What the U.S. Can Learn from Education in Venezuela
The PBS NewsHour this Friday evening featured a music program that brings music lessons to a few lucky students in low-income neighborhoods in New York City. Modeled on a program in Venezuela, Harmony, supported by private philanthropy, is helping to raise test scores, improving reading and math skills and keeping kids in school. There are "no excuses" for wasting billions of dollars on test prep, data mining and teacher bashing when meaningful programs in the arts and music have a proven track record of results. Meanwhile, the corporate privatizers, our President, Congress and governors all across the country remain tone deaf when it comes to what really works for children. Instead, they continue to blindly perpetuate failed policies that are leaving millions of children behind while robbing them of their futures.
That the kids are getting top scores does not surprise Placido Domingo.
PLACIDO DOMINGO, musician: Music is mathematics. Everything, it goes into numbers.
A bar can have four, eight, 16, 32 and 64, depending on the speed of the notes. But once you are playing, once you are singing, that disappears. The mathematics stop, and it comes all the feeling.
JOHN MERROW: Harmony is modeled on a highly successful music education program in Venezuela. It's called El Sistema, and it's helped hundreds of thousands of the country's neediest children.
For 36 years, El Sistema has inspired children to stay in school by giving them free instruments and three to four hours of music instruction every day.
PLACIDO DOMINGO: This education, it has been just not only good for music, but good for society and good for all these kids, and they will never dream to be musicians that they are.
JOHN MERROW: With funding provided by the government, El Sistema helps to support the country's 130 children's orchestras and 288 youth orchestras.
Gustavo Dudamel, one of the more celebrated graduates of El Sistema, is now the conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The program has produced scores of accomplished musicians, but that's not the primary goal.
ANNE FITZGIBBON: In Venezuela, they will refer to their program not as a music program, not as a cultural program, but as a social program, because, first and foremost, that program is about developing the child. It's first about the child. It's second about the music.
JOHN MERROW: Fitzgibbon would like to reach more children with Harmony, but across the country, funding for music and arts programs is tight.
ODELPHIA PIERRE, teacher: Everyone is so focused on the tasks, the reading, the math, that I think somewhere along the line, we think, well, you know what, they don't really need art. They don't really need music.
ANNE FITZGIBBON: What I want people to understand is that music is so much more profound than just standing on the stage and blowing air through a horn. It's about learning to commit yourself to something and learning that if you invest your time and your efforts in something, it's worthwhile, that something really positive will come out on the other end.
WOMAN: Hi, everybody.
JOHN MERROW: Tonight, the Harmony students are learning just how far music can take them as they meet their conductor, Placido Domingo.
PLACIDO DOMINGO: I'm so proud of and happy to be with you today. And what is one of the most beautiful things that we have in common, of course, is music. And how lucky, how lucky you are.
They are just wonderful kids. And I would like to hear them play, you know? And it will be -- I know at what level they might be, but you might be very surprised, you know?
I think they have a beautiful life in front in them with music.