Destroying Public Education

Thank you to Diane Ravitch who quotes Ira Shor on the Senate Revision of NCLB:

“The private war on public education is not about education, not about good teaching or deep learning, or about what kids need to become strong students, or what families need from their local schools to nurture them and their communities. It’s about theft, period, the private commercial seizure of the vast budgets and assets of public schools, transferring them to private hands, enriching private entrepreneurs and religious schools with the tax monies once set aside for public units. Hollowing out the public sector so that public schools lose capacity, morale, and appeal is absolutely essential to the success of this theft. We are the targets of crime initiated by the private sector and enabled by their cronies in government.”

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.”


Music education, accountability, and responsibility? Words matter

If we don’t think about it much, there’s nothing wrong with being held “accountable” for what we do as music educators. But what happens when we think carefully about the meanings and implications of the word “accountable”?

When music educators have a moment to think about it—while being pressured by Common Core Standards to spend less time teaching music and more time prepping their music students for math and reading tests—they understand clearly that being accountable means being “answerable” for what their students achieve musically, but more and more importantly today, what their students achieve on high-stakes tests. Like all other teachers, they understand that “account-able” is related to “computare,” meaning “calculate.”……. Which brings us to the obvious but frequently overlooked fact that accountability entered the educational lexicon largely by way of business.

Over the last several decades—especially in the US—education has been reconceived as a business, so much so that educational policymakers and administrators today focus on the educational “bottom line(s)” (i.e., Federal, State, and district spending), as determined almost exclusively by simplistic, high-pressure standardized tests. As the eminent education scholar Michael Apple says: “For all too many of the pundits, politicians, corporate leaders, and others, education is a business and should be treated no differently than any other business.” Framed more largely, the notion that education = business is a major element (victim) of the American neoliberal economic and political agenda. Not surprisingly, then, wealthy investors who own shares in (for example) Charter School companies are reaping huge returns, and education publishing corporations (e.g., Pearson Education North America) “earn” billions of dollars a year selling Common Core curriculum and testing hardware and software. Once consequence of education = business is that, just as Wall Street banks and fund managers committed fraud during the years leading up to the 2007-2008 Global Financial Crisis, Charter School fraud has become more and more frequent and blatant, as (for example) the Ohio State Auditor recently declared…

So when today’s so-called reformers scream about the need to hold teachers accountable, they don’t mean that teachers are “responsible” for enabling students to achieve genuine intellectual, creative, ethical, and artistic growth over time. They mean students’ and teachers’ personal and educational “worth” are reducible to numerical data, to bottom-line test calculations. Today, American “children are tracked, analyzed and evaluated from birth—not only by corporations, but now, by the school system.”

Here’s one more way that words matter. Notice that calling a policy change a “reform” movement effectively hides “a wolf in a sheep’s clothing” and, thereby, dupes the public into thinking that so-called “Common” Core Standards are a good thing for children—”Hey folks, Common Core is just common sense!” As Launce Rake explains, “if you want to take apart the teachers unions and make it easier to fire teachers, don’t say ‘make it easier to fire teachers.'” Call it “education reform.” If you want to make music a serious school subject, “reform” music education—that is, force music teachers to spend more time on academic test prep and less time on music.

But what happens when we change the rhetoric of “market place education” by replacing accountability with “responsibility,” which Nel Noddings, a former Stanford University Dean of Education, urges us to do. When we’re responsible for others, we care about them, we care for them. When we’re being responsible music educators, we do so for our students, and for the numerous values that music and music education can provide—not for corporate concepts of education, and not under pressure to succumb to the Common Core Music Standards published by the National Association of Music Educators (NAfME). When we’re acting responsibly, it’s because we’re teaching our students in relation to thoughtful answers we’ve developed about questions such as “What kind of music educator is it good to be?” “What is best— musically, personally, and ethically—for music students in our democratic music classrooms?”

“Responsibility” has some things in common with “accountability.” Responsibility also asks people to be “answerable,” but in the very different sense of being “reliable and trustworthy.” “Response-ability” is a personal and ethical disposition, it’s a matter of personal and ethical integrity, it’s a quality of mind and heart. As opposed to account-ability—i.e., knowing how to test and calculate students and teachers according to top-down Standards and tests imposed by policymakers and education publishing corporations—responsibility goes to the heart of what teaching and learning are all about: human relationships in situ.

When we’re held accountable, we’re unable to empower our students to achieve the values at the heart of musical participation: communal joy, intersubjective fellowship, collaborative artistic expression, creative musical generation and selection, deep and transformative musical-emotional experiences, and all other dimensions of what Aristotle—who emphasized the necessity of music education—called eudaimonia, or a life well lived. When we’re responsible music teachers, we’re concerned with providing our students with the musical skills and understandings they desire and need for life-long musical particip-action. When we’re responsible music teachers, we aim to foster understanding and respect for others and others’ musics and, thus, mutual respect among the students in our care. When we’re responsible music teachers, we provide instruction that’s intimately tied to the formative assessments we make during, after, and beyond musical instruction.

Let’s end with the words of Wittgenstein—”The limits of my language mean the limits of my world”—and Einstein—”Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

The Activity Gap

Kudos and congratulations go to The Atlantic writer Alia Wong. In her article “The Activity Gap,” Wong rightly analyzes many of the issues we find in public schooling today, particularly social inequalities that disrupt students’ equity and access to a quality education. Wong writes: “Income-based differences in extracurricular participation are on the rise, and these differences greatly affect later outcomes. This disparity exacerbates the already-growing income achievement gap that has kept poor children behind in school and later in life. While upper- and middle-class students have become more active in school clubs and sports teams over the past four decades, their working-class peers ‘have become increasingly disengaged and disconnected’…”

While we agree with this author in many ways, may we respectfully suggest that the arts, physical education, etc, should not merely be “extracurricular.” They should be a regular part of daily school life for all children. This was the case until NCLB and Common Core were born and enforced. Because of their narrow concern for testing math and literacy, schools, through misguided polices, have made the arts and other “soft” programs inaccessible for millions of students. And they have led to the termination of hundreds of school music, visual arts, and physical education teachers. Cost-cutting is what these policies are really about, not education.

If we’re supposed to be living in a democracy, which includes equal educational opportunities–through public education–for all children, then the idea of “extracurricular” programs for a limited number of kids is fundamentally undemocratic, no?

It astonishes us that United States policymakers fail to grasp the obvious: ALL students in this democracy deserve and would benefit in many ways from equal access to balanced school curricula for the whole child, which includes equal access to physical education, arts education (etc.) during school hours (not simply after school). And here’s a related issue. Try learning to play or sing music expressively, or learning the techniques and strategies of basketball. We’re not talking about becoming a pro. We’re talking about becoming a competent music maker, etc. If administrators and policymakers actually did these things, they’d quickly realize that learning to make music or play basketball reasonably well requires much more than simple, “soft” skills and understandings. Such pursuits are appropriately challenging, creative, rewarding, and provide significant “life vales.” There’s a growing body of research that supports the conclusion that learning so-called extracurricular subjects is very effective in empowering kids to make a life as well as a living. And now ask yourself this: Does it make sense to assume or assert that education means doing little more in school all day, every day, than study math and reading in preparation for standardized tests? The surprising thing about U.S. schooling today is not that so many kids leave school as soon as possible; the very surprising thing is that more kids don’t leave the highly restricted and humanistically impoverished environments of many schools.

Music = ax2 + bx + c. Huh?

As music education professor and music psychologist Don Hodges says  “we should teach music for all the wonderful humanizing benefits that accrue, and if—big “IF”—academic achievement is affected positively, that is extra value added.”

If you’re tempted to believe all the hype about how music education definitely, actually, absolutely increases the likelihood that students will achieve higher scores on standardized tests of math and reading, consider three counter arguments by top scholars who’ve spent their long careers researching relationships between music education and achievement scores: Dr. Ellen Winner, Dr. Glenn Schellenberg, and Dr. Eugenia Costa-Giomi.

1. Ellen Winner is Professor and Chair of Psychology at Boston College and a Senior Research Associate at Project Zero, Harvard Graduate School of Education. She directs the Arts and Mind Lab, which focuses on cognition in the arts in typical and gifted children. Winner is the author of over 100 articles and four books. In 2000 she received the Rudolf Arnheim Award for Outstanding Research by a Senior Scholar in Psychology and the Arts. Winner has devoted her long and distinguished career to supporting and improving school arts programs through copious scientific research on relationships between the arts and intelligence, thinking, and creativity, and the “invaluable habits of mind that arts education teaches us.

Winner rejects the claims of arts advocates when she says “there is NO definitive evidence that music improves math.” To take one example, her research team studied “mathematicians’ self-reported musicality” and compared them to people in other fields: “We asked over 100 PhDs in math . . . to self-report on all kinds of measures of their musicality. And guess what we found? No difference.” People in other fields “are just as likely to report being musical (including playing an instrument) as people in mathematics.”

2. Glenn Schellenberg, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, has spent decades investigating possible relationships between music, math, and reading. After one (among many) large meta-analysis of correlation studies, Schellenberg concludes that if music lessons correlate with improved math abilities, this does NOT mean that music causes improvements in math abilities. It may only mean “children with high IQs (who perform well in a variety of test settings) are more likely than other children to take music lessons.

To repeat: correlation is not the same as causation. Just because two things occur together doesn’t mean that one thing (e.g., music making, or music listening) caused the other, even if it seems to make sense—or even if we desperately want to say something like “musical participation will raise math scores.”

3. The renowned music education researcher Eugenia Costa-Giomi (University of Texas-Austin) argues that there is not a single study” supporting the claim “that classical music improves young children’s cognitive development.” Like Schellenberg, Costa-Giomi acknowledges that even though there might be “a strong relationship between music participation and academic achievement,” she warns that “the causal nature of the relationship is questionable.” Why? Again, because what NAfME and other music education organizations’ advocacy bloggers often fail to understand is that statistical correlations “do not necessarily mean that arts instruction produces [or causes] achievement gains.”

In fact, it may be the other way around because “it is known that students who choose to participate in the arts are more academically inclined than students who choose not to do so.” In addition, considerable research does not support claims that musical participation might improve academic achievement because, says Costa-Giomi, “it’s difficult to disentangle the true effects of music instruction from the effects of many other variables [e.g., a student’s capacity to concentrate during music teaching and learning interactions; her family’s income; the social dimensions of her musical experiences in her band, rock band, choir, etc.; the positive emotional effects she experiences during her teacher-student interactions] that mediate participation, persistence, and success in learning music. And this is why we must be cautious in our assertions about the long-term intellectual benefits of music instruction.”

It follows that any claims we read about music improving any specific dimension of cognitive functioning are premature at best, and invalid and unreliable at worst.

Let’s take a moment now to put these points in the broader context of American educational and political policymaking.

This past summer, the eminent NYU educational scholar Diane Ravitch wrote: “I don’t know about you, but I am sick of the test score obsession. I think our schools need to have a prolonged testing moratorium so we can figure out what education should be about and how to reduce our dependence on testing.” We couldn’t agree more. And we’re very concerned about what today’s testing obsession—and music advocates’ manic drive to link music and academic test scores—has done and is doing to music education.

For example, as we write this post, many music teachers in our hometown of New York City are preparing their math lessons. Wait, what was that? Yes. In a growing number of public schools in NYC (and in other places across the U.S.), music teachers are being told to set aside a considerable amount of time in their music classes—including their band, choral, general music, pop music, and other music classes—to teach math and literacy skills. In addition, many music teachers are being notified that a percentage of their evaluations will be based on their students’ standardized test scores in math and literacy. And this trend is currently moving upward in the form of “report cards for teacher education programs,” as Dr. Anne Whitney explains. 

Which brings us to the first of two takeaway messages: Be Very Careful What You Wish For! Why? Because the more administrators and policymakers are persuaded that “music makes you smarter” and that “music raises math and literacy scores” (etc.), the faster music students and music teachers will be evaluated NOT on their musical achievements, but on students’ math, reading, and other achievement scores.

One of the engines powering this obsession is called the Common Core or the Common Core State Standards Initiative. The Common Core is a recent U.S. school “reform” initiative that outlines quantifiable benchmarks in English-language arts and mathematics at each grade level from kindergarten through high school. On the surface, it seems reasonable and necessary. But, look more carefully—go below the surface of official U.S. documents and uninformed journalism—and you’ll see that this policy is deeply flawed.

Why and how? Ravitch, other scholars, and thousands of teachers provide detailed explanations of how the Common Core is reeking havoc on many aspects of education in the United States—and why it’s becoming a serious threat to music education. For constant updates, see Diane Ravitch’s blog and read her book: Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Schools. Know, also, that Ravitch values the importance of music making as an aim of schooling.

In fact, she once said to David in person that she wished all teachers would teach as effectively, educatively, and joyously as the best music teachers she’s seen.

Books and blogs by Ravitch, Michael Apple, Alfie Kohn, and many likeminded scholars and parents explain why NAfME’s well-intentioned support of the Common Core is highly problematic—NAfME’s adoption is politically correct, but it’s educationally injurious nevertheless, as was MENC’s quick and uncritical adoption of NCLB in the 1990s.

Time for a reality check: Is it fair to say that music teachers are and should be primarily educated to teach music? Is it true that most music teachers are not fully (or even partially) educated or certified to teach math or literacy? Is it right to say that it takes a considerable amount of skill and content knowledge to teach math and literacy well? If so, why not leave the teaching of math and literacy to math and literacy teachers? We’re not saying that music students should not engage in cross-curricular experiences if/when appropriate. But this is for each music educator to determine in his/her class.

One last point—a second take-away message. What few people realize is that the Common Core movement, and Bill Gates’s initiatives, are powered by a socially and educationally damaging economic-political movement called neoliberalism. Among other things, neoliberalism aims to privatize all areas of social life, including education. Today, education is “Big Business”—education is not about education in the deep sense, it’s about preparing “job-fillers,” not well-rounded citizens—as the eminent critical pedagogue and cultural critic Henry Giroux explains in his commentary on education, social justice, and neoliberalism.

In short, the Common Core is the tip of a very ugly economic-political iceberg.

Given today’s corporate, Wall Street priorities, many politicians and policymakers fail to value music education because learning how to make and appreciate music and the other arts is not immediately “profitable,” meaning that music is not directly related to preparing kids for jobs, and money-making, and future consuming. Here’s another reason why many advocates and teachers are knocking themselves out trying to explain why music education improves math and reading and why some advocacy “stuff” tries to persuade parents that if their children participate in music, they’ll make higher salaries as adults.

What does all of this mean for students? It means the steady erosion and elimination of meaningful school music programs, musical experiences, and the end of many music teachers’ careers.