Editor's Note: This is a transcript of a talk given by Mr. Robinson at the Michigan School Band and Orchestra Association Conference.
• The quality of music teachers in our state is outstanding. They are talented, smart and well informed.
• Michigan's teachers also tend to be well-connected to their professional organizations, and seek out high quality professional development. One of the things we know through research is that teachers who attend professional development events tend to remain active members of the profession, while those who don’t often wind up leaving the classroom. Events like the Michigan Music Conference, which brings together elementary, string, band and chorus teachers to share and learn from one another, help to create a broad and diverse community of music educators who respect what each other have to offer our profession. We are stronger when we are all together, and speaking with one voice as a profession.
• Music programs in MI are grounded in solid philosophical and theoretical foundations—they are based on comprehensive, sequential general music programs in the elementary schools, and the band, orchestra and chorus programs at the secondary level are also very strong. Kids coming out of these programs come to college well-prepared for the rigors of further music study, or ready to continue their musical careers in community bands and orchestras, church choirs, and other community-based groups.
So, we are fortunate to be in a state with excellent music and arts programs—but sadly this is not the case in every school in MI. You may have heard about the decision in Lansing to eliminate all elementary music, art and PE. This creates an enormous equity issue for children and families in our region—where those who live in Okemos, or Brighton, or Greenville enjoy rich, meaningful offerings in the arts, while their peers in Lansing or Flint or Detroit have little to no access to these opportunities.
A similar situation exists nationally, as we hear a lot about how America’s schools are “failing”, and falling behind when compared to schools in places like Finland or Taiwan. Here is what we don’t hear very often—when those same test scores are controlled for SES (socio-economic status), US students and schools from places with comparable poverty levels score at the very top of the ratings, just as good or better than any schools in the world.
The truth is that much of the “doom & gloom” we read in the news about education in our state and our nation is a manufactured crisis. Its important to make sure that we all keep in mind how fortunate we are to have fine schools and music programs in MI, and to advocate for those programs for what they offer our children and our communities--because I believe that given the current education reform climate, what we have to offer as music teachers may be more valuable and needed than ever before.
Pitfalls in American Education
Recently, I was at a conference in North Carolina where the guest speaker identified some possible pitfalls in today’s educational scene. I want you to think with me about these ideas for a few minutes, especially as they relate to education here in Michigan:
1. The 1st point centered on the notion that teacher quality is best measured by improvements in student test scores.
2. The 2nd point was the notion that “pedagogical development knowledge”, or PDK, is the same as “subject matter knowledge,” or SMK, or that all it takes to teach math, is knowing some math.
3. The 3rd point focused on the notion of “teachers as saviors,” and that the schools can solve the nation’s problems, and even those of the world. Implicit in this assumption is that other factors, such as adequate resources for the schools, money for facilities, equipment and teacher salaries, etc., are somehow less important.
4. Finally, the speaker challenged the notion that the purpose of the schools is to produce the nation’s workforce, and that the nation’s economy depends on the educational system—and that other purposes of education are less important.
How do these issues impact our lives as teachers, parents and community members?
Related to the first 2 points, on teacher quality and what it takes to be a teacher—I have been working since the mid-1990s in the preparation of new teachers and teacher educators. In the last couple of years, many of the changes we have seen in education policy have made these tasks much more difficult than ever before.
While there is no doubt that a good teacher in the classroom or on the podium is the single most important in-school element in the “educational equation”, the idea that teacher quality has a causal relationship to students’ test scores is simplistic and naïve. The fact is that less than 10% of the differences in student achievement are attributable to in-school factors—and the rest is due to things like parental support, socio-economic status and other out-of-school factors--which account for as much as 93% of the differences in student achievement. We need to remember that schools should be about much more than just academic achievement—as measured solely by tests—and that social, physical, artistic, emotional and aesthetic development are equally important outcomes to a sound educational program.
We are seeing similar problems with teacher evaluation in our state. Teachers are now being evaluated on a 4-point scale, with nearly half of that rating being based on student scores on standardized tests. Especially troubling for music teachers is that the part of their rating is often based on test scores in subjects that they don’t teach, like math or reading, and on test scores for children that are not even in their classes. That doesn’t seem right, or fair.
We often hear the saying, “We test what we value.” I would respectfully suggest that exactly the opposite is true. In fact, the things that we value and care about the most are those things that are precisely the most resistant to being measured. If you'd like to test this out for yourselves, just try going home tonight and assigning your wife, husband, spouse or partner with a numeric grade on their performance at home this week, or give your children ratings that compare one against the other. Please let me know how that works out for you ...
Regarding “teachers as saviors”…I believe that sometimes we are our own worst enemies as music teachers. When teachers of other subjects are faced with cuts to their programs they respond by scaling back their course offerings and using those depleted resources in the places that best influence student learning in their discipline. But when music programs are cut, how do we respond? We schedule extra or longer rehearsals, we have extra lessons and coaching sessions, and spend more of our own time and money making up the differences. The result is often that our principals don't notice any difference in the quality of our programs or performances, and we continue to be expected to “do more with less.” Its a particular phenomenon that seems to effect music educators disproportionately more than teachers of other subject areas—to be clear, I’m not suggesting that we consciously “do less,” or “teach worse.” But I would suggest that we think hard about the messages we send to our administrators and the parents of our students when our programs are targeted for reductions in staff or resources. We need to be realistic and honest about the impacts of these cuts on our students’ learning—and on our lives as teachers, parents and human beings.
The final issue, about the purpose of education being to produce students who are “career and college ready,” is another "talking point" that I believe we need to push back against. This stance represents a subtle transformation of the true purpose of education, from one that is about the development of meaningful relationships between teachers and learners—and among learners—to one that is simply a transfer of information from teacher to learner; a sort of educational “banking transaction” if you will.
Again, to be clear, I am not against the development of students who are capable of moving onto college or the workforce—but that is not the purpose of education, and never has been. That’s a by-product of schooling, not a purpose. Just as the purpose of teaching music is not to get a good rating at festival, or to win a blue ribbon at solo and ensemble contest, but rather to help our students learn the musical skills and knowledge that will help them to become lifelong music makers and supporters of the arts.
The Promise of Music Education for the “Accountability Era”
So why, after all of this gloomy discussion, am I optimistic, and why do I think that music in schools is more important now than its ever been? Because never before in my teaching career can I think of a time when what we had to offer as music teachers was more desperately needed, by our students, our schools and our society. I believe that music and the arts may be a possible solution to this dilemma. As one of my education heroes, the late Elliott Eisner, said:
“In spelling and in arithmetic there are correct answers, answers whose correctness can be proven. In the arts judgments are made in the absence of rule. The temperature of a color might be a tad too warm, the edge of a shape might be a bit too sharp, the percussion might need to be a little more dynamic. What the arts teach is that attention to such matters matter. The arts teach students to act and to judge in the absence of rule, to rely on feel, to pay attention to nuance, to act and appraise the consequences of one’s choices and to revise and then to make other choices.”
Music and the other arts show students how to appreciate beauty; to make critical judgments that require deep and thoughtful listening and consideration; to be aware of their feelings and emotions in ways that no other subject demands; to understand that vulnerability is not a weakness, and that improvement is more important than perfection.
As the father of two school age boys, I see first hand the impact of a fine school music program on my kids. Music has helped them to think of problems in more creative, open-ended ways. They understand that there is often more than one “right” way to answer a question—especially when the question is a difficult one. They are comfortable with what psychologists call “divergent” thinking—the ability to see multiple solutions to a problem. Kids who study music know how to work together collaboratively in groups, to value the efforts of all team members, and that every person has the ability to make a worthwhile contribution to the group’s work.
I am optimistic because I know that music, when taught well, provides the “antidote” to today’s “teach to the test”, assessment-driven culture. Because, when taught well, music study offers the very things that employers say they are looking for in the workforce, and for what school leaders emphasize in mission and vision statements: critical thinking, teamwork, problem-solving skills and creativity.
The Right Questions
I recently wrote an article for an education blog that received a surprising, yet encouraging, amount of attention. The article was about knowing the right questions to ask when considering the issues facing our schools. Here are a few of these questions ...
• What can we do to reduce the staggering levels of child poverty, not just in our cities but across demographics? Nearly a third of American children are now living in poverty, and this has a devastating impact on the ability of these children to come to school ready to learn.
• Why have we become obsessed with measuring things that don't mean what we think they mean, and using those measurements to punish children, teachers, schools and communities? There is nothing wrong, per se, with tests—except when they are the sole tools used to determine judgments about schools or teachers.
• Why do we think that sitting young children in front of computer screens is an adequate substitution for a real education? Technology can be a wonderful way to enrich student learning, but can not replace excellent teachers, or the social and emotional benefits of schooling.
• Why do we endorse a curricular model that privileges science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) when a comprehensive education has always included the humanities, arts and physical education (STEAM)? Again, there is nothing wrong with math or science—but education is about helping kids develop in well-rounded ways, not along narrow, one size fits all pathways.
• When did the notion of learning morph from the building and nurturing of personal relationships between teachers and learners into a mere information transaction, a simple matter of deposits and withdrawals? Learning is about a lot more than moving bits and pieces of data around—its discovering things about ourselves in varying conditions and circumstances, and developing personal relationships with colleagues and mentors.
I’ll leave you with one more quote from my hero, Dr. Eisner: “Our schools, teachers, and students might be a lot better off if schools embraced the idea that education means learning what to do when you don’t know what to do.”
This, to me, is the great power and promise of music in our schools—because, when taught well, music can provide the means for our students to figure out what to do, when they don’t know what to do. And that should be what we want for all of our students.
Mitchell Robinson is associate professor and chair of music education at Michigan State University. Prior to his current position, Dr. Robinson taught music for 10 years in the Fulton (NY) City School District, and held collegiate appointments at the University of Connecticut and the Eastman School of Music. Dr. Robinson recently concluded a term as Academic Editor of the Music Educators Journal, and has served on the editorial boards of the Journal of Music Teacher Education, Arts Education Policy Review, the Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education, the International Journal of Education and the Arts, and Research Issues in Music Education. His research is focused on education policy and the mentoring and induction of new music teachers.