Boosting music and arts can improve overall student achievement and well-being


When 15-year-old Ka’iulani Iaea first moved schools, she struggled. She missed her friends and familiar teachers. Life at her new school started to change for the better when she began learning the music of her Native Hawaiian culture.

“It was very hard and rough because I hate change. But being able to feel the music and express myself freely made it very much easier for me,” the high school student shared on the Tamron Hall Show during the announcement of the 2023 Lewis Prize awards for community nonprofits that advance creative youth development through music.

Ka’iulani’s musical experience provides an essential reminder that music and self-expression are powerful protectors of young people and their well-being.

Over the last three years, the pandemic has had an outsized negative effect on young people, especially those vulnerable to the inequities in schools and society.

At the same time, we’ve seen many school and community leaders embrace music’s incredible positive impact on student mental health and social cohesion.

School districts across the country have put federal Covid relief funds to work supporting music and arts activities. In Madison, Wisconsin, administrators allocated over a million dollars to replace outdated instruments. Districts from San Diego to Sioux Falls to Pawtucket invested in new music programs to help make up for lost learning. Metro Nashville Schools invested alongside the Save The Music Foundation to ensure that high schools across the district provide instruction and classroom space for music technology, production and songwriting.

As advocates for music and arts education, we see an opportunity to continue to hold school and government leaders accountable, and to lock in investment in music and the arts as we build healthy, resilient communities.

Related: PROOF POINTS: The lesson the arts teach

Decades of research show that participating in music and arts education during and after school benefits young people. Public belief in the power of music has never been stronger. Yet much work remains to be done to leverage music and arts education for overall student achievement and well-being.

There are already some bright spots.With leadership from creative communities, California voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 28, which guarantees music and arts funding for every K-12 public school in the state. Prop 28 also provides extra funding to schools in historically under-resourced communities.

Community partners and private philanthropy have also stepped up to guarantee that arts learning is available to young people facing the greatest hurdles. The annual Lewis Prize for Music directs millions of dollars to out-of-school programs that invest in diverse young people through music.

Lewis Prize awardee organizations partner with schools to bolster English-learner programs through music, bring music opportunities to young people in juvenile court schools and provide culturally rooted music instruction — including the Mana Maoli program at Ka’iulani’s school.

Nearly 4 million U.S. students do not have access to music in their schools.

We believe in the power of programs that foster relationships through music to build pathways for every young person to succeed in life, no matter how challenging their past.

Recent progress at all levels of government is at risk as pandemic relief funds sunset and revenues for states and school districts dip. We need to keep our voices strong at this moment. While the most well-resourced school districts ensure that their students have music education, the 2022 Arts Education Data Project revealed that nearly 4 million U.S. students do not have access to music in their schools.

This gap is most glaring in city and rural school districts and in schools that serve large numbers of Black and Latino students. In many cases, these are the same culturally rich communities of color that produce the popular American music we listen to every day and that drive the multi-billion-dollar global music business.

To achieve equal opportunities for all students, we need to mobilize and push for action at every level.

U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona must reaffirm that Title I and ESSER relief funds are eligible to support arts education, emphasizing that the arts are essential academic subjects.

Congress must continue to authorize and increase Student Support and Academic Enrichment (Title IV-A) funding for a “well-rounded education” that includes music and arts.

State leaders need to ensure that school districts have standards, funds and incentives to meet their obligation of equitable music and arts education for all students.

And district and school leaders must make sure that every student in every school is enrolled in a music or arts class with a credentialed teacher, dedicated space and abundant materials.

Finally, we call on our music industry and philanthropy colleagues to join us by investing in organizations that champion young people’s creativity and put student voices at the forefront of bringing music and the arts to all.

This is exactly the approach taken by Ka’iulani’s musical mentors at Mana Maoli, who helped her thrive through music in the midst of change. Every child, teen and young adult should have the same support and opportunity.

Dalouge Smith is CEO of the Lewis Prize for Music. Henry Donahue is executive director of the Save The Music Foundation.

This story about the value of music education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter