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.

One thought on “Music = ax2 + bx + c. Huh?

  1. I remember first meeting David Elliott in the late 90s as a new Masters student at U of T, as I carried with me a music pamphlet touting the success of music classes raising math and literacy in Swiss elementary schools. I remember feeling embarrassed for my gullibility. Today I’m so thankful for richer advocacy for music education that seems to be gaining wider recognition. At least I can be sure that teaching music well does increase something in children: that would be music.

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