New NCCAS National Core Music Standards

UPDATE: Creative Sequence Alignment post is now available for more info on national draft standards.

The new National Core Arts Standards have been released today for a public review process that will last until July 15. The National Coalition for Core Arts Standards, comprised of representatives from various Arts Education organizations, including the National Association for Music Educators (NAfME), wrote the new standards as an update to the 1994 National Standards. So I spent most of the day today poring over the new draft music standards, and I have to admit, I’m not excited. There are many glaring structural problems with the new standards. But first, the good points.

Clear “Artistic Process” Umbrella

In order to align all the arts in a cohesive manner, the writers chose three to four very simple, clear Artistic Processes to categorize all the standards under.

  • Creating – same across all disciplines
  • Performing/Presenting/Producingperforming for music
  • Responding – same across all discipliness
  • Connecting – used by dance, media arts, and theater, but considered integrated into the other processes for music

By using this simple structure, you can see that what was nine national standards in the past, can now be quickly remember by a simple three: create, perform, respond. Creating covers old standards #3-4, improvising and composing/arranging. Performing covers old standards #1-2, singing and playing. Responding covers #6-9, which include listening, evaluating, analyzing, and connecting to history, culture, and other disciplines.

Heightened Placement for Creative Process

As an Orff Schulwerk-trained teacher, I was of course thrilled to see the very first process to be Creating! Far too many music teachers do not believe in the creative potential of their students (or even themselves), and see music as merely a re-creative art.

Connections to 21st Century Skills and Common Core Language

I have been involved in the process to get the fine arts added to the Iowa Core Curriculum. During this process, I have learned a lot about 21st Century Skills. The universal skills like collaboration, flexibility, and productivity are great ways of thinking about cross-curricular success for our students. So I was pleased to see this kind of newer language infusing its way into the new arts standards.


So, I was really excited by all of this, and was looking forward to a day of nodding my head emphatically. Instead, I am left with a deep pit in my stomach.

No Listed Essential Music Skills

  • The new standards do not require students to sing. They do not have to match pitch.
  • The new standards do not require learning to play instruments, or even keep a beat. However, they do require students to perform music. They just don’t explain what this means.
  • The new standards do not require students to read music. However, they do briefy mention writing/notating music, to record and share compositions.

No Elements of Music

  • The new standards barely refer to the elements. Free improvisation in grades K-2 mention “tonal and rhythmic” patterns.
  • Performances and listening examples are to be “analyzed” for musical elements, but these musical elements are never listed or described beyond single examples (i.e., form).
  • Not surprisingly, since notation literacy is not mentioned, there is no expectation in the standards for students to read a specific rhythm, identify pitches, etc.

Too Much Emphasis on Student Production

  • Students in the new standards are expected to not only improvise and compose, but to first create their own improvisatory vocabulary through “free improvisation,” and then map out a “plan” of how they will improvise or compose. The teacher is not mentioned as having any input in this process, beyond words like “guidance” and “support”” (only used in Kdg and 1st Grade).
  • Students are expected to choose their own repertoire for performing and listening to. No mention of allowing the teacher to choose or influence repertoire choices.
  • Students are expected to analyze their compositions, their performances, and listening examples. While this is important work, given the skills and concepts missing from these standards, it points to an imbalanced, discussion/writing/listening based class, where active music-making suffers.

As you can see, I am deeply concerned about the direction these new standards are taking. I feel that the effort to align and make ourselves “relevant” is backfiring by eroding the core of what makes music education important. The bottom line is that these standards do not accurately represent what I believe a music education should look like.

Regardless of whether you agree with me or not, please take the time to visit and share your thoughts with the writing team. This is an opportunity that the last generation did not have to such an extent, and we need to make our voices heard!

27 thoughts on “New NCCAS National Core Music Standards”

  1. I am totally in agreement with Tim. We need real music skills taught by real music educators. We need the music educators to choose the music literature, not the students. Wow, this is really taking a major step backward.

    1. Thanks, LeAnn! It’s not that I think letting the children learn to make choices is a bad idea, but they can’t learn to do this properly without modeling from the teacher, which does not seem to be part of these standards.

  2. How are they supposed to analyze their own performances & compositions if they don’t have the building blocks and tools with which to analyze? They won’t know if they are performing the rhythm correctly because they don’t know how it should go.

  3. I completely agree with you, Tim. First of all, it’s even hard to understand completely what these new standards are saying (our current national standards have much more simplified language). I am also an Orff-trained teacher and agree that students need to have a much more active music-making experience. That’s the fun part and that’s what’s going to keep them involved with music. I agree that students need to have the other experiences like the discussion, but there shouldn’t be as much emphasis placed on that. The music-making is what sets our subject area apart from others.

  4. Thanks for echoing much of what I have been trying to express with the writing team of the standards over the last three months. I am in total agreement with the pit in the bottom of the stomach where once there was much hope. These standards will create a huge rift in the music education community and will alienate many good music teachers who feel they will have no way to come close to achieving them.

    The standards are based on the notion that a school district provides two 45 minutes music classes per week. I know many school systems will remain at half that amount of instructional time.

    Here is the scary part … with teacher evaluation becoming a huge part of the political teacher movement we will be expected to reach these standards.

    Do we really want to measuring student success in choosing literature for a performance? Do we really want to be asking second graders to demonstrate and then explain why they have chosen to interpret the way they sing a song? Do kindergarten students really need to be able to demonstrate a plan for their creation?

    Whatever happened to making music? What about the importance of developing musical literacy? Couldn’t we just find a way to incorporate these ideas into the Create, Perform, Respond idea? Instead of adding these additional layers of complication with the “process components”?

    The standards writing team really believes that these are the best things since sliced bread! And like it or not, if our objections are not voiced loudly enough we will be stuck with these for many years to come!

    Please make sure we work together to make our voices heard!

  5. Thanks for all the replies, everyone! Keep spreading the word and have all your colleagues fill out the review. The more voices, the louder we speak! Also think about sending a message via facebook or email staight to the NCCAS.

  6. What on earth does this new language even mean? As a young teacher who has two years experience, this leaves me no clear idea what is even expected of me. This is disturbing. What is the point of teaching music if we do not give our students the tools they need to make it?

    1. Sarah, I hope you express that confusion in the survey. That’s possibly the most dangerous part, is the lack of clarity. It leaves too much room for poor interpretation. Even as an experienced teacher and curriculum writer, it took me way too long to understand this. In fact I keep coming up with new insights, some good, some bad, but mostly frustrated that it would be this hard…

    2. I was part of the reviewer team that was responsible for coming up with the PK-2 performance standards. I was the only voice out of all three groups that was very vehement that the organization of the standards in this way is extremely cumbersome and confusing even for experienced curriculum writers and teachers. I think what I found most disturbing was the fact that music making (singing, playing, and moving) and musical literacy in all it’s forms were given a back seat in the development process of the child’s musical learning. There will be further examples given later on (this is the committees next focus). But when selecting music takes precedence over getting kids to sing in tune it becomes challenging to not get frustrated with the arrangement of this document. So …. When we were working with this over the last three months I lost a lot of sleep. I often brought up the argument that beginning teachers will have a terrible time trying to interpret and apply what is being set forth as the Standard Music Program. When in reality this is so far beyond what a standard music program could ever be. I feel the writers got so caught up in presenting the most outstanding music education program there could be in the world that they lost focus on what is the reality of music education today. That we need to not be so lofty in our desires to make music an important part of each child’s educational program.

      You get the idea … Thanks for reflecting another of my concerns Sarah.

      1. Ooops by further examples later on ….
        The performance standard committees are still in the process of developing examples of how and what you can do in your classroom to achieve each performance standard at each grade level. They were only allowed to release the information up to the performance standards. There is more. Traits and then Content and then Examples. The singing and playing and stuff we are used to talking about will not appear until we get down to the Content level.

        1. Tim, glad to know there was a voice of reason inside the subcommittees! Maybe if they hear concerns enough times there will be adjustments made. Also, wouldn’t it be logical to have the information you just gave me, that there is content and other info coming later, on the NCCAS rollout page? If it’s there, I missed it.

  7. Tim, I am grateful for your postings here and on the AOSA. You have articulated exactly what my reservations were when I read the draft standards. The people who put them together seem to have very little sense of the standards need to be linked to the natural developmental progression in all children. Here in California (and elsewhere I’m sure) the standards move from simple to complex, from concrete to abstract, and from a focus on the self to a focus on others. There seems to be very little of that here. And I agree that there is no discussion of skills. I did think the emphasis on requiring students to evaluate their own work and their classmates work was a good thing.

    1. Richard,

      I agree evaluating is important, in its proper place. Also, every please read my next blog post. I had a bit more time to organize my thoughts.

  8. I very much so agree! I took the survey right away. Can I reblog this on my elementary music blog to help get the word out? I would of course link to your blog and give an intro.

  9. In preparation for an upcoming Common Core training in our district, I have been doing some digging and stubbled upon this thread. I too am greatly concerned. There are two sides to the music literacy coin, and this appears very one-sided. Should we allow science students to walk into a chem lab and start mixing stuff to see what happens without ever showing them the table of elements, all in the name of creativity and exploration? If so, I think I would keep a fire extinguisher nearby! I know that some of the biggest things in our world were stubbled upon by accident, but like all caring teachers, I do not want to teach accidentally. I know my students, and they want to feel that, not only can they express themselves, but also do it well – with the understanding of how the whole thing works. Students need to know how to create/recreate/express properly something that is pre-designed and also develop their own creative ideas to make something unexpected. Before you can independently create, you must have a model or reference. Here’s an offbeat example: My son and I began building LEGO sets when he was very young. After we had built a few of these pre-designed sets, he then wanted to dismantle them to create something new, and he came up with some really great stuff. I credit this to the fact that he had a model for which to start. I’m trying to keep an open mind, but I’ve been teaching too long not to know what needs to happen in the elementary music classroom. If this is all of what Common Core is, I will consider that a representation of what a MINIMAL implementation of a music program looks like, and I will explain to my very supportive administration that we go above and beyond by building higher functional skills that will serve them well into middle school and beyond!

  10. Have you heard about creative pedagogy, I took an online class in it from Westminster choir college, a lot of what you are concerned about comes from that area of thinking, it is my understanding from that class that all students come to you with previous knowledge, even kindergarten students will have some knowledge of a song, even if it is a tv theme or a hit on the radio that their parents like, it is using what ever knowledge they have and building on it to make decisions, of what they like, how to create something etc. That is why they have choice and thru the choice they will have more interest in it and be able to express more. (In the lines of creative pedagogy ) take a look at the website on this from Westminster, there is not much out there on this, but it is really eye opening.

    1. Hi Candace,

      Thanks for the comment and suggested source! I couldn’t find much on the Westminster critical pedagogy beyond the course descriptions, but I get the gist of what you’re saying.

      I don’t disagree that students have varying degrees of experience with different types of music outside the classroom. To me, that’s one of the drawbacks of relying heavily on prior experience: it is not necessarily shared among my 27 students in a class, let alone 75-100 in a grade (where it makes sense to try to keep students on the same track).

      Another drawback is that popular music (from media) or other experience is often not at the level where a child can perform the music. Traditionally, children would sing playground chants and play circle and clapping games with each other, or perhaps dance along while their parents played music. If we put on a recording and ask the kids to sing along, this short-circuits the natural learning, does not help artistic singing, and teaches children that “music” is something that comes from a computer or stereo.

      Take two classes for example. One, focused on connecting to familiar music, teaches children to be thoughtful interpreters, selectors, and to sing along with the music or play simple patterns. A great deal of time is spent on discussion and listening examples. Another teaches melodic and rhythmic skills in a sequential curriculum based primarily on traditional children’s games and songs, and they finish elementary school nearly all being proficient singers, barred percussion players, drummers, recorder players, and dancers, with the option to continue exploring music. As a musician, which would you choose for your own child?

      I know I’m being too simplistic, and many good teachers would incorporate both avenues in their teaching. But I have a problem with the notion that students aren’t engaged if we don’t give them what they think they want or are familiar with. Students in my classroom are highly engaged, whether we do jazz, folk songs, composed pieces, children’s games, or a pop tune. It’s our job to expand their knowledge and encourage their creativity.

      Now, for 6-12 students, I could absolutely see bringing in even more from their pop culture or home life. This is when we start seeing a decline in participation (in my experience, anyways), and the extra connection can be just what they need to get back in the game. But let’s base this on a solid foundation of engaging, age-appropriate activities that build real musical skills in the elementary.

    2. I just found the research article that your course is based on. The study was done with sixth graders, so I think that reinforces my comments that this is more appropriate at the ms/hs level.

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