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The Efficacy of El Sistema

Recent criticism of El Sistema, the program of orchestral music instruction founded by Jose Abreu in Venezuela, has caused concern within the community of Sistema-inspired programs taking root here in the United States, which we are currently evaluating in a two-year national study funded by the Buck Family Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. In his book, El Sistema: Orchestrating Venezuela’s Youth, the English academic Geoffrey Baker argues that El Sistema is more appropriately described as “a cult [or] a corporation” rather than a model of how music education can better the lives of vulnerable children.

While concerns that this criticism may reflect poorly on programs here are certainly understandable, deeper concerns that we are transplanting a “model of tyranny” from Venezuela to the United States are unfounded. First, the United States is not Venezula: arts education policy is not unilaterally set by our head of state, and little funding for arts education comes from the federal government. While the latter point may undermine programs’ ability to work in concert for the collective good (in that it places programs in competition for philanthropic funding), it does afford leaders of programs the freedom to incorporate what they admire about Sistema into programs that are tremendously diverse in size, partners, intensity, and instructional approach. Second, even if there were a single architect planning the content of all Sistema programs, the burgeoning field of implementation science teaches us that executing that plan with fealty across wide geographies and diverse populations is tremendously challenging.

What Sistema-inspired programs in the United States do share is a commitment to providing music education for children who, in many cases, attend school districts no longer able to offer even a “wholly inadequate” education, as Philadelphia’s Superintendent of Schools put it — districts in which budget constraints and mandated testing regimens have prompted the elimination of anything deemed inessential from the curriculum, including the arts. The fact is that Sistema-inspired programs restore music education to students in these districts. Whether they constitute “the future of music” remains to be seen; more even-handed observers than Baker have noted that there is as of yet little evidence for the efficacy of these programs, and we must be careful not to let our enthusiasm for these programs to overshadow the good work of other organizations that may predate the Sistema movement. Ultimately, what we should be concerned with is whether a given program provides sustained, intensive, high-quality music education. If it does, then we should not worry too much about its name.

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