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Many schools these days face a difficult question. How can they improve student test scores while also cutting budgets? In some cases, it's music education that gets the ax and advocates argue that learning music comes with lots of academic upside, including improved grades and attendance. They're mounting a new effort to spread their message that the real virtues of music cannot be tested. Here's Georgia Public Broadcasting, Sarah McCammon.
SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: At Haven Elementary School in Savannah, students get about four hours a month with music teacher Chris Miller.
CHRIS MILLER: Everybody repeat after me. Say, wade in the water.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: Wade in the water.
MCCAMMON: In a mobile classroom, basically a trailer outfitted with a desk and some chairs, Miller works with a group of active kindergartners dressed in green and khaki school uniforms. He says he teaches them the basics.
MILLER: Musical concepts, and artists and styles of music.
MCCAMMON: Students here used to get more music. Principal Sharon Draeger was a teacher at this school in the late 1990s.
PRINCIPAL SHARON DRAEGER: When I taught here, we did have a pretty good chorus. So, yeah, it was up higher on the priority list. But now I think it's kind of been buried under all of the other things that come up a lot higher.
MCCAMMON: Things like reading and math, a big focus of the Common Core standards adopted by Georgia and all but a handful of other states. Draeger says her school is made up almost entirely of African-American students from low-income families. She says the kids struggle with tests. And funding is always a challenge. Draeger admits she can't give music the focus she'd like.
DRAEGER: I know for us, we try to squeeze it in where we can, when we can.
MCCAMMON: That's the story in many places, says Chris Woodside of the National Association for Music Education.
CHRIS WOODSIDE: And it is incredibly valuable that kids improve their reading skills or higher grade point averages, or spatial reasoning abilities through access to music education. But those are kind of extras, they're the icing on the cake.
MCCAMMON: Now, Woodside says he wants the teachers his organization represents to talk less about tests and more about the intrinsic benefits of music. The group launched a new campaign today called Broader Minded, making the argument that music helps kids be more creative and work better together.
RUSS WHITEHURST: I think music teachers are crying wolf, largely, just if you look at the national trends.
MCCAMMON: That's Russ Whitehurst, an education policy expert at the Brookings Institution. He points to a 2010 U.S. Department of Education report that found 94 percent of public elementary schools offer some kind of music classes, even if hours are being cut back in many places. Whitehurst says the number of schools teaching music has held steady over a decade.
WHITEHURST: The perception that somehow kids are being drilled on reading and math all day just doesn't line up with the facts.
MCCAMMON: Whitehurst says standardized testing zeroes in on which students are struggling. Teacher Chris Miller says he's happy to connect music with what students are learning in their other classes, like this classic spiritual they're practicing for Black History Month.
MILLER: One, two, ready, go.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing) Wade in the water.
MCCAMMON: He says music should be seen as an essential part of education and not an extra. That's an argument music-education advocates will be making as they push back against more cuts. For NPR News, I'm Sarah McCammon in Savannah, Georgia.
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