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Can El Sistema Be Replicated in Schools Here?

The debate over effective instruction is so familiar by now that it seems little more can be said. But a provocative article about how music is taught in Venezuela calls that view into question ("El Sistema for all, U.S. kids too," Los Angeles Times, Feb. 26). The fame of Gustavo Dudamel, music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, has focused attention on what is known as El Sistema because he attributes his success to it.

Funded by $100 million a year, the state-run music education program in Venezuela is enormously popular. Its nearly 300 music schools for children, called núcleos, reach into every part of the country, and rely on children helping each other. It is the antithesis of the way music is taught to most children in the U.S., where private lessons are the norm, and children typically spend hours practicing by themselves. Music education typically begins in school in the sixth or seventh grade.

But that's only one of the differences. The entire program is based on standardization of instruction. All núcleos use the same teaching methods. The goal is to first inculcate basic skills and techniques. In time, the gifted few will emerge from those less talented. Dudamel is a prime example. Whether there is another virtuoso among the one million children who have gone through the program is doubtful. But even if they never achieve his greatness, they have been given a priceless gift that will last a lifetime.

Because of its success, observers from around the world have flocked to Venezuela to see if El Sistema can be transported to their countries. (A similar pilgrimage to Finland is ongoing because of the overall reputation of its schools.) But it's highly unlikely that El Sistema can be imported to the U.S. For one thing, music is not a high priority. It is considered a frill by financially strapped school districts. The Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education, for example, is considering eliminating arts education from the elementary school curriculum.

But I think there is another more fundamental reason why El Sistema will never be adopted in this country. The notion of standardized instruction in any subject field is anathema. If the U.S. can't agree on the benefits of a standardized curriculum, it certainly won't be able to agree on standardized instruction. Venezuela views music education differently. It sees El Sistema as a social program, rather than a cultural one. If President Obama were to ask for federal funding for music education as part of a social welfare program, he would be attacked on a variety of fronts.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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