What does it mean to say a school is making “adequate yearly progress”? What is the value of a standardized test that produces an aggregate score for a group of students in one school and has it compared in the local newspaper against scores from another? How does student performance on a standardized exam relate to future vocational aspirations? Are teachers really able to teach skills necessary for success in future student endeavors or are they simply trying to teach concepts that will enable students to pass a standardized examination?

            The standardized state examinations represent a dangerous failure on many levels. It makes assumptions that all teachers are teaching all the same information in the same manner.  It makes assumptions that all students have equal access to education, and that all students have a similar support structure in their environment that will let them succeed. It assumes that there is one correct answer for a question and that there is only one way in which it can be made manifest.  It further promotes the message that the only valuable knowledge is that which can be written down, creativity and imagination are not of value to education, and that modern education is nothing more than a factory for producing a universal product – a group of students who all know the same thing and nothing outside the realm of what they have been tested. To further illustrate this point Steven Kelly’s text Teaching Music in American Society cites research by Spring (2006) that indicates there is little correlation data between high stakes testing and college or vocational success.  It goes on to indicate that these tests are often discriminatory based on race, gender, home environment, socioeconomic level, and even physical and intellectual abilities.

            My increasing cynical impression and lack of faith in national organizations has been on the increase over the past five years. With each passing day I am reminded how diverse and ever changing our society has become, and sadly, how little our policy makers are able to respond to enact any kind of meaningful change or avert any kind of crisis.  From national organizations that promote the well-being of music education to policy-makers and department of education officials who enact their efforts and policy from afar, we have become stagnated in our own mediocrity chasing after universal standards all so we can have some sort of tangible proof that our education system is the best, our students are better, and essentially we can say “We’re number one.” 

            Consider David Elliot (Professor of Music and Music Education at New York University), and his writings on the current state of music education.  In his view, summative assessment (like a PSSA exam) is not an ethical educational assessment citing its use to identifying failing students and schools (Taylor, 2006, p. 42).  Elliot continues to discuss that the narrowing of the curriculum and standardized testing is rooted in America’s fear of losing in international competition. I would point out that it’s not as bad as it seems, and it certainly isn’t the same everywhere.

            The current situation in Pennsylvania has been brewing for years thanks to a number of short-sighted decisions made by teachers, policy-makers, and the ex-governor.  One does not wake up one day and find themselves $4 billion dollars in debt – but Tom Corbett (much maligned by a number of groups) decided to do something about it.  This movie is going to play out much like a Shakespeare tragedy, with a lot of good people who do right by their students playing the part of…well…I don’t remember. I didn’t go to school during a time when there was serious high stakes testing, and I used Cliff Notes for most Shakespeare in High School. But trust me, everybody dies…usually…I think…but I digress.

            My issue with Governor Corbett is not with the cuts – though drastic, and tough. He is cleaning up a mess that was left for him, and angry or not, he made good on his campaign pledges (well at least one, and this one is painful). It is the cuts with no thought to the value of what is being cut. What if we didn’t have these tests? How could we show to our leaders that our own school is doing well? Could we let strokes of paint on a canvas, the poetry of students, the choreography of an auxiliary unit, the closing of Biebl’s Ave Maria, or Letter F of the Chaconne in First Suite demonstrate how we are being successful with students? Do we live in a society that understands the value of those things? And if you do not, why haven’t you been educating your community that they are by demonstrating it through the products and works of your students?

            The arts have incredible power to change people’s perceptions, to lift and transform them emotionally and ethically (get ready PMEA 2011), and to transform consciousness.  Elliot Eisner, make a number of great points about what education can learn from the arts, and I have summed these thoughts up here (Eisner, 2002).

  • ·         Arts teach students that their personal signature is important – interpreting music, describe a sculpture, form of a dance – and that diversity and variability are made central to the experience.
  • ·         As students learn in the arts, they realize that decisions may not always be reduced to a rule or simple formula, but depends upon sensitivity, engagement of body and mind to attend to subtle qualities, and attention to relationships among details and how they congregate to affect the perception of the whole. 
  • ·         The arts also promote the development of intrinsic satisfaction and that there are experiences in life that must be lived and felt and cannot be articulated or expressed in literal language or discursive language. 
  • ·         Two more important aspect the arts teach is the flexible purposing that enables one to capture emerging moments and opportunities, and that savoring the experience one seeks to fully let the enriching powers of the arts speak.

            Music educators today have to produce. Not trophies, 1st place festival or contest results, or chairs in state ensembles though they are admirable pursuits in the right context with the right frame of mind of all involved. We have to produce meaningful musical experiences for our students. We must put them in the best possible position for success through our instruction, show them the best possible attitude because of our passion, and our heartfelt appreciation for allowing this experience to work on them as people as they work to prepare for the experience. We must produce musicians that can perform, others who create, others who listen and comment, and yet others who advocate. During this “dark time” – as my friend Bob called it a few weeks ago – we must continue to fight the good fight, to advocate for music instruction as an important part of 21st century learning, and that students need these experiences above all else because music is a human experience.

            Now is our time to plant seeds for the future of music education.  Our planting season might be shortened, there might be less time, we might not have as good equipment. Having grown up the son of a great farmer, truck driver, and my first musical role model – David would tell me we would go to the fields and get our work done. It might be harder. The days might be longer. But people need the crops. Some of us may plant seeds that we will not see bear fruit. You know your fields, you know what your kids need. Water, soil, sunlight. Knowledge and skills, students in class and ensembles, our passion and perseverance. It’s time to go the fields. 

Eisner, E. W. (2002). The arts and the creation of mind. London: Yale University Press.

Kelly, S.N. (2009). Teaching music in American society: A social and cultural understanding of teaching music. New York: Routledge.

Taylor, P. (Ed.). (2006). Assessment in arts education. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Press.

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