Music: The Last Bastion of Sanity in Public Education?

Two caveats before I begin. First, for full disclosure, my son is presently enrolled in a private, Christian school. My wife and I have chosen this for him because we like the curriculum and overall ethos of his school, though like many parents we reevaluate our educational choices yearly. I do believe in the importance of a good public school system, and do not support voucher programs or the like; parents should be free to choose homeschooling or private schools as they wish and are able, but not at the expense of the public system.

Second, while I do intend to make a serious point regarding education here, my tone is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, particularly regarding my choice of title. Please read my words in that spirit.

Education is in a crisis. At least, that is the message that one gets when reading various reports in the press and on social media. Funds are scarce, teachers are leaving the profession, students are unprepared, parents are unengaged, and the list goes on. Some of these problems are not new; reading the books and periodicals of a generation or two ago reveals some of the same perennial concerns. What is new, or at least has increased tremendously over the past fifteen years or so, is the imposition of successive régimes of objectives, standards, and testing, so much so that school funding and teachers’ livelihoods are largely tied to students’ performance on these tests, many of which yield a faint and distorted picture at best of the learning that goes on in classrooms. Poor student performance on these tests—sometimes reflecting dysfunctional home lives and other social problems rather than teacher incompetence—is laid at the feet of teachers and schools who are powerless to rectify systemic societal dysfunctions which they did not create and of which poor test scores are but one symptom.

The proposed reforms? New sets of standards, more tests, more actual teaching sacrificed for testing, more teachers blamed, more teachers leaving the profession. For teachers in subject areas which are tested in this way it is a stressful time to be an educator.

And then there is music class, where through all of the turmoil in education at least a modicum of sanity has been retained. Here are a couple of reasons why.

1. Music is not subjected to high-stakes testing. While there have been a couple of sets of national standards for music education introduced in the past 20 years along with similar measures in other subjects, music has happily not been subjected to the high-stakes testing régimes that have plagued other subject areas. Instead of sacrificing valuable instructional time for test preparation, music teachers are able to spend time preparing students for upcoming performances and, hopefully, for lifelong music making. In other words, the absence of such testing allows music teachers to actually teach music.

(Well, except while they are called upon to proctor standardized tests in other fields….)

2. Music is largely resistant to faddish educational theories. To some extent, the current obsession with standardized tests reflects a broader fascination with “the latest trends” in education on the part of legislators, school boards, and administrators. One of the buzzwords (or phrases) even in higher education throughout my career thus far has been “student learning outcomes,” with instructors being encouraged to use evaluation measures that can be neatly quantified, measured, analyzed, and demonstrated on a spreadsheet. Standardized tests fill this role nicely, which partially explains their popularity. While music has not entirely escaped the grasp of “outcomes-based education,” its position outside the realm of tested subjects gives it some protection from educational fads. And again, the music teacher’s first thought is to teach students as effectively as possible for the purpose of generating quality performances. To that end, he has a decided interest in doing what works. Will he try new ideas or techniques? Sure, but his approach will evolve slowly and deliberately. Of course, good teachers in any field will similarly favor slow changes given the opportunity, but sometimes new objectives or testing régimes are adopted from “on high” with little forethought, preparation, or input from teachers. The music teacher occupies an enviable position by comparison.

Music’s present immunity from the current obsession with standardized testing doesn’t mean that music teachers don’t receive high-stakes evaluations. Every performance reflects the learning that takes place in the music classroom, and every performance showcases the ability or the incompetency of the teacher. This means that music teachers—and particularly ensemble directors—are constantly being evaluated by real-world measures, and everybody in the audience knows where effective teaching is and is not occurring. For the marching band director, to use a prominent example, “teaching evaluations” occur every Friday night. Consistently good or poor performances tell parents, administrators, and the community more about the quality of a teacher’s work than any test or outcomes criteria can.

In the end, it is not the absence of evaluation but rather its frequency that makes the music classroom such a sane place. The constant need to produce effective student performances has a distinct conserving influence, as ensemble directors in particular are slow to abandon proven methods for “the latest thing.” The freedom from standardized testing also provides a great measure of freedom from prescribed curricula which sometimes prefer the faddish over the tried-and-true. All of this makes the music program a place where quality instruction is sure to occur, in addition to its community outreach functions and its provision of important creative outlets for students.

It just might be the most sane place in the entire school.

About Micah Everett

Micah Everett is Associate Professor of Music (Trombone/Low Brass) at the University of Mississippi, Principal Trombonist of the North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra, Interim Music Director at College Hill Presbyterian Church, Assistant Editor (Audio/Video Reviews) for the International Trombone Association Journal, and an S.E. Shires trombone artist. He is the author of THE LOW BRASS PLAYER'S GUIDE TO DOUBLING, published by Mountain Peak Music, and released two solo recordings, STEPPING STONES FOR BASS TROMBONE, VOLS. 1 and 2, on the Potenza Music label in 2015 and 2022, respectively. In addition to his professional work, he maintains an avid interest in the study of the Bible and of Reformed theology. He holds doctoral and master's degrees in music from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, a bachelor's degree in music education from Delta State University, and a certificate in systematic theology from Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary.
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