National Core Music Standards Final Review

Starting today, we all get one more chance to review the National Core Music Standards (and the other Arts Standards) before they become finalized. This summer, I wrote several posts about the first public draft of the k-8 music standards. Since then, the standards have undergone extensive revisions. However, the primary structure of the new standards remains unchanged.

So, briefly, here is my review of the new National Standards. I hope it is helpful to see someone else’s thoughts. Feel free to comment here or share this post with others. After reviewing the standards yourself, make sure that you fill out the online review survey.

First, the good.

  1. Focus on Process and Creativity
    The new standards format is focused on the process of making and learning about music. The three overarching themes are Creating, Performing, and Responding, which are the three primary processes through which music is experienced. I think this is a clear structure. In contrast, the 1994 standards are based on a long list of skills. Three processes are easier to remember quickly than nine skills.
  2. Improved Musical Verbs
    In the first draft, all of the action verbs for individual grade-level standards were borrowed from the Common Core in other subject areas. In some cases, the sentences did not even appear to refer to music as a subject matter. While it is still the case that the verbs are often generic (demonstrate, select, refine), the context given in each box is much more specific to music, and more clearly defined.

Now for my ongoing concerns.

  1. NO Skills or Elemental Concepts in Main Core Document
    In an effort to align with the various Arts and Common Core subjects, the music document focuses solely on transferable skills and verbs, and makes no mention of specific musical skills or knowledge. For example,

    • no mention of media (singing or playing instruments)
    • no mention of specific musical elements (rhythm, melody, harmony, form, etc.)

    Before you freak out, these skills and elements are addressed in supplemental materials, such as the General Skills and Knowledge Companion Table. But this is not the same approach taken by Literacy and Math in the Common Core. In fact, the detail of skills in the Common Core is quite detailed and specific. It is clear by reading the main documents that these are serious, challenging subjects that require in-depth study and serious time during the school day. By contrast, the new Music Core Standards appear to be achievable with little focus on actual skill-building and knowledge. Students must be able to select music (in the 90s many curricula referred to this as being “informed consumers”) but do not, according to the main document, have to learn any vocal technique. They must reflect and evaluate, but do not necessarily have to demonstrate a steady beat.

  2. Too Much Emphasis on Analytical Skill
    Ok, maybe this is the same as my previous complaint, but it’s important. Music teachers are given a very small window of opportunity to teach children to be musical. While I have no problem in theory with the idea of children learning to select good repertoire, reflect on listening examples, and discuss the finer points of a performance, I strongly believe this is all secondary to the foundational skills of singing on pitch, keeping a beat, playing an instrument, creating original musical ideas, and performing in an expressive manner.

    Through the Orff Schulwerk courses and workshops I teach and my local university, I have had the privilege to mentor hundreds of preservice and practicing music educators. I have unfortunately found that there are many music teachers out there who do not challenge their students musically at the elementary level. The students do not learn to play an instrument (three notes on Hot Cross Buns and then never touching the instrument again does not count, in my opinion). They are not asked to sing in rounds or parts. They do not get to manipulate rhythmic and melodic building blocks to create original musical ideas. The repertoire is based solely on what is popular, regardless of educational value. The blame for this lack of rigor is not just with the teachers, but also with the teacher education system that tries to teach them to be high school conductors and professional performers at the same time (and usually with more emphasis) as they are learning to be classroom music teachers. Many beginning teachers end up in elementary schools by default, assuming this is a temporary gig until they get a real job at a high school.

    Good elementary music educators understand that they can not get an adequate training from a bachelors degree, and supplement with summer courses, Saturday workshops, conferences, and advanced degrees. These dedicated teachers then grasp the incredible abilities of even the youngest children, and creatively shape a challenging experience for each class. They structure sequential lesson ideas, and constantly monitor students for personal growth and needs. The focus of their lessons is on active music making, not analysis or discussion or paper/pencil worksheets.

    I’m not anti-analysis. My second grade students today were looking at several folk songs, reviewing melodic and rhythmic material, identifying what was new, and labeling the phrase forms of the songs. But all of this was used in order to understand and perform the music. They will later take that same phrase form and improvise or compose original patterns. Thus, the analysis is the secondary skill, that is there to inform performance and composition, not the point of the lesson. We will also spend some time on listening to works that they cannot yet perform, such as symphonic music. But my fear of these standards is that poorly-trained teachers will use one third (as it is presented) of their class time to teach responding skills, and that they will miss the inherent connections that make responding a natural part of a performance or composition-based lesson.

    The select strand under Performance is still controversial in my mind as well. Repertoire must be introduced to the children, just as literature must be. While students may choose a book to read on their own, singing in a class is not the same type of independent activity. Teachers must be free to select quality repertoire. I know the intention of this strand is to simply include student selection, not to replace the teacher’s role. But making this a core skill from Kindergarten means that an exorbitant amount of time must be spent on discussion, selection, and student choice. This makes the teacher’s job much harder. Now, instead of choosing one or two pieces to teach a particular elemental concept, we might have to include 3-4 or more, so that even if the students make a different choice than we anticipate, they can still experience and learn the same vital skills. Moreover, I cannot fathom a quick, seamless, and authentic way to include 25-30 (let alone 100+ for a performance) students in a selection process. Verbal discussion will only include a few leaders, or will be incredibly time-consuming. Written reflections will likewise be time-consuming, taking time away from making music.

Ultimately, I believe music is something that all people should learn to do. I think this is why it has been an important part of education since at least Ancient Greece. When we boil it down to cross-curricular analytical skills, I think we are selling out our art, our craft, our means of communication. I want every adult in the country to be able to sing in tune, plunk out a melody, keep a beat, and participate in musical expression throughout their lives. If, as a result of this inherent musicality, they can listen to a masterpiece and appreciate it, that’s a bonus!

Apologies for the poorly organized thoughts here. While I am frustrated by the predetermined, (in my opinion) flawed structure of the new National Standards, I do appreciate the work that went into them. I think the goal of looking at music from a process standpoint has merit. I just don’t like seeing the structural components of skills and elements, or the teacher’s role in teaching, being moved from the front page to the addendum. I think we should be proclaiming loud and clear that music is important in it’s own right, and because of the musical skills that students will learn, just as math and literacy are primarily important because everyone understands the needs for these skills. I’m afraid we as a profession are walking a dangerous path of appeasement and submission, where we are only important because we reinforce and align with what is already deemed important. I know that my reading is somewhat superficial, and that the supplementary documents will “fill in the gaps.” My point is that, to a beginning teacher or non-musical administrator, the supplemental documents may never be read. A principal will want to see strand number and maybe the Essential Question on a lesson plan or curriculum map, and that’s it. Beyond that, they won’t have the time to delve. Can we prove our worth with only what’s in the core document? Will a new, under-trained elementary music teacher be able to teach children to make music using this as a guide? I guess we’ll find out.

By the way, here’s the link to review the standards. Also, if you want to compare, the Common Core can be found here, and the 1994 National Standards in Music here. Make sure to do the survey!!!

22 thoughts on “National Core Music Standards Final Review

  1. Tim, this is SO well said- not disorganized at all. I was honored to be selected to “write” the curriculum based on the new Ohio standards, but so disappointed that it turned out to be just what you have noticed. We had highly trained Orff and Kodaly teachers in our elem group but it was an exercise in frustration. I completely agree that we need to focus on kids MAKING music! Thank you much for this, and Please send it out to powers that be!

    1. Thanks, Julie! I know there were dedicated, well-trained music teachers involved in the writing process. From what I understand (correct me if I’m wrong), most of these collaborators were only allowed to work on the “boxes” of grade level descriptions, and not change the overall structure.

      I’ve shared it on FaceBook and Twitter, and will probably send a link via email to a few key people, but please feel free to also share in your circles!

  2. I know my voice counts and I will try really hard to go through this survey again, but I am so sick of reading about people trying to turn music into measurable data. Ever since the standards were introduced in my district, the performance aspect is always listed as one or two benchmarks out of 20. I teach high school and that it is way out of proportion for what I do in the classroom.

    1. Thanks, Dana. I think our high schools need more diverse musical offerings, including creativity-based classes like composition and recording/producing (and creative ensembles). What we don’t need more of is expectations to stop our musical work and write about it!

      1. Agreed. There is talk in my district about basing the SLO’s on all of the benchmarks. So every student in every music class will have to take the same test. That means the technology classes will also have to learn and retain information about every single benchmark (i.e., history, reading music, following the cues of a conductor)!

  3. I am a private guitar instructor with 35 + years of playing performance and 22 years of teaching experience. I am disheartened at the number of teenage and adult students who come to me as for lessons, many who have already been playing their instrument for several years (or more) and they can not read music. Guitarists seem to be particularly bad at this, but it is the result of unqualified teachers. The director of our local middle school band programs came to me for lessons to improve his guitar playing. He has a bachelors in music ed. and a teaching cert. He did not know his scales and modes, did not understand functional harmony. He could not even spell a simple Cmaj7 chord or define the difference between maj7, min7 and dom7 accurately. His reading skills were pathetic. Somewhere in this discussion the granting of degrees and teaching certificates to students who are nearly musically illiterate has to come into play. My plea: teach them to read music early. Notes and rhythms! Thanks!

    1. Maybe I’m reading the wrong thing (wrong link or maybe just missing the section entirely?), and someone please correct me if I am, but where are the standards for music notation and literacy, melodic contrast, musical scales, intervallic relationships, singing on pitch, playing instruments with correct technique, form recognition, timbre study, dynamics, etc.? Am I missing something?

      1. Andrea, look for “General Skills and Knowledge Companion Table.” This is where the only elements and musical skills are to be found, on a separate document from the main standards.

          1. Found it! It’s at the bottom and not in the standards list. So… it appears that my elementary students are expected to learn the key concepts and skills (yay!) but there aren’t set grade levels in which they are supposed to be introduced, experienced, or mastered & assessed (huh?).

          2. Don’t forget that since they are on supplemental pages, they won’t be what you or your students are expected to demonstrate, and will take a back seat to selecting, refining, and reflecting.

    2. Thanks, Brian. I also agree that notation is important, although I try to always remember it is a tool for musical creation and performance, never the end goal of music education. Even more disturbing to me is the time allocation for discussion and reflection at the expense of the fundamental performance skills (singing on pitch, keeping a beat, performing a rhythm or melody).

  4. Thanks for your insightful comments! I did the survey a couple of months ago and let them know how bad I thought the high school standards are. In my opinion, there is far too much emphasis on solo performance and selecting and analyzing their own rep right from the beginning. I suspect many of my new singers wouldn’t even sign up if they thought they had to sing by themselves on a regular basis. That is the great thing about choir- I can teach them all vocal technique, genres and music literacy in the safety of a large group. These new standards really seem divorced from the reality of how to teach students to be musical.

    1. Hi Mindy. I agree, a lot of high school students are nervous about singing solos. However, I would argue that this is because of a lack of singing expectation starting in kindergarten and consistently applied K-12. I can get ALL kindergarteners, regardless of ability, to do short solo turns singing. If we kept that up throughout the years, and didn’t give in at the first sign that the kids were uncomfortable, then hopefully they would never develop serious insecurities about singing. However, this requires MORE time for performance skills, not more time for analyzing and talking about making music. I didn’t spend much time on the ensemble standards, so hopefully those of you affected put in your two cents!

  5. Very well spoken. I am also concerned that there are some skills for elementary learners. Some are too advanced for my students and I teach in an Orff district with an excellent set of standards and curriculum already. I know that the decision makers were trying to present standards that all states and districts can achieve (i.e. lack of specified media) but the media, skillsets, and concepts are what we need as a nation to all be on the “same page.” It’s very disturbing to me to see this possibly go “live” and be accepted by some states. It’s missing the meat and potatoes of music education – musical concepts, specific skills, and specified media. You really hit it in your post.

  6. TIm,
    I just discovered your blog today and I’ve been reading it with great interest. Thank you so much for your insights and your dedication to our profession. If you have the time, please take a look at my blog on music education. I think you’ll find it interesting. (I, too, am not entirely pleased with the latest draft of the National Standards.) Although I look at music education from a Gordon Music Learning Theory perspective, I think our philosophies have much in common.
    Eric
    http://thewayschildrenlearnmusic.wordpress.com/

    1. Eric, thanks for the link, I’ll definitely check it out! I have some good Gordon friends that I enjoy theorizing with. A lot of differences between Orff and Gordon are more about semantics and personal taste than actual pedagogy differences.

  7. Wow-so well stated! I am so sick of being told that students need to respond to music through by writing, analyzing pieces, etc. … This is all well and good, but what about making music? As an Orff trained teacher, I am so disheartened with the state of music education today. I have been teaching elementary music for 29 years and can not believe how things have changed (not for the better) over the last few years. I am stubbornly continuing on to stress creating music (writing, improvising, etc.) and performing music (of different genres and in different settings) and ENJOYING music in my classroom-no matter what “the powers that be” are pushing on music teachers. Wake up, people! Music is one subject that is not about rating, measuring, and test scores!

  8. Just a question to think about; How do we define the line in curricular documents between preparing repertoire for performance with the exploratory/improvisatory/mindful approach versus drill & kill approaches? I find that Drill&Killers feel like they are “making music” as well (or better) as the Orff crowd even if they are missing elements of mindfulness and playfulness that I find crucial. They often work in schools that tout critical thinking and inquiry but don’t believe those really have a place in the classroom. I feel like the music standards don’t take a stance on approach, but I’m not sure how to phrase that in the review. Is this appropriate for national standards? Would it matter? Thoughts?

  9. Thank you, Tim. I see the date on this blog as before or during the Final Review. Do you know any changes or revisions that will be made before the Roll Out in June as a result of the Final Review? Can you steer me to a resource where I can find this out? Thank you so much. I agree with your assessments of the Proposed National Standards WHOLE-HEARTEDLY!

    1. Hi Cathy,

      Unfortunately, after the review survey, it seems the process goes back to committees until the final June rollout. If the time between the first and second draft is any indication, there will not be any communication out during this time. The website to follow is nccas.wikispaces.com. The only update I’ve seen is the June 4 release date.

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