This old fiddle belonged to my father-in-law, Sam. He got it in about 1920, when he was a student in Boyle Heights. Sammy was an immigrant from Eastern Europe. His family initially struggled with poverty, but he and his siblings had regular music instruction in school and he learned to play the violin. EVERY child in Los Angeles had that opportunity back then! Up until the early 80s, every school in Los Angeles had full-time music and arts teachers. When I began teaching in East Los Angeles 1969, my students had a music class and a visual arts class every week and orchestral music was offered in the upper grades. Up until the early 80s, that was just the way it was done—not just in Los Angeles, but all across the state.
Today schools with hundreds of students are guaranteed only one day of vocal or (“or” not “and”) instrumental music per week, offering lessons to a fraction of the classrooms, and there are instrumental programs in fewer than one third of the elementary schools. Even that pittance was not revived until the early 90s. The Elementary Arts Program, which I am proud to have helped design 20 years ago, offers weekly visual arts, dance, and drama lessons in 9 week rotations to an even smaller fraction. Dozens of excellent community arts programs offered by the Music Center, the LA Opera, local art museums, and dance companies are available, but limited in time and scope and must be included in a school’s ever-stretched budget. Arts classes in secondary schools are electives. Despite all of our efforts, it is still perfectly possible for a child to go through thirteen years of public education in Los Angeles and never receive a single arts class!
And yet everything we have learned from brain research tells us that the arts are crucial to cognition. The arts teach us how to learn. True educators have know this for hundreds of years. To quote Plato again, “The patterns in music and the arts are the keys to learning.”
How did we forget this? What happened?
The following is an excerpt from the introduction to my book, Good Behavior and Audacity, where I try to answer that that question. It begins with my interview in 1968 for my first teaching job, in an impoverished school in Romoland, in the high desert near Riverside, where my husband was a student:
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“To start with, the evening I drove out there to be interviewed by their board of education, a group of three farmers and the principal, I can recall only one question. They wanted to know if I could play the piano. They wanted their sons and daughters to sing! It was what they were used to from their own formative years, when every classroom had a piano and every teacher had to know how to play it. I told them I could not play piano, but I could play guitar, and that satisfied them. I sang with the children every day after lunch, before story time. That was the only peaceful half hour of the day.
“But once a week, two angels would arrive from the county office: a music teacher and a visual arts teacher. That was happy Tuesday. It was standard practice back then. All over Riverside County, and all over California, every child received a music lesson and a visual arts lesson every week. The teachers were fantastic. I learned all about Orff technique in the music classes—the pentatonic scale—and I learned arts strategies and activities that I used for the rest of my career.
“That was long before I dared to use drama activities in my teaching, but we did make an eight-millimeter movie one day with the help of my husband and an actor friend, and I do remember that being the most enjoyable day I ever had with them.
“I was offered a contract there for the following year, but my husband had finished at UCR and we moved to Los Angeles. There I was able to enroll in an intern program in the Los Angeles Unified School District and get a second chance at teaching, this time with some training and support. And there, too, in 1969, every elementary school in the district had full-time music and visual arts teachers, and every classroom got a lesson in each, once a week. In addition, in order to get my credential I was required by state code to take a class in elementary music instruction and one additional class in the arts, with the choices being visual arts, theatre, or dance.
“I taught for many more years, first in elementary and then in secondary, in private schools and public, and will share some of my accumulated insights in later chapters, but I’m glad I started long enough ago to have those memories. 1968 was before A Nation at Risk, before Proposition 13, and before No Child Left Behind and the romance with “accountability,” which was pretty much the nail in the coffin of arts education for every child in California.”
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A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform was the report published in 1983 by President Ronald Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education. Its publication is considered a landmark event in modern American educational history, but it was tragically misguided in its conclusions. A Nation at Risk was the beginning of our obsession with data and with raising test scores in a narrowly focused interpretation of literacy and numeracy. Authentic literacy (story telling, story listening, story reading, story writing) and numeracy (measurement, time, space, value) are embedded in every aspect of the art-making process. How did we miss that?
Well, we did. And from A Nation at Risk on, starting with Proposition 13, every time there has been a budget squeeze (which has somehow managed to be just about every year) the arts have been squeezed first. Time to change that, folks. Wake up.
Something I should have said but hope I implied: Los Angeles schools were not unique in responding to Nation at Risk and budget deficits by cutting the arts. I happened all across the state and al across the country to one degree or another.