Mazzocchi: The Truth About Arts Education in Our Schools

What made you decide to move to the South Orange – Maplewood School District?
Was it the annual NY Times articles we see, describing the towns as “diverse” and “artistic”?
I have lived in Maplewood for most of my life. Twenty years after graduating Columbia High School and attending one of the greatest music conservatories in the world, I moved back here. At the same time, many of my friends and colleagues in the music, film, theatre, and arts industries decided upon making the move here, having read some great reviews of the area. My passion for this community and my life as a musician and educator led me to interview and accept the job as Director of Fine and Performing Arts for the district. Today, three years removed from my role as administrator in SOMSD, it is clear to me that our schools are not a reflection of our community anymore. In short, we don’t value arts education in South Orange and Maplewood Schools.
“Valuing” the arts does not come in the form of lip service; any administrator in district will be quick to mention how we love the arts when there is an audience. But the purest form of evidence of the value of the role of arts in education is how schools schedule the arts, and this is where our district has come up short.
I started playing the trombone in Tuscan school in 3rd grade. After systematic cuts year after year in SOMSD, our kids will begin their instrumental training in 5th grade. During my tenure in district, I was constantly flabbergasted at administrative team meetings when elementary principals (not all, but most) constantly lobbied our Superintendent to cut 5th grade instrumental music from the curriculum. Even though I was in disbelief I had to argue about this, my argument was always the same:
· In our district, almost 100% of 5th grade students receive instrumental instruction each year. Instrumental music instruction is all-inclusive, de-leveled, and available to everyone regardless of socio-economic situation. Considering this is our district mission, how many other programs can we say meet this criteria?
· If a student attends every lesson for the entire year, they will have received 12 total hours of instruction (art is a little more than doubled, at a whopping 30 hours a year). This number decreases if a student is absent, a class trip or assembly occurs, a teacher is absent, or there is a vacation/snow day. With 12 hours in a year of instruction, SOMSD was still awarded Best Community for Music Education in 2012! Admins want to cut music because it “gets in the way of instruction” due to the fact that it is a pull-out program. Put it this way: teachers are absent for more than 12 hours a year; there are assemblies and other non-academic events for more than 12 hours a year. Do we make up the time for “lost instruction” in those cases?
· Many principals lobbied for instrumental music to move to an after school activity. Are we a district of “access and equity” or not? Can you imagine a student, who cannot get home by themselves, walking in the freezing cold in January carrying an instrument at 7pm?
The fact that I had to put the boxing gloves on (then and now) is depressing, and I am sad for our district. The arts are seen as disposable extras in education, and I see no evidence that our district feels any different.
Our administrators, through NCLB, Common Core, PARCC, etc., have been forced to drink the Kool-Aid and continue to treasure an old school hierarchy of disciplines (math and reading on top, arts on bottom), thinking that they are more relevant to the world of work and command a higher rate of pay when finding a job.
The difficulty of assessing creativity has caused our admins to continue to latch on to initiatives that stress subjects that are easier to assess, as well. Assessing creative development is harder and more nuanced than testing factual knowledge. A common complaint we hear is that we “don’t have enough time” in the school day for a diverse curriculum. However, other school districts in NJ and beyond seem to be able to fit rigorous arts instruction into their daily schedule. Ironically, it takes creative thinking to creatively schedule the arts during the school day.
One of the worst cuts to come down in our district since 4th grade instrumental was disposed of occurred this year in the middle schools. Before I arrived in district, students received less than 2 days a week of instrumental music plus weekly small group private lessons. Principals and I collaboratively and creatively arranged the schedule so that students received 5 days a week of instrumental music on top of lessons. This year, the time has been scaled back to 2 days a week, with lessons meeting every other week. Vicious cuts that clearly show us where our Principals place their values; on further valuing preparation for standardized testing, thus demoralizing teachers and students. Predictably, the arts suffered from collateral damage, curiously enough in a year where we have massive transitions in leadership.
We are going down the path of so many other failed systems; teaching the creativity out of kids, and cutting the arts as an “easy fix” to making way for “new and improved” initiatives that often serve only as resume builders for transient administrators.
These are the same cuts that many districts have made over the years, but not the great districts. Our district is supposed to be better than this, but perhaps I am wrong. Ultimately, we cannot continue to give lip service to meeting the challenges of the 21st century while embracing educational ideologies of the past. Our district needs to truly value different modes of intelligence and cultivate creative relationships between disciplines. Imagination, creativity, and innovation are not cultivated in a test prep factory.
If it were not for my early Tuscan school musical experience, I would never have the rich career in the arts that I now enjoy. I shudder to think of my life without that gift from our schools. As our district continues to care more about Common Core, PARCC assessments, and other quantifiable high stakes tests, our administrators need to be reminded that thousands of our residents have had the same experiences at a young age in public school that I had, and are now enjoying careers as artists and musicians.
Yet this is far beyond the goal of creating the future young artists and musicians. Enough studies of the brain have been done to prove that daily instruction in instrumental music has benefits beyond what our numbers-based school report card shows us. As a community, we cannot allow ourselves to believe that having a “glimpse” of the arts in our curriculum each week is appropriate or enough for our students. The benefits of a rich arts curriculum in the schools is more than we can express on a report card, whereas the price of failure is more than we can afford. Join me in communicating to our Board of Education and administrators how much a rich arts curriculum means to our children and our community, and how we really feel about what teaching students to be creative really means to us.
Anthony Mazzocchi is former Director of Fine and Performing Arts for the South Orange/Maplewood School District, where he launched one of the first K-4 Suzuki Violin programs in New Jersey. During his stay, the district was designated “One of the Best Communities for Music Education” by the NAMM Association, and he was nominated for the first ever GRAMMY Music Educator Award by the GRAMMY Foundation. He is currently Associate Director of the John J. Cali School of Music at Montclair State University and Executive Director of the Kinhaven Summer Music School in Vermont. Anthony currently lives in Maplewood with his wife, Deborah and their two children, Luca and Tahlia.

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