Archive for May 20th, 2013



May 20, 2013

It was so great to visit with so many Maine music educators at the MMEA conference at University of Maine in Gorham. The deep conversations around teaching and learning often enter into the conversation and I love having the opportunity to learn from other educators thinking. Rob Westerberg and I have had many many conversations on this topic over the several years that I’ve known him. This blog post was an outcome of one of the conversations and it would be great to hear what you have to say on the topic. Please don’t hesitate to contact Rob at who teaches music at York High School or me at Argy Nestor at or post a comment at the end of this blog post.

Rob with colleague York High School colleague music educator Dan Sovetsky. (Those of you who know Dan thought he was shorter than Rob. Well, surprise!

Rob with colleague York High School music educator Dan Sovetsky. (Those of you who know Dan thought he was shorter than Rob. Well, surprise!

The educational landscape in the United States as a whole, and Maine in particular, has gone through significant transformation since the publication of the landmark document, A Nation At Risk in 1983. The report took everyone by storm, documenting steep declines in SAT scores in the years between 1963 and 1980. More alarming, this period (following the Soviet launching of Sputnik) was the one in which we were supposed to making progress! A Nation At Risk reported out that we were not only failing to do so, we were in fact receding.

And wow have times changed since then. You know it and so do I. No Child Left Behind was only one of the more recent shots across our bow.

But here’s my real concern. All the incremental yet seismic changes that have occurred in the 30 years since A Nation At Risk was published have been founded on one basic, simple fundamental premise: the belief that all students can learn and excel, and the subsequent understanding that we must be held accountable for their doing so… and I wonder sometimes if we as arts educators as a whole have bought into this.

Do we believe “all” students can learn and excel, or do we believe just the talented ones can to any useful degree? Do we believe “all” students should be enrolled in visual art courses, or just those who are interested in them? Do we believe music must be for all students or just for some… and is your answer to this question altered by the age group you’re referring to? Do we believe the foundational components of our programs should be geared toward the higher achieving students or the lower ones?

Here’s another question: what percentage of the student body at your local High School is enrolled in a course in your specific subject area right now? If you’re a Math teacher, the answer is 100%. Social Studies? English? The same. But music teachers get all excited if the answer for them is even close to 20%. How is this being held accountable for educating “all” students? And is this number even close to 100% for your school district’s 7th graders? 5th graders? 1st graders? Do you even KNOW?

Maybe the answer lies in the fact that we do not have a graduation requirement in place for each individual arts subject area and we hide behind that as if to say, “it’s not my fault if I don’t get to reach every kid”. Well, it’s okay for us to feign mock disgust at this, but what efforts have we made – individually and collectively – to establish one since 1983? Have we done ANYTHING about this over the last 30 years? Do you/we not have one because you/we attempted to establish one and failed, or because you/we never attempted to implement one and succeeded? And is this vacuum the cause of a reverse domino effect at the middle school and elementary school levels, both in limited course offerings and in limited face time?

We decry that the arts are important, but sometimes it seems that all we hear in response is lip service. I can’t say I’m surprised when this happens. I’ve rarely ever met someone who didn’t believe the arts weren’t “important”. But what they actually mean by that could be virtually anything. Consequently, that word is not part of my vocabulary anymore. Instead, I only use the word that kept getting referred to when we revised the Maine Learning Results 7 years ago: “essential”. And by essential, I refer to the same premise as the other subject areas: “essential… for every student”.

When evaluating schools, it would be convenient to test only those who excel in specific subject areas. (apparently there are entire countries that agree with me on this, because in practice that is exactly what they do… I’ll save that rant for another day). Yet this is exactly what we have been guilty of in the visual and performing arts. We don’t have to be bothered with the entire student population, just those who choose to be with us. And out of those we do work with, we beg out of the testing/assessment piece by saying, “well, gee, we’re different”. One of the most condescending statements ever made to me was by my Principal in my first job after I got the School Board to agree to a graduation requirement specifically for music: “Are you sure you want to do this… after all, now you’ll have to deal with ALL the students!”. But I think he was right. DO we want to teach all the students, even through High School? Or are we content to hide behind a belief that not all kids can learn… or only the talented/interested deserve the best education… or that, “gee, we’re different”… or, “well, you know, it’s a nice idea but there’s nothing I can do about it”?

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