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.