How the World of Music Education Can Catch Up to the World of School Improvement
My job is weird. On any given day, I can spend 90-minutes in a meeting with all of the other department chairs in my school, discussing a range of modern issues in education – from student achievement to school board policy. Afterwards, I rush to the podium in my band room and prepare to engage students in the act of making music in ways similar to teachers from 50 years ago. I live in two worlds. The first is moving at a blistering pace, gaining more momentum each day. For example, student growth is about to be a major component of teacher evaluations, something unheard of a few years ago. The second seems so obsessed with an idealized past that any major changes are often ignored and tradition trumps excellence in nearly every building. Compared to the speed of the first world, this second one seems to have stopped moving completely. Which one is the school and which one is the music program?
The state of the music education, the second world, is falling behind the rest of public education. If our schools were not changing, music education’s stalwart commitment to the past would not be a problem. I have bad news: our educational system is changing, and the opposition from music education is proving to be a problem. As music educators, we have to realize that we can no longer ignore what goes on outside of our departments. The world of schools is so rapidly changing that catching up is going to be difficult. The good news is that we are in a great position to improve. We have children who LOVE our subject, parents who see the real value in our work, and a discipline that has stood the test of time. However, despite these advantages, our music programs seem to have lost their traction, spinning our wheels in a new educational world of accessibility, accountability, and change.
Plenty of new ideas exist in the educational world (all too often taking the shape of “jargon”), and a good number of these ideas prove to be ineffective at teaching our children. On the other hand, there are some concepts that have developed into powerful ideas – standards based education, Professional Learning Communities, Response to Intervention, etc.. For our profession to improve, we need to examine what is going on in the first world and decide what warrants our attention. After A Nation At Risk was released in 1983, improvements to our educational system drew increased criticism. Education reform over the past decade – in the shape of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) from the Bush years and Race to the Top under President Obama -granted conservative ideas like school choice, accountability, and performance pay a more integral position in the educational reform canon.
Both NCLB and Race to the Top have forced administrators to grapple with three new realities in education:
- Schools must produce better evidence that students are learning. To this end, math, reading, and science are viewed as the most important aspects of evidenced-based growth.
- Schools must provide greater transparency with their operations. This includes, but is not limited to, how programs are funded, how decisions are made, and how changes are implemented. (I thought this was really dumb when I became a department chair but I was humbled to find out how important this aspect of school improvement is.)
- Due to changes in the world through globalization and population growth, our economy has changed. Schools need to teach different skills and educate more people at a higher level than ever before.
These three simple rules, like it or not, have changed our public schools. They remind me of a segment that Bill Maher does at the end of his HBO show, Real Time. The segment is called “New Rules” and while it’s designed to be funny, there are moments when Maher’s satire can unearth some real ideas. (The clip below is an off-topic example of one of Maher’s “New Rules.”)
So, what does this mean for music? Why does my teaching on the podium feel so vastly different than my department chair role at my desk? What about the concept of school improvement will have a lasting effect on us and what about the world of music education do we need to keep?
Here’s my breakdown…
1. We have to produce better evidence of learning. We have no choice and, frankly, we should have been leading this change. We have been teaching our students fifteen pieces of music each year and the result has been our students being able to play fifteen third clarinet parts. If you are not constantly gathering both qualitative and quantitative evidence of what your students are learning, you are setting yourself up for failure. With new technology, professional learning networks and other online resources, gathering evidence of learning has never been easier to do. We also need to be sure that the evidence we are gathering demonstrates that students are learning the skills required to play music – not simply achieve better scores in science and math. Yes, we all know our music students do well in those disciplines, but I did not spend hours practicing snare rudiments because I thought it would make me a better reader, mathematician, or oceanographer. What is true of us is also true of our students. The diversity of subjects in our public schools is what makes them strong. As arts educators, we should celebrate that reality and find ways to document student learning that reinforces our work. If you find yourself struggling with this aspect of school improvement, I highly suggest you read Robert Duke’s book Intelligent Music Teaching cover to cover.
2. We have to communicate better. Again, we have more tools than ever to do this with but for some reason, we cannot seem to figure out how to capitalize on these technologies. Many of our students watch shows like Glee and my colleagues have pointed out that MENC is mysteriously absent from any of their advertisements or PSAs. There is a short mention about school music at the Grammy Awards every year, but we have not mobilized as a profession to make that statement into a longer segment of the show. Some of you might be thinking I am crazy for wanting more from situations like this. I think we are all crazy for not doing anything about them.
Across the country we have seen athletics do a good job in communicating the importance of their discipline to the general public. Using them as an example, we have to be better. We can begin online. I recently visited twenty high school music websites in the Chicago suburbs. I’m familiar with each program and personally know someone who works at each school. What I found was disturbing. Some school music programs were significantly underrepresented, especially in comparison to other departments in their schools, while other programs had virtually no web presence at all. Websites are so easy to build and our kids have the ability to throw something up easily. As members of Gen X and Gen Y become taxpaying parents, we need to reach them through the web.
Another aspect of communication for most districts is their annual report or school report card. I would suggest finding a way to get your arts program mentioned in that report. You can tie that into your pursuit of better evidence for student improvement and growth.
3. Money. We all need more of it. So, instead of simply wishing we had more, let’s show how far money spent in the arts can go. We all know that some parents are willing to spend money on their child’s music program, just look at what some schools charge for marching band! The question is: How can we convince our school board to spend money on the arts, especially during a monumental recession? We have to communicate the importance of music in a student’s life to our entire community. We have to stop using our perceived benefit to other disciplines to make our own case strong. If we cannot advocate for adequate funding for the arts by using the importance of their study as our cornerstone argument, we are in serious trouble. Remember, we have a discipline that connects directly to the heart and soul of what it means to be human. Instead of using this as our focus, we give in and let music publishers, instrument makers, and other interests sponsor our conferences and reading sessions, putting us in a weakened position professionally. We’ve created a self-perpetuating system of music education that places the interests of commercial music publishers, hack composers, school administrators, university music education faculty, vendors of instruments, uniforms, packaged trips, you name it — ahead of the interests of educating our children about music.
Ultimately, our administration has to make difficult decisions regarding how to spend taxpayer money. We can make their job easier by advocating constantly for the arts and the need to fund not just a program, but an excellent program.
And excellence is our goal. It’s the aspect of my job that keeps me awake at night. How can we make our world better for our kids? We might disagree with what is taking place in the first world of school improvement, but at least we can agree that any effort to fix our schools is a step in the right direction. Evidence is being used to guide instruction, better communication is being used for school operations, and resources are being scrutinized. To survive in the public schools we have to keep up. We have to lead the charge forward in more meaningful learning experiences for kids. If we collaborate and help one another, we can make some significant headway in our world and translate that into better art being produced by our students.
 O’Toole, P. (2003). Shaping Sound Musicians. GIA: Chicago, IL.
 His chapter on assessment should be used when you reflect on your work and plan improvements.
 Disclaimer: I am a huge marching band fan and think that if it’s taught correctly, it’s a wonderful teaching tool.
 Budiansky, S. (2010). Speech from CBDNA conference.
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