why even bother?

R – I’ve been yammering on for nearly eight years now on this blog about the need for authentic assessment practices in our PreK-12 (and college – it’s about time they started doing some modeling for us here!) music programs. We were in a different place back in 2011 – in the state and even in the country – with regard to this topic, our approaches and our values. Technology has predictably advanced us forward in remarkable ways to support our work in this area. But just this past week I had three different interactions in which the basic fundamental question around music assessment came up: “Why do it?”

There are very successful programs ALL OVER which don’t assess, and yet graduate future music educators, professional musicians and leaders in the profession. Clearly, valid and authentic assessment practices are not a prerequisite for accomplishing these goals. Ensembles all over the world achieve at the very highest levels in programs where assessment is not a cornerstone of what they do. At the collegiate level, I don’t know of a single program where the students’ performance ensemble grades are based on routine performance assessments on an individual basis, and certainly not via any rubric which articulates both the essential building blocks and the variations of achievement levels. Worse yet, where assessment is the cornerstone of music programs, especially at the middle school and elementary levels, most of the time it seems that no one even takes stock in it all, least of all administrators who are primarily concerned with making sure the kids are “having fun” and/or staying out of the way of the “actual” academic teachers’ way while they have their prep time.

Why even bother?

Is it to properly motivate students to practice? Chip De Stefano has a really great insight in “Rehearsing The Middle School Band”:

“Maslow states that individuals are motivated because they must satisfy specific needs: physiological, safety, belonging, self-esteem, and self-actualization. Ideally, we want students to practice because they are motivated to become the best musicians that they can be and because they want the band to be successful. However, if we look at the typical ways directors motivate kids to practice, they do not motivate in this manner. They use grades (esteem), chair placement (esteem, belonging, safety), playing tests (esteem), challenges (safety), fear (safety), intimidation (esteem, safety), guilt (belonging), or superficial rewards (physiological). While these methods can work with some students, they only meet the lower needs. We must get our students to take ownership of their learning to reach self-actualization.”

He’s not wrong. “Motivating” our students through assessment or the threat of assessment(s) may have short-term benefits but we know that elevating their motivation to an intrinsic one is our ultimate goal. Assessment practices could work against this.

Is it to “appear” impressive? I think our profession – name the subject area – suffers when there isn’t a connection between appearance and reality. Throwing the proverbial lipstick on the pig accomplishes nothing in the final analysis, though kudos may come in the interim. In the end, it has to be about substance, and appearances have to be tempered to align with what’s actually going on. I don’t believe that implementing assessment practices to “look good” accomplishes much at all; I can’t imagine wanting to use this as any rationale.

Is it to jump through the proper hoops? Sometimes you have to do what you have to do… and yet we all know as educators that doing something because someone tells you to do it never accomplishes any worthy goal. We err substantially when we tell our students to do something, “because I said so.” Their motivation goes down, the quality of their work diminishes, and we really do a disservice to their intellect. How much more so is this the case when we are subjected and succumb to the very same thing?

Is it because some bozo music teacher in southern Maine claims that “It’s a good thing!”? Nope. I have strong feelings on the topic obviously, but my opinion is no more worthy than any one else’s. Through Goobermusicteachers I’ve worked really hard to lay out the rationale and benefits for embedding authentic, valid and rigorous assessment practices tied to firm building block learning targets into music programs at every level. I would hope that along the way I’ve demonstrated a legitimate respect for differing opinions. I should also note that in no way have I ever insinuated that I hold any position of authority. Experience? Some. But if we did every little thing that someone was a proponent of, we’d go off the deep end just trying to implement it all.

Simultaneously, I have heard every argument imaginable not to go down this path.

“I don’t have time.”

“I don’t have the resources.”

“It gets in the way of my teaching.”

“No one even notices.”

“The kids don’t want it.”

“The parents don’t want it.”

“It would reduce the number of kids in my program; they’d drop the course/ensemble.”

“It stunts creativity and joy.”

“I’ve been successful for decades without it, why start now?”

“I don’t wanna.”

With all that staring us in the face, the essential question is a simple one: why even bother? The answer is an even simpler one. Better yet, it’s not even subjective. It’s as crystal clear as it is logical, it’s as non-negotiable as it is tangible. It has nothing to do with motivation or ‘doing it to do it’ or anything like that. It successfully overrides every single reason not to.

It’s because you signed a continuing professional ed contract stating that you are to be a classroom teacher of an academic subject, which in turn holds you to the same standard as classroom teachers in ELA, Science, Social Studies, Math, Physical Education, World Languages, Career and Education Development.

So option #1 is to understand that you are academic and that you have a legal and ethical obligation to follow through on all that it entails. Option #2 is to undermine this in every imaginable way.

Music without learning targets and assessments which track individual student skill development in each of them across time is a co-curricular activity. There’s no difference – none – between a performance class without academic standards and individual student accountability, and an after school club. That’s not a slam on clubs, it’s that there is a REASON those clubs are held outside of the academic school day. Every music program which behaves like a co-curricular subject, but passes itself off as an academic subject, eats away at the integrity of our profession. This practice has to stop.

Worse yet are the programs that give grades, but just not on academic criteria. Participation grades, attendance, “bringing materials to rehearsal”, dude, those aren’t academic standards. Necessary? Of course! List them under your habits of learning! But undermining the value of our profession by giving grades based on anything other than academic criteria is what got us into this never-ending cycle of having to defend the value of music education to begin with.

General public: “You say your music class is so valuable. Okay, what did your students get graded on yesterday?”

Music Teacher: “Ummmmm, their behavior?”

We have spent decades perpetuating the cultural belief that music is for the talented or “interested” and in no way does that pass the eyeball test as an academic subject, much less essential instruction for every student; music literacy must only be for the elite and talented and interested, right? We have to undo all that. We have a professional obligation to hold students accountable in all academic settings and we are oneWe created the mess we’re in, and we’re the only ones who can get us out of it. Educating our students, parents and entire communities to the fact that music is CORE must be our primary goal if we’re going to save this thing, and it’s not going to happen by perpetuating the appearance that we are – and I quote at least one Elementary School Principal in every school district in the United States here – a “special”. Every school that brags about having 37.3% of the student body involved in music is graduating 62.7% who will state unequivocally 10 years later that music education was in no way, shape or form essential. Don’t believe me? Take a look across the country. In a legislative hearing by the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee:

“If I was required to be proficient in the arts when I was in High School, I wouldn’t have graduated High School” – Representative Matthew G. Pouliot (R-Augusta), March 15, 2016

And you don’t think we’re in a cultural crisis which WE have perpetuated???

That’s why we have to bother. Listen, I have said dozens of times here in years before: you know the brick walls in front of you, you know the barriers, you know the reasons why this is going to be difficult. But you also have tens of thousands of colleagues who are in a position to help you turn the tide in your own school districts. Reach out to them. Utilize online resources such as Maineartsassessment.com. Attend professional development opportunities which demonstrate strategies for implementing authentic assessment practices in a seamless way which enhance what you are trying to do instead of interfering with it. Experiment. Start small. But keep moving toward making music truly academic. Because the alternative is ‘not even bothering’ at all – and it scares the hell out of me to see how cultural perception of this profession has been trending…

…but it scares me even more wherever that cultural perception is dead-on accurate. We can DO this people, it’s simply time to finally commit to it.


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