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Rob’s Talking

September 2, 2015

When a former student speaks, listen up

Thank you to Rob Westerberg, music educator from York High School and co-founder of the Maine Arts Leadership Initiative (formerly known as the Maine Arts Assessment Initiative), who provided the following blog post.

Katrina Faulstich is a former student teacher of mine and choral director at Bedford High School in Massachusetts. She has been doing some course work for her Masters degree down in Connecticut this Summer. As part of that work she submitted a paper for her Measurement and Evaluation class called, “The Use of Recordings to Assess Individuals in High School Chorus”. If you are not a high school choral director, don’t stop reading – this is one of the most informing pieces of writing I’ve come across in awhile. There are takeaways that translate to every music educator regardless of age group or specialty. To be sure, Katrina lays out her plans for assessing individuals in her program. And they are really cool. But there is so much more going on here and it’s a game changer when you look at it through a finer lens. She concludes her opening paragraph with the statement, “With so many changes affecting education, teachers must remember to do what is best for student learning and achievement.” Ya think? My takeaways from her paper:

  • We always cry foul when colleagues and administrators marginalize academic music programs, but research shows that they have every right to. J. A. Russell and J. R. Austin (2010): “researchers examining assessment practice in secondary music classrooms found that attendance and attitude were the most common grading criteria employed by instrumental and choral music teachers” (“Music Assessment Research,” para. 3). If this statement were true for any other teacher in any other core subject area, they would be fired. And you know it. We’ve been doing it however – and getting away with it – for generations. The research found that music teachers on average based 60% of grade weight on non-achievement criteria. When MAAI (MALI) ran its first state conference in 2011, the debate we had on the Leadership Team was whether or not to include the word “assessment” in it, the argument being that if we did it would scare arts teachers away. In retrospect, I don’t know which is scarier: that we were actually fearful about including the word or that we had reason to be.
  • We are too often guilty of assessing the skills of an entire ensemble over those of the individuals within. L.H. Tracy (2002): Two hundred and seventy four high school choral teachers completed a survey. (It was found that) teachers seemed to use personal philosophy to decide whether or not to assess individuals. In accordance with previous studies, Tracy found most teachers assess students on attendance, attitude, and effort. Tracey attributed this to the “‘teach as we are taught’ phenomenon” (p. 154). Most participants reported using in-class observations as a form of assessment, but Tracy stated this does not mean teachers know what individuals know and are able to do (Colwell, 1991, as cited in Tracy, 2002). Personal assessment “philosophy” has no place in 21st century classrooms. We know from a national standpoint as well as from an international standpoint that assessment of individual student growth is now a foundational expectation of every classroom teacher, period. We can get caught up too easily in state and federal mandates that carry this to an extreme with the “how oftens” and the “let’s standardize all this” filtering out the real issue here. There are effective ways of assessing that enhance and articulate student learning, and there are ways that don’t. That debate isn’t being held here. But to avoid individual assessment because of those and/or other filters that we allow to impact our choices? Inexcusable.
  • Tracy indicated many chorus teachers lack training in assessment and therefore do not use the best assessment practices. This was the foundational reason we formed MAAI 5 years ago. To date, we have provided professional development to over 1,200 arts educators here in Maine, provided by peers in the trenches fighting the same battles as everyone else. Though it is entrenched in research, all of it is foundational and practical so teachers can individualize their work based on their setting and available resources. Maine’s arts educators are running out of excuses on this one.
  • Individual assessment facilitates growth. Katrina alluded to a study in which students who were assessed on sight reading skills for instance showed significant improvement over those who were not assessed. We cannot look at assessment as something that “gets in the way of what I’m trying to do” any longer. Conceptually, curriculum, assessment and instruction must be an integrated entity. When we divide these elements like slices of pie we miss out on the real power of each. Our students benefit when we transparently link them in a thoughtful, sequential and systematic way. Research supports this for every other core subject area, and it supports it for the arts as well.
  • Many teachers justified the lack of individual performance assessments by claiming teachers do not have time to assess each student during class time. Kotora suggested researchers look into teachers’ use of computer, audio, and video technology to assess individual students in chorus. I literally refer to my career as the years I taught before attending the Hartford, Connecticut MENC Eastern Division Conference in February 2007, and the years I’ve taught since. That was when I discovered Smartmusic. I’m not a Smartmusic shill, and I don’t believe it’s the best technology for every situation. Far from it. But through Smartusic I found a way to assess every individual in my chorus. At the time I had 230 singers in a school of 650 with NO way to individually assess them. Technology changed that, and transformed my courses, my curriculum, my instruction and, most importantly, my students learning. Mind you, that was eight and a half years ago. The vast landscape of technology at our fingertips now offers astounding opportunities for individual assessment in the large group setting.
  • We need to listen to our newer colleagues to the profession. Katrina is a great example of this. She prefaces her paper with the statement that she already utilizes individual assessment in her classroom, but she’s not satisfied with her strategies. She already does it but isn’t satisfied! How many times have we as veteran teachers filtered out valuable growth opportunities with a wee small voice on the inside of us that says as a rebuttal, “but I’ve always done it my way and it works?” To satirize the meme that is often used in social media these days, “But I’ve always done it my way and it works”, said no beginning teacher ever. Katrina and her classmate Kaitlin Young, Drew and Ashley Albert, Jen Etter, Jen Nash, Jake Sturdevant. I wrote my own blog post a couple of years ago on this topic (http://goobermusicteachers.com/2013/03/02/nothing-to-learn-from-beginning-teachers/) and feel even stronger about it today than when I wrote it. Inexperience = searching. And perhaps that’s something we can all give them more credit for.

There’s much more in Katrina’s paper and it’s worth the read. Working with data and educational studies can be very dry. But from that work can be mined some essential truths. “Assessment based on curricular objectives is important if music education is to be perceived as a legitimate subject” (Shuler, 1990, as cited in Kotora, 2005, p. 73). Choosing to ignore research, best practices, new ideas and new strategies for music instruction is an option. It is. But doing so will inevitably lead to the demise of our programs and of our profession, and research supports this. The 2015-2016 school year is a perfect opportunity for each of us to move our assessment work forward in whatever capacity is available to us in our own schools. Not the state, not the DOE, not NAfME, not your administrators, not MALI, but your STUDENTS will be the beneficiaries. And that’s why we’re here to begin with, isn’t it?

Fortunately for us Katrina’s paper is available on the Maine Arts Assessment Resources website at http://media.wix.com/ugd/4747f3_fd6b4c29ecbd434cb73884fa7b3be72a.pdf.

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