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A Delicate Balance: Music Education in Canadian Schools

January 17, 201117 January 2011

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While there has been extensive international research on the benefits of music education for young people, there has been only limited research on the state of music education in Canada. Prepared for the Coalition for Music Education in Canada by Hill Strategies, A Delicate Balance provides detailed information about a range of issues in music education based on a survey of 1,204 schools across Canada. The survey was completed mostly by school principals.

The report highlights six major themes that emerged from the survey results:

  • Funding of music education is a key challenge in schools and has clearly not kept pace with demand. For most of the past decade, funding for music education has decreased in many schools while student participation has been rising.
  • Qualified music educators are crucial in creating and implementing strong, sustainable music programs. Almost all schools with very strong music education programs have a specialist teacher.
  • Strong music programs rely on a delicate balance of support. The strongest music education programs have a supportive principal and parents, a strong specialist teacher, student interest (and time), appropriate instruments and space, solid instructional materials, as well as appropriate funding. It is also vital to have support from school boards and provincial education departments, as well as a broader community that values music.
  • Schools across the country identify a need to invest in music facilities, instruments and equipment.
  • “Passive” music education, such as “listening”, is very common in schools.
  • There are many perceived benefits of music education, including benefits that the Coalition for Music Education in Canada has been stressing for many years in its advocacy efforts. The report indicates that “self-esteem, self-discipline, creativity and musical ability are the four benefits that received the largest number of ‘very important’ rankings” from survey respondents.

Among key provincial findings, the report notes that British Columbia, Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, Alberta and Manitoba stand out as leaders in delivering quality music programs in their schools. But even in reportedly strong regions like British Columbia and Alberta, many schools have concerns for the future.

The report finds that music in Ontario’s schools is in a challenging state, with 58% of teachers who deliver music programs in the province’s elementary schools having no music background. Often, these teachers are provided with only minimal supports in delivering the music curriculum to young students. Over the past few years, many schools in Ontario saw decreases in important aspects of their music programs, such as funding, the availability of specialist music teachers and participation in music festivals. Given this troubling situation, it is not surprising that many Ontario schools indicated that their music programs need improvement.

Valuable feedback was provided in the additional comments made by principals and teachers. For example, regarding the delicate balance of supports required for music education, some respondents indicated that:

  • “…there are great pressures on both students and staff in a small school to keep everything in balance and programs healthy.”
  • “We are very fortunate to have an arts program at our school that is supported by students, parents and administrators. We are alone in the board with these advantages.”
  • “We do the best we can with what we have… which is not much… lucky we have dedicated people who really care.”
  • “My school really has a good music program because of the incredible and qualified teacher. I do not think that I will be able to say the same thing next year, because she is moving and there is no one else qualified to teach music in our school.”

Survey respondents indicated that there have been challenges in terms of music funding, instructional space and the number of specialist teachers. On the other hand, there are glimmers of hope, as some schools have reported improvements in computer / recording technology, the number or quality of instruments, artist visits and student involvement in music.

Based on the findings of the study, the Coalition for Music Education in Canada has developed a set of recommended actions to improve the state of music education in Canadian schools, including:

  • More funding for more schools
  • More qualified music teachers in more schools
  • Continuing music advocacy
  • More support for generalist classroom teachers
  • Better training for generalist teachers through universities
  • Further research in schools with weaker music programs

Similar national studies have not been conducted for other arts disciplines.

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