In Every Student Succeeds Act, Music is Part of a Well-Rounded Education

With the passage of the bipartisan, bicameral new “Every Student Succeeds Act,” Congress has taken a dramatic step forward by replacing “No Child Left Behind” with legislation that focuses prominently on ensuring all students receive access to a “Well-Rounded Education,” including music. The new law’s implementation process creates an exciting opportunity for parents and advocates everywhere to help finish the job. Now is the time to engage in a much more serious conversation with decision-makers at the state and local levels responsible for actually ensuring music’s inclusion as part of a well-rounded education, in public schools all across America.

In the ESSA, the familiar “Core Academic Subjects” language of NCLB has been replaced with the concept of providing for a well-rounded education, and the comprehensive list of subjects constituting that definition, which now includes music, represents an important directional shift in congressional education priority. Putting music on the same footing with subjects such as math, reading and science is not only profoundly symbolic, but also has several noteworthy benefits that can and should be exploited by advocates during implementation of the legislation:

1. The well-rounded education definition and prevalence of well-rounded terminology throughout the new law clearly articulates the intent of the ESSA framers; that music should be a part of every child’s education, no matter their upbringing or personal circumstance. All children learn differently, and so it is pivotal that national education policy recognizes the need to provide students, particularly the most disadvantaged, with opportunities to partake in comprehensive and varied learning experiences. That element was decidedly absent from NCLB, and its inclusion this time around represents a welcome change.

2. Under the ESSA, states can no longer exclude music from their support planning, either intentionally or unintentionally. Schools are now required to account for well-rounded education. While it may seem silly in theory, in practice, “the arts” (the terminology which existed under NCLB) was a very amorphous way of defining subjects, and, moving forward, it will be much more difficult to misunderstand the meaning of “music,” as part of a well-rounded education.

3. Terminology and flexibility in key areas of the new law allow conversations around teacher effectiveness, professional development, and school accountability to be broadened, so as to include music education elements. This is important because, disappointingly, in the recent past, music teachers have sometimes been evaluated based on their students’ performances in non-music subjects. Equally troubling, music teaching and learning are frequently not considered critical factors in the overall “grade” of a school. We won’t truly be providing well-rounded education without considering all of the factors that impact a child’s learning in assessing performance, and the ESSA provides for the opportunity to do just that .

Finally, after many years of standing still, Congress has taken action to replace the much-maligned NLCB and usher in a new, well-rounded vision for education in America. By including music in that vision, lawmakers have acknowledged the very personal and demonstrative impact that music can have on developing minds, and the research that confirms those benefits.

For those interested in helping the music education community participate in the important state and local level efforts that lie ahead, information on ESSA implementation advocacy is available here. For now, we at the National Association for Music Education commend Congress’ work in replacing the broken NCLB, and celebrate music’s role both in the new law, and in orchestrating success in the lives of millions of students, every day. Finally — something that everyone in Washington can agree on!