Gaps loom large in who is and isn’t playing music, study finds

Gaps loom large in who is and isn’t playing music, study finds

(Colo.) From the jazz and punk roots of D.C. to the blue-collar rock anthems that sprung from New Jersey clubs, new research suggests the gritty, hardscrabble communities that once infused the American music scene can no longer afford to participate.

A new brief from the Education Commission of the States found that low-income youth were far less likely than their economically advantaged peers to play an instrument.

There were also disparities found across grade level, gender, and race or ethnicity, which researchers said could be caused by factors including the cost of musical instruments and private lessons, lopsided gender norms, or uneven access to school music classes.

“Whatever the cause, such disparities matter,” wrote Claus von Zastrow, principal at Education Commission of the States. “Gaps in access to such advantages can widen gaps in academic performance while stifling opportunities for lifelong enrichment through the arts.”

Studies show that playing an instrument is correlated with stronger motor, auditory, verbal and cognitive skills, as well as more robust vocabularies and improved executive function.

National Assessment of Educational Progress in Mathematics measures students' knowledge and skills in mathematics and students' ability to apply their knowledge in problem-solving situations.

The 2017 NAEP–the most recent assessment conducted–included a survey for both fourth and eighth grades which asked how often students played or read music outside of school, with answers ranging from never, to once or twice a year, once or twice a month, once or twice a week, or nearly every day.

The Education Commission analysis focuses on students who play an instrument and read music at least once or twice a week.

Researchers found that students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch are significantly less likely than their wealthier peers to play instruments outside of school. Among fourth graders, the gaps were considered statistically significant in 20 states.

In New Jersey, for instance, there was a gap of 13.3 percentage points between fourth graders from low-socioeconomic households who played an instrument and read music at least once or twice a week. Other states with significant disparities include D.C. at 12.6 percentage points, Massachusetts at 12.5 percentage points, and New Mexico with 12 percentage points.

Among eighth graders, gaps were significant in 33 states.

Findings also showed that girls are significantly more likely than boys to play an instrument at least weekly for every state’s fourth and eighth grade students–except in D.C., where the gap between participation among boys and girls in eighth grade was only about 2 percentage points.

Though researchers said there were national disparities found by race and ethnicity, differences were often not statistically significant at the state level.

Due to the positive academic benefits playing an instrument and reading music can have for children, authors of the brief recommended policymakers at all levels consider ways in which music education could be bolstered in ways that could close gaps in access.

“Policymakers, funders and community leaders can address such gaps by supporting instrumental music in low-income schools and promoting after-school music programs in communities that lack them,” von Zastrow wrote.

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