National Hispanic American Heritage Month and Music Education

By Zachary Keita, NAfME Advocacy and Public Policy Communications Manager

Each year, the United States honors the contributions Latines have made to the United States  with a National Hispanic Heritage Month celebration that runs from September 15 to October 15. This annual month-long celebration began 29 years ago, but its inception stretches back further. Congress first passed a resolution to celebrate Hispanic heritage at the national level as a weeklong event on September 17, 1968. Nearly 20 years later, on August 17, 1988, President Ronald Reagan expanded the celebration to a month, from September 15 to October 15.

National Hispanic American Heritage Month is observed in the United States, Canada, and Latin America. Lawmakers chose September 15 as the start date in order to coincide with the Independence Day celebrations of five Latin American countries: Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. In addition, Mexico and Chile observe their independence on September 16 and September 18, respectively.

Six years ago, Congress passed, and President Barack Obama enacted, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which introduced provisions and funding for a “well-rounded” education. Understanding that a quality education goes beyond No Child Left Behind’s “core academic subjects,” music education was enumerated into the law as a well-rounded subject. But have we adequately and equitably provided Hispanic and Latine students with equal access to music education?

As we observe National Hispanic American Heritage Month, we want to raise concern for the 13.8 million students of Hispanic and Latine descent. The 2019 National Arts Education Status Report, found that 87.7 percent of Hispanic majority public schools offer students music programs, compared to 95.2 percent of white majority public schools. In the 2016 NAEP Arts Assessment, the gap in the average responding scores in music narrowed significantly between white eighth-grade students and their Hispanic peers from the 2008 assessment, so some improvement can be seen. The gap with access to music and arts education, however, remains wide. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only 26 percent of Hispanic individuals ages 18-24 surveyed in 2008 received a music and arts education compared to 59 percent of white individuals. This falls well short of the intent of the federal education law, ESSA, that has worked in tandem with the Civil Rights Act to create equity in education for all students.

In 2011, music education researchers Kenneth Elpus and Carlos Abril found that 65.7 percent of music ensemble students were white and middle class; only 15.2 percent were Black, and 10.2 percent were Hispanic. These percentages show a disturbing trend that racially minoritized students are underrepresented in high school music ensembles. Students for whom English was not their native language accounted for only 9.6 percent of ensemble members. Additionally, Elpus found that 86 percent of the music educators were white and middle-class.

Adding to this reality is the fact that the process of becoming a music teacher in the United States is rooted in the Western classical tradition. Based on the experience of some music educators, aspiring music teachers must pass a Western classical performance audition with an orchestral instrument, classical voice, or classical guitar, to even begin down the path of becoming a music educator, let alone succeed in music education college programs. Given this, music education programs not only primarily reflect Western European classical music, but they also create a self-perpetuating cycle.

As a part of ESSA, new provisions and funding were allocated for a “well-rounded” education and for the first time, music education was enumerated in federal educational appropriations. Yet, Latine students continue to face barriers when it comes to access to music education. The question remains: How have we provided Hispanic and Latine students with equitable opportunities to music education? How have we worked to ensure that barriers to inequities are removed and Hispanic and Latine students have access to a well-rounded education, including music education? There is much more still to be done. How can we facilitate change?

Additionally, Congress should not lose sight of adequately appropriating the well-rounded programs that already exist in ESSA. Measures should also be taken to increase diversity in the teacher pipeline while promoting the teaching of music that goes beyond the Western European domain.

President Johnson and Congress signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, directly linking our K-12 law of the land with the Civil Rights Act for a reason. It was to ensure that all students, regardless of race, gender, and socio-economic status, would receive a quality education. In today’s iteration of a well-rounded education, this includes music. Latine students need more access to music within their public schools for a true well-rounded education, and all students should experience Latine musical artforms within their music education.

For more information on National Hispanic Heritage Month, read the press release from Congressman Tony Cárdenas’ (CA-29) office here and the full text of a Congressional Resolution to commemorate Hispanic Heritage Month here.

October 14, 2022. © National Association for Music Education

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