New Insights into National Core Music Standards

It has been two weeks since the National Coalition for Core Arts Standards launched the new National Core Arts Standards. In that time, I’ve been reading, writing, and discussing the standards as much as possible. I started a FaceBook group called Crowd-Sourced Music Standards, which will look at open suggestions for both revising and supplementing the core standards. The hope is that by having an open forum, the best ideas can rise to the top, and perhaps this can be used in the future by our professional organizations. In that group, we have already had some great discussions on the differences between standards and curriculum, some frustrations with the new standards, and some insights into their development.

Today, I was fortunate to assist with an Iowa Department of Education forum on the new core standards, which featured Lynn Tuttle, the Director of Arts Education for the Arizona Department of Education, as our keynote speaker. As President of the State Education Agency Directors of Arts Education (SEADAE), Lynn was tasked with coordinating the work of NCCAS through the writing process. I was excited to get a positive spin on what I had unfortunately felt very negatively about up until this point.

Lynn gave a great overview of the writing process, and the reason that Process is the focus of the new standards. She explained the structure, and how to navigate the standards very well. She accepted open questions about new things that surprised people (most of the attendees were seeing the standards for the first time today). One person questioned the new concept of the “Select” strand, and we talked about what that could look like (students possibly selecting from a teacher-selected list or previous class repertoire, for example). Another asked about the lack of content (elements of music) and skills (singing, playing) in the document. Both Lynn and our state IMEA/NAfME leaders confirmed that the plan is for NAfME to roll out a companion document in the near future (possibly this summer) with some of this material.

I did express my ongoing concerns about balance, and for the sake of clarity, I will attempt one more time to put down my ideas here.

  1. Defining Standards – NCCAS and NAfME have chosen to define standards in a way that excludes skills and concepts. Yet according to both the 1994 Arts standards and the Common Core ELA/Math standards, skills and concepts can and should be a part of the standards. I get the argument that we don’t want to tell teachers how to teach, and even that agreeing on what to teach in each grade level is difficult. But I don’t think this means we have to say “that’s not part of standards,” when that doesn’t jive with how the rest of the educational field is using the term. As NAfME presents this companion document of skills and concepts, I am curious how it will be perceived, as part of the national standards, or as a less-important footnote.
  2. Balance – When I read the standards, I read them very literally. This became evident in the meeting today, when several people suggested that “discuss” in the first grade creating standards didn’t necessarily mean that each child would speak on the subject. They gave great examples of other ways students could process and reflect on the work, but my concern is that I am not the only literal reader in the world. I believe a new teacher, an administrator, or a less-experienced music education professor might read these standards very literally. Given that the majority of Performance Standards from 3rd grade up (and some even younger) include the words discuss or explain, I see a huge potential for less experienced teachers to stop their creative/active music process, and have students spend large swaths of time discussing their thoughts about the process.If I were to try to balance an elementary music class, I would want it to look something like this:
    • listening to music – 15%
    • listening to instruction – 10%
    • actively making music – 50%
    • analyzing/reading – 20%
    • reflecting/discussing – 5%

    Obviously it doesn’t work like that, as each task is interwoven with others. But I know that the most elemental way that music makes us human is when we are actively creating or performing. If I fail at everything else, and students leave my classroom not knowing why music is important, but knowing how it impacts their life directly, through singing, playing, dancing, etc., I’m OK with that. If I can also get them to reflect, connect, and speak intelligently about music, great. But that would be shallow and disconnected without a huge amount of active music making first.

  3. Clarity – Clarity of purpose and direction has, in my opinion, completely failed here. Many are asking why we revised in the first place (and a common answer is, “because other subjects were doing it too!”) We don’t understand why singing and playing instruments could not have been referenced in the performing standards. We don’t understand why the aligned language between arts and across disciplines has to supplant sometimes perfectly good musical language that we value (e.g., plan and make vs. improvise and compose). At the state and district level, we don’t know whether to align with these new standards, our existing state standards (which in Iowa look like the 1994 standards), 21st Century Skills, or all of the above.

The one positive I left with today was this. As a career, experienced teacher, the new core music standards will certainly challenge and stretch my teaching. If that is their goal, to take us all to a new level, then mission accomplished. I’m just worried that newer teachers will not have the steps they need along the way. We had a lot of discussion today also about how teacher education courses in our universities were not exposing students to scope & sequence type curriculum development. I suppose that makes curricula and curriculum developing materials like my book even more vital than they used to be! It’s not that I want the national standards to turn us into scripted teachers, but I want them to point the way to the best practices, and for me, I am left wanting.

Sorry for the long-windedness! This will be my last blog post about the core standards (unless something changes). I will be active in the FaceBook group I mentioned above, and plan to soon be offering two new titles in the Creative Sequence series, including one that will discuss strategies for aligning your curriculum with these new standards!!!

4 thoughts on “New Insights into National Core Music Standards”

  1. Tim, Thanks for sharing your ideas and concerns at the workshop yesterday. There is certainly a lot of material there to sort through and understand. I feel thankful that Lynn Tuttle was there to offer some of her insights as we try to make sense of these new documents.

    1. Thanks, Christa. I am very grateful for Lynn, and frankly all of the writers and advocates for arts education. I hope everyone understands my concerns are about the product, and what’s best, and do not reflect on the participants.

  2. I read your post as an assignment for our standards revision/development committee for South Dakota. I am a visual arts teacher and have many of the same concerns as you do. You’ve done an excellent job putting into words what I have been trying to organize in my thoughts. Had I not been assigned this I wouldn not have come across your post. Thank you.

  3. Tim, My name is Tanya Rosenkranz and I am the R & S Chair for Children’s and Community Youth Choirs for the Iowa Choral Directors. I met you twice this summer – once at NIACC for the Arts in Iowa Core and once a week later in Des Moines for the Lynn Tuttle New National Standards day. I am working on putting together a one day elementary workshop for ICDA members (and other interested parties). I sent you a Facebook message last week with some details. I believe it landed in your “Other Messages” category. Could you please check it out and let me know what your thoughts?

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