluegrass, rock-and-roll, rhythm and blues, hip-hop, gospel," he said. Those music forms were created by the underclass, the same folks, Houston said, "we are testing to death."

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