On One-Year Anniversary of ESSA Signing, Music Ed Community is Still Hard at Work

One year ago today, President Obama signed the bipartisan new “Every Student Succeeds Act,” and the much maligned “No Child Left Behind” federal education law met its end. At that time, I wrote about the new law’s focus on ensuring all students receive access to a “Well-Rounded Education,” including music; a hard fought victory which represented a welcome change from NCLB’s top-down, test-heavy approach. Now, in the wake of a highly volatile election cycle, music advocates are quietly staying the course, going about the business of implementing Congress’ vision for ESSA at the state and local levels, through relentless, informed and passionate advocacy.

Politics is a strange business. Every two years it can feel like the nation gets swept up in a sea change to the left or right, and all the work that came before is washed away. The truth, of course, is far more complicated, and the framework for our nation that the founders left behind hardly allows for the scorched-earth type shifts that candidates in both parties would have us believe are possible, every couple of trips around the sun.

The implementation of ESSA is a perfect example of this paradigm in practice. Upcoming changes in the White House, Congress and the U.S. Department of Education are likely to rock the education (and larger) policy landscape. Scratch beneath the surface, though, and you will find school districts all across the country still just trying to make sense of the complicated new federal education law, and do what is best for students.

ESSA is authorized for four years, and recent congressional inaction indicates that it might remain in place for far longer (NCLB was seven years overdue when it was finally reauthorized). During that time, ESSA will almost certainly remain the law of the land, and regardless of external political pressures, supporters of music education will continue to focus our efforts squarely on educating lawmakers, state bureaucrats, local administrators, and principals, as to the opportunities that exist for advancing music, thanks to the legislation.

Concentrating on State plans, complex funding formulas, needs assessments, and implementation timelines is no easy task while seemingly endless television shows and social media posts blare the news that everything which came before was for naught. Nonetheless, music advocates will not be distracted from our efforts. Every music educator I’ve ever met chose to pursue a career in teaching not out of any great desire to be politically active, but because of their passion for children and music, and all they have ever asked was for a chance to feel recognized and supported in their labor of love. With the signing of ESSA on December 10th, 2015, that moment finally arrived, and so, you’ll hear no complaints about the hard work that lies ahead from the music teachers of America.

In a white-hot national political environment with so many unknowns, now is the time to maintain a surgical focus on grassroots ESSA implementation all across the country. In order to be successful, music teachers require the help of parents and other education stakeholders in their own communities, to assist in developing ESSA State plans which consider the value of music in areas such as accountability, assessment, school improvement, educator effectiveness, student support, and more.

To misalign our energies at this critical juncture over the partisan riffs that engulf the country, would be catastrophic. Foregoing an opportunity to participate constructively in these state and local level implementation conversations could send us back to the days of NCLB.

Regardless of the political climate in Washington, DC, the National Association for Music Education will continue to advocate strongly for federal support of music education. Make no mistake, however: on the one-year anniversary of ESSA, the work of ensuring that every student, regardless of personal circumstance or background, has access to a high quality music education, rests firmly in the hands of music teachers and advocates back at home. At NAfME, we couldn’t have imagined a better scenario.