National Arts Standards are Released

The new National Core Arts Standards were released yesterday, first with a two-hour webinar, and later in the day with an interactive website that can be customized for reading in various formats.

In this post, I’m going to review the K-5 National Core General Music Standards. This strand actually runs PreK-8, but I am limiting my scope to my current teaching assignment for simplicity. Hopefully, you have been keeping up on the draft standards that were released last July and February. If so, you should already have a grasp on the umbrella structure of the standards, namely the Processes:

  • Creating
  • Performing/Presenting/Producing (varies across art forms)
  • Responding
  • Connecting

These processes were chosen as a common-language starting point for teaching the arts. According to some of the guest speakers in the webinar today, part of the thinking behind this approach is that by collaborating across arts subjects and classes, we can achieve objectives in different ways or at different times. In other words, if the art teacher in my building were to tackle a selecting task in fourth grade, then that might free me up to focus on something else. This is my personal take on what was being said, so take it with a grain of salt.

It was also implied by several speakers that the standards are just a guide, and that you certainly don’t have to teach all of them. While I understand that national standards have always been voluntary, it baffles me to think that this much effort was put into something so detailed and specific, only to say “pick and choose” from the menu! If that’s how we are to see the standards, why have them in the first place?!

On to the standards. First, what they “got right” after the revisions:

  1. Elements of Music are referenced in the document – Amazingly, there was little to no reference in the final draft four months ago. Instead, these elements were completely relegated to a separate page of skills and knowledge. However, this was only a partial fix, as I will mention later.
  2. Some discussion/explanation language removed from lower grades – Again, this is not a slam-dunk, but there does seem to be a minor shift away from (totally developmentally inappropriate) discussion in the lower grades.
  3. The Performance:Select standard includes room for more teacher direction – The original wording of this standard implied that students would simply choose their favorite pieces, and then perform them in class. The newer wording leaves open the possibility that the teacher can provide a range of repertoire, which the students then discuss and express their preferences about.

Now, on to the problems. Despite the fact that the process is “done,” I still see many problems in this document. In this post, I’m not going to be able to list them all, so I will focus on my big problems.

Balance – Since these new standards were envisioned across the arts, and were intending to be all-encompassing, they lack balance. There is too much emphasis placed on thought-process, discussion, explaining, connecting to personal experiences, reflecting, etc. In order to achieve all that higher-level thinking, my class either needs to be every day or I need to accept a huge cut in actual performance-skill development. In fifth grade, there are nine standards (out of eleven) that ask students to explain their work or thought processes. That doesn’t count other standards that ask for demonstration or documentation (more broad terms that can include musical performance and notation). Sorry, but I don’t think ending every step of every activity with a chance for every student to speak or write is a productive use of time. I could see doing reflection writings 3-6 times per year, but that’s plenty! And classroom discussion is always a mess when it comes to actually getting good input from each student. There are methods, but they are all time-consuming, so again, I’m not doing this every week or two. My students need that time for skill development.

Focus – While they did include passing mentions of elements like rhythm, melody, harmony, form, as well as expressive elements, they never really tell you when to teach them. I know we want flexibility, that’s why we used to have grade bands (K-4, 5-8). But the actual achievement level for performance, composition, and music literacy should be mentioned in the core document.

They ALSO still have not mentioned media (singing, playing instruments, body percussion, speech) at all in the document. Which means that it is perfectly possible to achieve all these standards with only one medium, such as singing. I think this is a mistake. Students learn differently through instrumental music than vocal music. It creates concrete connections to scales and pitches. Nor would I like to see a totally instrumental program, where students don’t learn the most fundamental instrument given to them at birth.

Weird Stuff – This goes along with the discussion problems. Several of the standards in each grade ask students to connect musical choices to a specific purpose, expressive intent, or personal interests. I get that adult musicians think about intent and expression when performing/composing. But I can NOT think of a valid way for an elementary-aged child to explain their purpose behind a short improvisation, for example. Most of the time, they are playing with a given set of elemental parameters (meter, pitch set, phrase length), and only a handful of advanced students will create something “with intent.” We DO set an intent, such as improvising a B section to a lullaby, staying in the soft, rocking mood. But this is set for the class as a whole, so each student can work together.

Again, I do see where this is possible. You could assign small groups or individuals to improvise complete performances, and then have them discuss their choices. The problem is that this assumes a very high level of independence and competence in performance skills and knowledge. In most of my classes, the students need more framework given to them, especially for improvisation.

Conclusion

Every time in the past that I have experienced new standards or a new curriculum, I could look at it and say, “I already do all that. I just need to align.” The new National Core General Music Standards are different. I do not currently teach with high levels of discussion, reflection, and student-selection. I do teach nearly every child to sing on pitch, play and create melodic and rhythmic ideas, read basic notation, and perform as part of an ensemble. I also teach creative movement and folk dance, as an integrated part of our music curriculum. As a sixteen-year veteran teacher with over 25 grad credits in music education, a National Board Certified specialist in Early/Middle Childhood Music, an AOSA-approved Orff Schulwerk instructor for other teachers, and a member of the Iowa Core Companion General Music writing team, I am suprised, stressed, yet up to the challenge to see if these new ideas are something that would benefit my students. Yet I still wonder, as a whole, if these standards will create classes of “music” with one instrument/voice, limited skill development, lengthy discussions, and limited knowledge of musical styles and cultures outside of the students’ own limited preferences. That worries me a lot.

3 thoughts on “National Arts Standards are Released

  1. Hi Tim,

    I love your positives and concerns. I am an Iowa teacher and loved to informative meeting several years ago when the Iowa Core music standards were introduced. I know there is another meeting this summer, but will the Iowa Core be changing this year? I am fine with aligning to the National Standards, but I dont want to get to work on it if the Iowa Core is going to adjust to fit these soon, too. Please let me know your thoughts – I dont want to be backtracking and my adminstration is wondering as well. Thank you for all of your work and insights.

    1. Hi Christine,

      Great question, and one I’ve been asking myself. I will be at the meeting this summer. I believe right now the plan is to look at the national standards and possible alignments, but not to abandon what we have written. I certainly will be advocating to keep the standards we have, since they actually spell out content and skills much better than the new core standards.

      1. Thanks for your quick reply! I spoke with my administrators and they are advocating for the Iowa Core General Music standards as well. I won’t be able to make it to this summer’s session, but I will keep focusing on the standards that we already have in place. Thank you again for your hard work with our standards and the review of the new National Standards. Have a great weekend!

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