[This post is inspired by a recent masterful piece by one of my real role models as a writer on all topics related to education: Peter Greene, the author of Curmudgication. Thank you, Peter, for so beautifully capturing the frustration that so many teachers feel about the standards and testing movement that seems to be dominating our work in the classroom, and our energies in the policy realm.]
In his latest post, Peter Greene writes about the “curriculum narrowing” that has been the unexpected/totally expected result of the testing craze, with our schools seemingly focused only on two subjects these days:
There’s a message that has been delivered loud and clear for the last decade– only two subjects in school matter. Only reading and math affect a school’s rating. Only reading and math scores factor in teacher evaluation. Only reading and math come with state-approved Official Standards. Only reading and math are on the all-important Big Standardized Test, now believed by an entire generation of school children to be the entire purpose of schools.
History? Science? Music? Art? Well, there are still some parents out there who remember these as being part of school, and so there’s not full support yet for getting rid of them (kind of like some folks are sure that cursive writing has to be part of school).
This has left other disciplines in a bit of a bind.
On the one hand, it would be a kind of boost to folks who teach history and science and all that other cool stuff if they were part of the whole test-driven school set-up. If history were on the BS Test, schools wouldn’t just cut history classes, or only offer history to students who don’t need test prep remediation classes.
As every teacher was taught at some point in their preparation (sorry TFAers: I’m sure you missed this lesson in your 5 week summer boot camp), the purpose of evaluation is twofold: the improvement of instruction, and accountability.
The ed reformers totally ignore the former to obsess on the latter—which transforms evaluation from a pedagogical principle to a punitive one.
When the “new” music standards were released, it became clear that the goal had been to recast music as a Common Core-worthy discipline, adopting the language of the CCSS, and forcing the beauty and nuance of our art form to conform to the artless and barren nature of technocratic edu-jargon. All in the desire to join the roll call of “tested subjects.”
In the process, look at what we’ve given up.
In exchange for the “honor” of joining the list of tested subjects, we’ve reduced music to a set of easily re-produceable tasks that can be captured on a multiple choice test form by students “bubbling in” their correct answers—even our national association has jumped on to the “bubbles” bandwagon, complete with t-shirts, coffee mugs, and ornaments available for purchase!
And, at a time when music educators have finally begun to realize the unacceptable lack of diversity in our students, teachers, and curricular offerings, we are being forced to standardize our content so it can be easily tested–making what we offer in schools even less relevant and meaningful to the diverse student population we should be serving, and entrenching the tyranny of “tradition”.
Changing our professional goals to fit a narrow, one-size-fits-all approach to educational “accountability” is like buying a new house because you like its door knob.
It’s curriculum without belief.
Content without philosophy.
A solution in search of a problem.
Can we assess music skills and knowledge? Of course we can, and music teachers have been doing so for centuries. In fact, it’s high-time that music teachers be recognized as the champions of authentic assessment–the kind of evaluative strategies that match the assessment technique to the nature of the subject matter being taught and learned. Like playing tests in middle school band; and video recording students singing their high school chorus parts over the course of the semester and self-evaluating their progress with written reflective commentaries; and having students work collaboratively on a composition project in their elementary music class, culminating in an “informance” for their parents.
But forcing 3rd graders to take a paper and pencil test on music terms isn’t telling us anything meaningful about what these children know and can do as musicians. It’s just generating “data” for the testing machine, and lulling teachers into a false sense of security that their subject “matters.”
Again, Peter Greene sums it up beautifully, here: “We have not reduced the Subjects That Matter list to two–reading and math. We have reduced it to one–the only subject that matters is testing, a subject that has little or nothing to do with education.”
It’s also important to figure out where the push for standardized assessments is coming from, and what the true purpose of these tests really is. A recent story from MLive contained the following information from Amber Arellano, executive director of The Education Trust-Midwest, an advocacy group supportive of increased testing in the schools:
“So much of the local data is actually unreliable and totally unfair to educators,” she said. “It’s not helpful in terms of improvement. What many other states have done is that they’ve actually put collaborative efforts together to develop new data sources for non-tested subjects.”
A 2013 study by researchers at the University of Michigan found that local assessments can vary among “teachers at the same grade, in the same school, teaching the same subjects.”
The study, which examined teacher evaluations in 13 districts across the state, said this diversity in assessment makes it nearly impossible to apply a uniform standard for judging teachers’ success in promoting students’ academic growth.
A “close read” of this excerpt suggests that the true goal of “uniform standards” has little to do with teaching, learning, or providing equity for non-tested subjects–it’s all about generating data that can be used to evaluate teachers. And to Ms. Arellano and her reformy friends, that’s code for “firing more teachers”–which just so happens to be one of Betsy DeVos’ six stated goals for her reign as Secretary of Education.
So, I’ll wrap up this little post by asking a question I’ve been asking for many years now, and still haven’t received a satisfactory answer for: “Why do we need National Standards in music at all?”
In a country as large, and diverse, as the United States, what is the purpose of mandating that music teachers in Alaska are teaching the same content and materials as music teachers in Arkansas are teaching?
Why should children in Texas, some of whom have the opportunity to participate in mariachis in their school music programs, or steel drum band members in Florida, be forced into the same kind of ensembles as kids in Minnesota, or North Dakota?
It’s not the uniformity in music that makes it beautiful–it’s the differences. From the elegance of classical orchestral repertoire, to the power of hip-hop, to the beauty of choral singing, to the improvisatory brilliance of jazz, it’s the diversity of tone, rhythm, style, and form that is the defining hallmark of our art form.
School music programs should not be run like fast-food franchises, with uniform menus, ingredients, and “branding”.
School music programs should be a reflection of the unique musical qualities, characteristics, and traditions of the communities in which they are located. They should be celebrated for their differences, not coerced into adopting a bland and uniform vision of content and form just to be added to the list of “tested subjects.”
Ask your reading and math teacher friends how that’s working for them…