Brian Mitchell, vocal instructor at Mark Morris High School, said “it’s easy to feel like an island” teaching music when the emphasis in education now is on academics and test scores.
But at a Yale University symposium in June, Mitchell discovered that music teachers around the nation are “dealing with the exact same struggles. It doesn’t matter where we were from or how big our programs were. We were all dealing with pressures (for students) to do other things.”
Mitchell, 40, who has taught music 19 years in the Longview School District, was one of 50 music teachers selected for the Yale symposium focusing on the role of music in education reform. Mitchell and the other teachers were selected from a pool of nearly 300 nominees from 45 states. He was nominated by Longview School Superintendent Suzanne Cusick, then had to answer a series of questions about the role of music in education and the role of music in people’s lives. At the conclusion of the symposium, Yale, located in New Haven., Conn., honored him as a Yale Distinguished Music Educator.
In the past 10 years, he said, students have had a harder time fitting music and other electives into their schedule due to increasing emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math — the so-called STEM disciplines. At the symposium, he learned that STEM came about because in the 1990s, the federal government asked corporate America for ideas on strengthening education.
“Corporate America needs people who do math and science better,” he said. “Now we have a whole school system that’s really focused on it.”
When Americans are told we’re not doing something well, we put all our resources toward fixing that problem, he said — even at the expense of other things. In education, the arts and humanities took a hit.
“No one has said the arts and humanities are a bad thing,” he said. “We just stopped talking about it and did hyper-focus on math, science and technical writing.”
Students’ science, math and reading skills are tested at the state level, but music and the other arts can’t be measured in such a quantitative way, he said.
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“We’re expected to show evidence about what’s happening in our classroom,” he said. “There’s a scientific approach to the world right now — that everything can be solved through a scientific evaluation. We got away from what made American education great: creativity.”
Mitchell used to quote research that students who study the arts have higher test scores in academics and higher graduation rates. The Yale experience helped change that.
“To the bean counters out there, I had to justify what I did,” he said. “What I came away from the symposium is: Stop trying to justify it. We do it because it’s inherent in us as humans.”
The arts are qualitative, not quantitative, he said. For example, in a performance, the measure of success is not in a test score but “in the faces of the audience,” he said.
“Brain research shows music is inherently part of us,” he said. “It’s emotional communication. It soothes us, connects us, excites us and gives us a sense of community. ... By being literate musicians, we have access to the greatest works and expressions of beauty across all time and all culture. We can access music from Beethoven to Coldplay, and the role of music education is to make sure we are in touch with our human side. More than ever, more than any time across history, we need it now.”
It saddens him to see students walk across campus with earbuds, listening to music only they can hear instead of making their own music and connecting with each other.
“It’s going to get worse,” he said. “We have to fight harder to create connections.”