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Focus on STEM overshadows importance of music education

Jan 5, 2015

The Next Idea

When we talk about building an education system that prepares children for the creative thinking and collaboration skills necessary in today’s -- and tomorrow’s --  job market, there’s an amazing resource here in Michigan that, like most places, gets almost criminally overlooked: music educators.

My job allows me to travel quite a bit, so I’ve had the opportunity to see some of the finest music programs and teachers across the country, and I believe that Michigan has some of the best school music programs in the nation. There are a few reasons why:

• The quality of music teachers here is outstanding. They are talented, smart and well-informed.

• Michigan's teachers also tend to be well-connected to their professional organizations and seek out professional development. Research tells us that teachers who attend professional development events tend to remain active members of the profession, while those who don’t often wind up leaving the classroom.

• Music programs in Michigan are grounded in solid pedagogical foundations, with comprehensive, sequential general music programs in the elementary schools; and strong band, orchestra and chorus programs at the secondary level.

Music teaches students how to solve problems when there is more than one right answer, says Mitchell Robinson.
Credit Flickr

While we are fortunate to be in a state with excellent music programs, sadly this is not the case in every school. Recently, the Lansing School District made the decision to lay-off nearly all of its certified teachers in elementary music, art and physical education. This creates an enormous equity issue for children and families in this region — those who live in Lansing’s suburbs enjoy rich, meaningful offerings in the arts, while their peers in the city have little-to-no access to these same opportunities. This must change.

So, too, must the way we evaluate music teachers. If studies already show that measuring teacher effectiveness through test score improvements is simplistic and naïve, it is then especially troubling for music teachers that part of their annual effectiveness rating is often based on test scores in subjects that they don’t teach, like math or reading, and on test scores for children that are not even in their classes. That doesn’t seem right or fair.

We often hear the saying, “We test what we value.” I would respectfully suggest that exactly the opposite is true. In fact, the things that we value and care about the most are those things that are precisely the most resistant to measurement. For many students, music is one of those things they care about the most; it brings meaning to their lives. It’s one of the most powerful ways they have to make sense of their world.

I would also like to challenge the notion that the main purpose of schools is to produce the nation’s workforce. This stance represents a re-conceptualization of the true purpose of education, from one that is about the development of meaningful relationships between teachers and learners, and among learners, to one that is simply a transfer of information from teacher to learner -- a sort of educational “banking transaction”, if you will.

To be clear, I am not against the development of students who are capable of moving on to college or the workforce, but that is not the purpose of education and never has been. That’s a byproduct of schooling, not a purpose. Just as the reason for teaching music is not to help children get good ratings at competitions, but rather to help them learn the musical skills and knowledge in order to become lifelong music makers and supporters of the arts.

So what’s the Next Idea?

I remain very optimistic about the future for music educators in Michigan because never before has what we have to offer been more desperately needed -- by our students, our schools and our society. I know that music, when taught well, provides the “antidote” to today’s “teach-to-the-test,” assessment-driven culture because music study offers the very things that employers say they are looking for in the workforce, and for what school leaders emphasize in mission and vision statements: critical thinking, teamwork, problem-solving skills, and creativity. Or, in the words of Dr. Elliott Eisner, renowned arts educator: “Our schools, teachers, and students might be a lot better off if schools embraced the idea that education means learning what to do when you don’t know what to do.”

As the father of two school-age boys, I see firsthand the impact of a fine school music program on my children. They understand that there is often more than one “right” way to answer a question, especially when the question is a difficult one. They are comfortable with what psychologists call “divergent thinking," which is the ability to see multiple solutions to a problem. Children who study music know how to work together collaboratively in groups, to value the efforts of all team members, and that every person has the ability to make a worthwhile contribution to the group’s work.

In order to help move Michigan toward a future in which all students have access to a strong and vibrant music education, there are two policy initiatives that the Partnership for Music Education Policy Development, a Michigan think-tank dedicated to promoting music education, says will help:

1.      To amend the School Code to require elementary schools to provide a comprehensive, sequential music education, delivered by a certified, qualified music teacher, for every student in grades kindergarten to five. Currently, Michigan is one of only a handful of states that does not mandate music instruction for elementary school students.

2.      To modify the current teacher evaluation system for music teachers to insure a more fair and more equitable process is followed.

It’s time that music teachers stop apologizing for their role in helping our students to become more comfortable with their feelings and their emotions. This is not a weakness in what we do, it’s a great strength. By ensuring that access to a full and complete education is guaranteed for all of Michigan’s children, we move closer to realizing the great power and promise of music in our schools, because, when taught well, music can provide the means for our students to figure out what to do when they don’t know what to do. And that should be what we want for all of our children. 


Share Your Ideas:

  •  How has studying music affected your life? 
  • In your view, what is the purpose of education and where does music fit in? 

Join the conversation in the comments section below, on Twitter or Facebook, or let us know your Next Idea here

Mitchell Robinson is an associate professor of music education and chair of the music education area at Michigan State University.