Educational “Reform” Measures the Wrong Things

Steven Nelson (via Diane Ravitch), Head of the Calhoun School in Manhattan, makes extremely important points when he says that so-called Educational “Reform” (e.g., Common Core “Standards”) is not intended to make deep and lasting improvements in education, but to “measure” students and accumulate “data” for the purposes of deciding the amount of funding schools will get and to make it easy for huge Corporations (e.g., Pearson) and Wall Street investors to reap huge profits:

“It is not coincidental that the education policy and reform business is highly profitable. Public education is estimated to be a $600-700 billion market. Those who drive the measuring and testing industry are first in line at the trough. Pearson Publishing, for example, has its greedy tentacles in nearly every school district in America. All the iterations of reform—No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top and, more recently, the Common Core— are driven by (and driving) the collection and interpretation of data.”

So it’s not only that “what gets tested [using high-stakes tests] is what gets taught,” it’s “what makes money for corporations and investors is what gets taught.”

Because music education has no immediate, short-term, hard-currency profits or products that narrowly educated business people and policymakers can measure—music is often eliminated to make room in the curriculum for math and literacy test prep that’s not “educational,” because standardized test scores are neither valid nor reliable indicators of deep mathematical and literary understanding. Or anything else.

Well-educated, experienced, and ethical teachers, says Diane Ravitch, “seek development, not accountability. What matters most cannot be measured.”

Nelson puts it this way: “Measure the wrong things and you’ll get the wrong behaviors. This simple statement succinctly characterizes why the American education system continues beating its head against the wall.”

The same goes for music education. It’s exceedingly important for music teachers—and NAfME advocates—to keep in mind that “reform” policies were not developed by expert educational researchers. They were initially developed by economists and corporate employees who conceive education as a business; instruction as input, output; students as widgets. These business-based (e.g., Pearson) “educationalists” are not well-educated assessment experts—not even close.

Not surprisingly, then, reform policies have done irreparable harm to students, parents, and school systems across the U.S., and to public school music teaching and learning at all levels.

As music educators know, the irreparable harm of “reform” includes a national assault on arts education that’s resulted in the elimination of countless excellent school music programs and expert and dedicated music educators.

Therefore, as well as advocating for the intrinsic values of music making and listening of all kinds, it’s equally important that music educators join the ranks of thoughtful scholars, teachers, and parents who are resisting reform efforts, boycotting testing, and fighting for holistic curricula.

Music will become a central component in every child’s education if and only if public stakeholders push back hard against undemocratic corporations, politicians, and policies. Music educators must help other educators break free from narrow, ill-conceived concepts of education such as Common Core.

Let’s join and support perceptive, courageous, and well-informed parents, teachers, testing experts, and scholars, and the Badass Teachers Association who have valid reasons for being anti-testing and anti-Common Core Standards; people like Fred Smith, a veteran testing expert who worked for the New York City Board of Education. Smith warns parents that Pearson will be administering field tests in the schools in June. He provides a list of schools where the field tests will be given. He urges parents to opt their children out of the field tests.

The opt out movement is proving to be the most powerful tool that parents have against the whole agenda of test-and-punish “reform” that is being foisted on children and schools, benefiting no one but the testing industry.

As Diane Ravitch reports: “Long Island is the national hotbed for opt outs. It is a model for the nation. Parents are organized and active; they have the support of many principals and superintendents.” Their message is: “We are taking back our schools.”

Sadly, the music education profession has a long and destructive history of jumping into bed with every new state and federal “educational” policy that comes down the road (e.g., NCLB, Common Core)—without first analyzing and anticipating the potentially harmful consequences these policies will have for music education. Too many music education advocates are obedient followers, not reflective and wise leaders. NCLB didn’t result in the addition of more and better school music programs, and neither will Common Core. So, why is NAfME supporting Common Core? It might make some sense in the immediate political environment, but not in any truly educational sense.

Nelson’s last points are equally applicable to music education:

“After nearly 20 years of reading, observing, teaching and presiding over a school, I’m convinced of this simple statement: ‘Measure the wrong things and you’ll get the wrong behaviors’ is at the root of what ails education, from cradle to grave.

“Measuring the wrong thing (standardized scores of 4th graders) drives the wrong behaviors (lots of test prep and dull direct instruction). In later school years, measuring the wrong thing (SAT and other standardized test scores, grade point averages, class rank) continues to invite the wrong behaviors (gaming the system, too much unnecessary homework, suppression of curiosity, risk-aversion, high stress).

“Measuring the right things is more complicated and less profitable. But if we measured, even if only in our hearts, the things that we should truly value (creativity, joy, physical and emotional health, self-confidence, humor, compassion, integrity, originality, skepticism, critical capacities), we would engage in a very different set of behaviors” among which he includes music—“reading for pleasure, boisterous discussions, group projects, painting, discovery . . .music, cooperation rather than competition.”