Thoughts on the new Core Arts Standards

Today, the National Core Arts Standards were updated, to much furor on the Music Teachers Facebook board.  I feel like it is a good opportunity to discuss my feelings on the topic here.

I had a conversation with a high ranking official of the Ohio Dept. of Education once, during a meeting on Arts standards once.  My questions had to do with the application of the standards in our program.  It went something like this:

Me: “So, in a band class am I supposed to fully address all of the standards for my grade level, including singing?”

Official: “Well, not exactly”

Me: “What about choir?  There are standards about instrumental performance – should I be attempting to have our choir people address those?”

Official: “Certainly not”

Me: “OK, so my theory has always been that the standards are meant to be addressed by the entire department as a function of our offerings”

Official: “Well, yes”

Me: “Yes?  Or you’re not sure exactly”

Official: “Well, it hasn’t really been defined to that degree”

Me: “…”

So after this my whole stance on arts standards changed.  They’re not a bad thing at all, and certainly not something to be scared about.  Let’s get a few things straight:

  • In most states, Music is not required for graduation
  • If budget cuts need to happen, Music can certainly be cut without legal repercussions
  • Since Music isn’t required, the average student can not be exposed to all the standards, even if they are all addressed in every class (which they typically are not)
  • Standards are typically required performance and content targets for every student
  • Thus, these are not standards in the traditional sense

The Math teacher’s curriculum is required by law.  The Music Teacher’s is not.  Then, these “standards” must be a hedge against further inquiry into the appropriateness of including an optional Music curriculum in your school.  Let’s pretend Music wasn’t a typical offering and you had to start a program from scratch.  The standards could be considered a guideline for offerings.  Since the Arts standards offer no guidance on pacing or content, it can be surmised that they are meant to be covered as a department rather than by each individual class.  I believe this is not clearly defined to avoid confusion and difference in format from traditional core subject standards.

To those worried about having to “teach to these standards”: I would be very interested in hearing of a story of a teacher having to significantly change their curriculum to match the standards.  To those considering changing their curriculum – only do it if it benefits your students.  For instance, reading about Mozart and writing a report is definitely not an age-appropriate activity for a first grade music course.  These standards are not asking you to do that – but if you happen to do some reflective listening, there is a national justification for it.  For those of you who do nothing but sing and dance at that age, there is also a national justification for that as well.  Should every teacher attempt to address every standard?  I don’t believe it’s possible, nor do I think that’s the intent of documents like these.

The biggest misconception of Arts “standards”

In my view, the misconception is that these are designed for every music class to hit every standard.  Yes, a band class can touch on reflective listening, but the bulk of activity in the course is designed for preparing live concerts.  Likewise, my Music Technology classes can discuss and  talk about performing our work, but the course is not designed around performances.  Nor should it be, and nor is it being asked to be!  As music teachers, we are terrified that a legislator that doesn’t “get it” will come in and make us give bubble tests in Choir and make our 6th grade non-performance general class give concerts.  With proper justification for our activities this doesn’t have to be the case – and these standards are designed to be broad targets that pretty much every existing music program is already hitting.

Why do they make new standards all the time?

Simple.  NAfME (and others) are lobbyists at the core.  Their job is to ensure that Music & Arts are a part of mandatory education going forward.  To that end, they release documents like the new Arts standards to show that they’re serious about playing ball in today’s educational landscape.  Think STEM to STEAM.  Without a standards document that matches the language and trends in education, there is no justification to add the “A” to STEM.  The document is more about language and attitude than about practice for the average Music teacher.  Your program will most likely fit into areas this document targets and the work you’re already doing with SLO’s will justify the performance of your students.  If NAfME weren’t involved in this process and sat on the sidelines lamenting the decline of Music Education it wouldn’t do much good – by releasing standards and providing states with an easy-to-copy template they’re helping to keep Music & Art in the conversation.

So what are the standards for then?

They certainly don’t serve as a guide for anyone’s teaching.  Music teachers have always taught to their personal strengths and will continue to do so regardless of what NAfME or anyone else says, barring standardized Music tests, which thankfully haven’t come into play.

In my view, the standards are there for a teacher to have outside justification for what they do.  Let’s say I want to teach Guitar instead of Band.  With the standards, this is now possible.  Let’s say I want to teach Music Technology instead of Music History.  With the standards, this is now possible.  Both cases require an amount of radical change to tradition, but fit well within current standards.  There is no need to justify the worth of these activities, as they are within an agreed-upon set of standards.  If the standards become too specific and constraining, there would be a big problem but in their current form (and knowing musicians, for the foreseeable future) they will retain enough room for big new, creative ideas.

Do NAfME standards matter?

Not technically.  They are, however, a template for states to use for their own standards process and will probably be copied down the road as states revise their standards.  Again, Music standards are relative – there is no provision demanding that every 5th grader learn Violin, in the way that there are many mandates in state standards for students to achieve a certain degree of reading proficiency by a given age.  So we call these “standards” to fit in with the current zeitgeist of education, but they are really guidelines – varying targets that a teacher can call out when justifying their lessons.

Should teachers worry about the standards?

Probably not.  I suppose if you’re a bad teacher maybe.  If we start requiring standardized tests for these subjects, then we can demand mandatory staffing for these subjects – again, we’re not there yet.  But for now, these new arts standards will simply serve to be an external justification of what you already do.

TI:ME Free Online Symposium is Happening NOW

TI:ME Members and non-members alike can logon to check out our free Symposium on Music Tech Pedagogy that is happening right now.  I’ll be speaking at 3:00pm EDT about the types of projects I like to teach and the methods I use to teach composition to kids with little or no music experience.

I’m absolutely thrilled to be a part of this – it’s an honor to be in such great company.  A quick rundown of the participants today:

Jay Dorfman – TI:ME’s national president and all around great guy from Boston U.

Mike Medvinsky – a former electrical engineer turned music teacher, who has in middle school kids making some cool things and really maker-faire kind of stuff

Bill Bauer – Bill used to serve on the Ohio TI:ME board before moving to sunny FL.  He’s one of the smartest and most earnest people in the field, and his research into music learning methods in the digital age are second to none.

The other two speakers, Chris and Adam, I don’t know as well but I wouldn’t be surprised if their accomplishments are right up there with the others.  Be sure to log on today to check out what’s going on right now in our field.

A Rubric for Project-Based Music Classes

As part of my efforts to refine my methods for grading and giving feedback on high school music tech projects, I’ve decided to use the opportunity to make a standardized rubric for my projects.  In many ways, this document is tuned to feed data into my SLO’s for the year as well.

The main features of the rubric:

  • A nominal self-evaluation, simply to provide some context for the finished product
  • An area for actual feedback (notes) at the bottom
  • Scoring “boxes” are tuned to allow most students to fall within the “emerging mastery” category.  Important if the SLO is written to require movement to a new box by semester’s end
  • Max score is possible in Box 3 and 4, giving credit for both accelerated students and those clearly on track
  • Low end of rubric is flexible to not totally kill the grades of lower achieving students
  • Score is out of 30, balanced between technical issues and aesthetic issues

I set aside a day to present projects, during which I use the sheet to mark the grades.  It usually works out to one class period as long as we keep the projects playing.

I haven’t used this yet, but it’s the best representation of how I evaluate my students’ projects.  Let me know what you think of it!

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The problem is not how they play. It’s what they play.

Slightly off topic, but a good critique of the school-grade band/choir/orchestra-music publisher industrial complex :

It was a nice enough, if completely unmemorable, piece. But why, I kept thinking, couldn’t they sing a real Elizabethan madrigal? Or how about a Beatles song? Or anything at all that has inspired and touched and sent shivers down the spine the way great art does?

Also:

If high-school English teachers stopped assigning Shakespeare and Faulkner and instead gave their students the winner of the 1991 Iowa English teachers’ novel-writing contest to read, I think we’d know where to tell them to get off.

via The Washington Post

Creativity through tech – in China

Normally I don’t look at videos from Apple.com marketing as all that, say, “un-natural”.  However, this video of an innovative Chinese school is interesting.  At a time when many US schools are just now recognizing the value of project-based learning through technology it shouldn’t be surprising that other countries around the world are doing this too.  But in this case, it kind of is surprising – China isn’t exactly known for this type of innovation.

 

▶ The end of the symphony orchestra.

Must-read piece by Michelle Jones on the biggest problem in music ed. today.

Universities are slow to change. The bureaucrats and academians (yes, I made up this word) are not as open-minded as one would think. They want to protect their jobs more than they care about the students that merely pass through their halls. It’s self-preservation for them. By creating more graduates, they increase their numbers and tenure. Since only a tiny minority of the music school graduates land the coveted symphony jobs, those that don’t usually end up doing a career not in their chosen field, or end up teaching themselves. Universities expand to meet the demands of the higher population of students going to college, and they expand the departments where people want to major. Since most universities only want professors who have masters or doctoral degrees, those who have these credentials get the jobs. Those who usually have these credentials also were a product of the same university system where the goal is to get and keep their job. Many of the university professors that I have encountered throughout the past twenty-plus years have not had to create their own businesses and make a living as freelance musicians. They have had the regular job of teaching as their “fall-back” and have not been forced to make the same decisions that today’s students face.

She also includes a handy list of suggestions that will surely (but not hopefully) fall on deaf ears. Among my obvious favorites on the list:

6. All music students should learn about recording arts. I’m not asking that each musician learn every detail of a mixing board, but rather to understand the specific microphone placement and recording of their chosen instrument(s). Most musicians will have some experience with recording during their lifetime, especially if they are submitting a recorded audition for a symphony orchestra.

7. In addition to learning about recording arts, all music students should learn how to play to a click track/pre-recorded track. This is especially helpful to have some experience with this, as many of the jobs that require a symphony are film and television studios.

8. All music students should learn how to amplify their instruments electronically. They should learn the difference between pickups and microphones, wired and wireless, amps and speakers, direct-input boxes and pre-amps, etc. More and more of today’s jobs include specific amplification of instruments for live settings and large venues.

How long before our generation is allowed into the universities to start making these important changes? Five years? Ten years? Will we have much of a classical music industry by then?

That moment when imperfection is perfect

Great over-thorough analysis of the first two measures of Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream by Nick Jaworski.

“Striking” does not mean “bad”. Far from it, I find it strangely compelling. Clearly, there are two guitar parts playing simultaneously – each guitar individually panned (placed) into the left and right ears. It’s the guitar in the right ear that lags behind.

I’m totally a sucker for this kind of writing.  Be sure to check out Nick’s other project, Leading Notes.  Nick gets it, and he’s a big voice for our cause.