Music education takes a lesson from the students in Boston


The Boston Public Schools (BPS) has increased the amount of arts instruction (including youth music programs) students in PreK-12 receive throughout their school day. The initiative called: BPS Arts Expansion Initiative, is inspiring a new generation of creative minds. In 2014, the number of students in PreK-8 schools receiving weekly, year-long arts education rose by 20%. And students in high schools receiving any arts education increased by 31%.

Launched in 2009, BPS Arts Expansion is focused on a sustainable approach to quality arts education for all BPS students. BPS Arts Expansion has brought together local foundations, the school district, arts organizations, higher education institutions and the Mayor’s Office. This collaboration of local leaders along with students, families, and school staff believe in the power of art to develop creative, engaged learners. The Pavoh Blog featured the BPS Arts Expansion Inititive study of Boston music parents: Make Your Music: Boston Parents Support Arts Education.

Last year, the BPS Arts Expansion completed a survey of the students themselves (The Arts Advantage From The Youth Perspective), confirming that Boston is on the right track. 

Data from (used with permission.)


After conducting the 2013 survey of more than 1,250 students, BPS learned students not only wanted the arts to be a part of their school day, they wanted more arts instruction.

They wanted more arts instruction for many reasons, including: to be cool, to stay off the streets, to express myself, to make school less boring.

In addition, the survey showed that students not only want more arts instruction, they’re not really getting the kind of arts instruction they want. Finally, the survey found that students engage in the arts in both structured and non-structured settings, showing that they are pursuing the arts on their own, even when it is not offered at school.


Here’s what Boston has learned:

1. Students want more arts instruction!

  • Students in 4th and 5th grades said they would like to receive “a lot” more instruction in:
    • dance (67.5%),
    • instrumental music (65.0%),
    • visual arts (63.6%), and
    • theater (52.3%).
  • Forty-six percent of students in grades 6 – 8 want to engage in their first choice of discipline for additional arts instruction “a lot”.
  • Twenty-three percent selected visual arts as their first choice, 22% selected dance.
  • Among high school students:
    • 57.8% wanted more arts, including 24% who want to dance and 17% who wanted more visual arts.

2. Why kids in Boston want more arts instruction.

Large numbers of students said they want the arts as a part of their regular school day (47.3% of students in grades 6 – 8, 59.4% for students in grades 9 – 12). They explain that it “makes the school day better” and “less boring”, supporting the idea of on-site, common access to additional arts learning as an integral part of a well-rounded education. These data suggest the important role that the arts could potentially play in building students’ engagement in learning and in making schools compelling places.

  • Secondary students offered substantial reasonsmaking a clear statement about how much they value imaginative, expressive, and collaborative activities:
    • Wanting better arts skills
    • Wanting new experiences
    • Enjoying learning new things
    • Becoming a more interesting, fun, alive or cool person
    • Expressing yourself and your feelings
    • Learning a profession
    • Making school more interesting, less boring
    • Having something good to do with friends
    • Helping you stay off the streets


3. However, students report they aren’t getting the arts instruction they want.

  • As reported in districts nationally, Boston students report that they have more opportunities to learn instrumental music, visual arts, and creative writing as compared to dance, theater, or media.
  • But many students also want opportunities to learn more diverse forms of visual arts, as well as the chance to be involved in dance and theater. In addition, students’ speak up about wanting to learn contemporary and culturally specific art forms:
    • Visual art: genres such as manga, cartooning, and graffiti
    • Music: piano (keyboard), guitar, drums, DJ or make and mix beats.
    • Writing: spoken word, poetry, and rap
    • Dance: dance team, hip-hop, stepping, krumping, or Latin dance (including salsa and bachata).

4. Where Boston students engage in the arts.

When asked where they engage in arts learning, secondary students report having three different types of opportunities:

  • In-school offerings:
    • Among students in grades 4 and 5, 97.1% of students receive in-school instruction in at least one arts discipline.
    • For students in grades 6 – 8, this figure drops to 85.5%
    • For students in grades 9 – 12, it is 58.4%.
    • As these numbers indicate, in-school instruction drops precipitously at the high school level. ∙
  • Out-of-school offerings:
    • These settings feature higher levels of dance, photography, and vocal music.
    • Given the robustness of Boston’s afterschool arts providers, a surprisingly low number of students (9.8% of students across disciplines in grades 6 – 8, and 8.6% of students in grades 9 – 12) report being involved in community programming.
  • Free time, independent arts activities:
    • The unexpected finding was how many secondary students report high levels of doing the arts on their own (between 15.8% and 33.1% of students in grades 6 – 8, and 21.5 – 32.3% of students in grades 9 – 12).
    • This level of independent engagement contrasts sharply with the low level of arts instruction currently available in grades 6 – 12.

CONCLUSION: 4 Crucial Findings for Youth Music Programs

While the survey results are revealing and will guide future decision-making in Boston Public Schools and Boston music programs, simply by doing the survey and sharing the results, the BPS Arts Initiative has given a voice to the students and confirmed what arts advocates have been saying for some time – arts are an integral part of a student’s education – and life.

And, what Boston has learned from these young people has implications for youth music education:

  1. They want more opportunities!
  2. The Arts makes school (and life) fun!
  3. They want contemporary art: rap, DJ or beat-making
  4. And, a striking 21.5-32.3% of high school students pursue their art on their own
    • not in-school
    • not at an out-of-school program

Are we keeping programs plentiful, fun and contemporary? Are we reaching the students doing art, making music, on their own?


This article first appeared on – the music networking resource for young musicians.


2 thoughts on “Music education takes a lesson from the students in Boston

  1. Hopefully schools will take a cue from Boston and increase the number of arts programs for kids. Not only is it beneficial for their creative development and give them a healthy way to express themselves, music programs have so many psychological and neurological benefits for kids both in and out of the classroom. Learning music has been correlated with improved attention and focus, better listening skills, higher rates of literacy, accelerated abstract reasoning skills and so much more. And playing in a group with other students certainly encourages teamwork and healthy socialization. We need to provide children with this creative outlet. There’s a reason we are so drawn to music-it was here long before we had the spoken word and even then provided us with a way to communicate, synchronize with others and express ourselves. Before we had words we communicated using a tonal pre-verbal speech, and we used music to help us to synchronize as a group to complete difficult tasks such as harvesting foods. It’s not just a hobby-it has a real purpose and value.

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