How We Keep Music In Our Schools
Ashley Cuthbertson, M.Ed, NBCT
Music programs can be the heart and soul of our schools. A great music program fosters a sense of belonging & community, gives learners a way to express themselves, and helps to boost learner well-being, just to name a few benefits.
While the numerous benefits of a high quality music education program are undeniable, it’s an unfortunate reality that music educators and supporters must constantly advocate for music in our schools.
In the face of pressures to perform well on high stakes testing, budget constraints, and other realities of running schools and school districts, music and arts programs are often the first to be cut. In reality, keeping high quality music programs in our schools actually contributes to our learners’ success in school and life and it’s vital that we make sure that all learners have access.
As we celebrate ‘Music in Our Schools’ month this March, I’m sharing three things that we can do to keep music in our schools.
High Quality Music Instruction
Not just any kind of music instruction, but high quality music instruction must be at the center of our music programs.
Too often I see music educators engaging in what I can “edu-tainment”: fun activities and exercises, pop tunes, and other “excitement.”
I don’t have anything against fun! Music education should absolutely be fun — we’re learning music after all! However, if all you’re doing in your program is having “fun” without engaging your young musicians in the context of the music they are performing, helping them to learn more about themselves and others, gaining understandings about the world, and connecting to real-life, it’s no wonder that your music program is seen as a “nice to have.”
While it may seem harmless, music educators are actually doing our profession (and our learners) a disservice when all we do is “fun” and “edu-tainment” kind of learning in our programs.
Music educators are often discouraged by feeling like we are the “bottom rung on the ladder” and don’t feel like we are taken as seriously, but here’s the hard truth: when what you’re teaching is just “edu-tainment,” you’re not teaching in a way that deserves to be taken seriously.
If we’re going to keep music education in our schools, it’s critical that the music instruction is high-quality. That means that music instruction must:
- Engage learners in real-world contexts of music making
- Connect to learners’ frames of reference: their prior knowledge, experiences, and interests
- Be relevant to the learners
- Include the context of the music: the who, what, when, where, and why of repertoire
- Integrate music concepts, skills, and techniques with real-world applications
We keep music in our schools by demonstrating music education’s value through the way we design and deliver instruction.
High Quality Professional Learning for Music Educators
We’re all tired after several years of multiple pandemics, but I think there are some very specific things that are really burning music educators out.
One big reason why music educators are exhausted is because of the lack of high-quality professional learning. It’s a reality that school leaders in the midst of the thousands of tasks and meetings they have in order to run a school sometimes forget to make sure that they account for the professional learning of their music teachers — I know I sat through many language arts and math PDs when I was in the classroom!
If a music educator is fortunate enough to be in a district or network with a Fine Arts or Music Supervisor, often budgets are tight and time to pull music educators for content-specific PD is extremely limited.
But here’s the thing: going from one-off workshop to one-off workshop, searching for activity after activity, and looking for technique after technique, this is why music educators are exhausted.
Research has found that high-quality professional development:
- Is content-focused
- Incorporates active learning and utilizes adult learning theory
- Supports collaboration, typically in job-embedded contexts
- Uses models and modeling of effective practice
- Provides coaching and expert support
- Offers opportunities for feedback and reflection
- Sustained in duration (on-going)
(Research Brief “Effective Teacher Professional Development”; Linda Darling-Hammond, Maria E. Hyler, and Madelyn Gardner, with assistance from Danny Espinoza. May 2017)
This means that sitting through a math PD, while there is still something to be learned, isn’t high-quality professional learning for music educators.
Neither is attending your state’s music conference once a year. Conferences are a great way to see the great things that are happening in your state, and attending a series of unrelated one-hour sessions is a great way to gather some quick ideas, but let’s face it: after you’ve used up all the ideas you gathered, now you’re back in the same cycle of hunting and pecking for new ideas.
Attending your one and only music PD offered by your district is also not high quality professional development because transformation and development of skill doesn’t happen in three hours.
Instead of approaching PD as a one-time workshop you do from time to time, I challenge us as a field to approach PD just like we do courses. A great course (and thus great PD):
- Is focused on a particular content area (in this case, music)
- Incorporates active learning
- Provides time to both build and practice skills
- Provides feedback on your work
- Allows time for reflection and refinement
- Occurs over time
This is how we ensure that music educators have the support needed to gain skills that allows us to get off the “hamster wheel” of constantly chasing new idea after new idea, so that they can more confidently and sustainably work without getting so burned out.
We keep music in our schools by making sure we have music educators to teach the classes.
Equitable Access for all Learners
I think we can all agree that all learners deserve access to music education. in fact, the Every Student Succeeds Act (2015) specifically states that we are to provide a well-rounded education for every child, no matter their personal circumstance, which includes academic success in the arts.
The problem is that a high quality music education continues to disproportionately be harder to obtain for our most marginalized learners: learners of color, learners with disabilities, LGBTQ+ learners, and learners from lower socioeconomic situations.
This is so clearly inequitable, yet it persists.
Without enough kids in a school’s music program, the argument to keep that music program becomes harder and harder. And the reason many school music programs struggle is that it’s only accessible to a small, select group of learners.
Instead, music educators must be willing to move away from traditional methods and instead embrace creativity to make sure that there are no obstacles or barriers preventing students from participating in their school music programs. This goes both for school music programs where all students are required to participate (because there’s barriers to full and active participation there, too) as well as for school music programs that are electives.
We’re all familiar with the very common obstacle to participation in school music programs of financial means, but we must also consider that the music courses themselves may be the barrier. If the music courses offered only cater to a certain kind of learner, it’s keeping access out of reach for everyone else, too.
Let us make sure we get to know our communities so we can identify, then eliminate, the barriers that may exist in regards to all learners having access to our school’s music programs.
We keep music in our schools by making sure we actually have kids to teach in the first place.
Ashley Cuthbertson (she/her) is the Founder & Principal Consultant of A. Cuthbertson Consulting, LLC, an educational consulting firm that partners with schools, school districts, and organizations to help music educators to refine their classroom environments and instruction by centering equitable and culturally responsive pedagogical practices so they can build and maintain high quality music programs where all learners thrive.
A Nationally Board Certified Teacher, Ashley holds a Master’s in Education, as well as certifications in the Kodály approach and Arts integration. Ashley has over twelve years of experience in education as a general music & choral educator, a band educator, a K-12 musicianship instructor, a private lessons instructor, lead teacher, new teacher coach, adjunct professor, curriculum writer, and consultant.
A passionate advocate for music education, Ashley additionally serves the National Association for Music Education as a member of the Repertoire Diversity Task Force and the Virginia Music Educators Association as chair of the DEI Council.
Learn more at www.AshleyCuthbertson.com/about-us
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