More on the NAfME situation

It’s a been a few days since some racially charged comments allegedly made by NAfME CEO and Executive Director Michael Butera have come to light. Both NAfME and Mr. Butera issued statements on the matter. So far, the response has left me feeling a little underwhelmed and unsatisfied. It’s led to more questions that need to be answered.

  • Mr. Butera’s argument seems to be that his comments were taken way out of context. If that’s true, then what was the context? It’s hard to imagine any scenario in which those words would be okay. Perhaps Mr. Butera was trying to make the point that many school communities with high populations of minority students often lack access to rich arts education experiences. That’s a valid discussion to have, but an incredibly poor choice of words with which to start it. I would happily welcome a more substantive statement from both Mr. Butera and NAfME that elaborates on the context of the situation.
  • A great letter from some of the music education faculty members at Arizona State University has made the rounds in the last day or so. The statement calls for a more detailed response to the incident from NAfME, as does a similar statement released by the SMTE.
  • The ASU letter does contain something that was troubling to read. “While we understand questions may revolve around what Mr. Butera did or did not say, we understand that the actions described in Keryl McCord’s account were corroborated by others and that there is no question that Mr. Butera left the meeting on diversity, inclusion, and equity in an abrupt manner.” It seems that when given the chance to clarify or re-word his statements at the meeting, Mr. Butera decided to leave. If true, it’s difficult to reconcile his stated desire to foster “inclusion, diversity, and equity” with the act of walking away from a conversation on that very matter. Hopefully some of these corroborators will come forward and shed some more light on this situation.

This situation has upset a good portion of the NAfME membership and we would welcome a more detailed response from the leadership in the organization. Hopefully Mr. Butera also opts to provide a more detailed statement on the events, something which I believe is necessary if the organization is going to move past this.


Time to find a new way

There’s a very interesting study by Ken Elpus in the most recent Journal of Research in Music Education. I’ll spare you the gritty statistical details here, and just summarize. Elpus set out to examine the correlation, if any, between music students and SAT scores. Based on his results, there is reason to suspect that the impact of music study on test scores is, at best, insignificant. In fact, he states in the discussion section, “The analyses demonstrate that music students in the U.S. high school class of 2004 did not outperform non-music students on college entrance exams or on standardized math tests.”

So what does this mean for music educators? Well, it’s got some big implications for music education advocacy. One of the most popular arguments that gets tossed around by music supporters (and this is very simplified) is “Music makes you better at [insert other subject here]!” Elpus’ research suggests that this might not be the case, and that the people clinging to that old utilitarian stance might need to re-examine their arguments.

I’m all for adopting a new argument. I guarantee that the vast majority of music teachers didn’t pick up their instruments for the first time with the intent of improving their math scores. Students aren’t coming to our classes to get a better score on the SAT. So, let’s think about why students are attracted to music. Speak to that when advocating. Schools should offer music not based on how it impacts other subjects, but because students value it.

Reviewing the Henley Report—Part One

Very recently, Darren Henley published an expansive report on the state of music education in the United Kingdom. It’s definitely worth a read, if you can spare the time. In the report, Mr. Henley makes several observations that parallel the current situation in the United States, and makes several recommendations that would be worth investigating on this side of the pond.

This is a fairly expansive report, so I’ll be reviewing it section by section.

Section One—Introduction

In section 1.10, Henley states:

…in nearly all of the verbal evidence sessions undertaken as part of this Review, which quickly began to sound like a rather unsatisfactory weather forecast. I was told time and time again that Music Education in England was ‘good in places, but distinctly patchy’…
Sounds awful similar to the state of music education here in the United States.We’ve got communities scattered across the country who embrace and understand the importance of music education. Conversely, we also have communities who look at music as something to cut in order to maintain funding for the “core” classes.
Henley gets a little more specific in his observations in section 1.12:
Where Music Education is delivered at its best, money from central government and Local Authorities is harnessed together alongside imaginative use of school budgets and exciting collaborations with arts organisations. The best Music Education comes about through partnership; no one teacher, performer, school, organisation, group or body has all of the requisite skills to deliver every part of a
rounded Music Education to every child.
For a school music education program to be successful, everybody has to buy into the concept. Faculty, students, parents, community, local, state and federal government. It’s not enough to just throw money at a program. This exchange of ideas and resources means that the students who reside in such a community are getting the best music education possible. If a school’s music offerings aren’t enough to satisfy the desires of a student, then the community can step in and offer something different. Community members can also offer suggestions on the direction of a school music program, and can be brought in as guest clinicians as well.

The War On Music Education…

…Or “Maybe things aren’t all that bad in the United States, after all.”

While browsing for music ed news this weekend, I stumbled across a pretty depressing item from Kuwait. Essentially, a hardline Islamist MP is taking the government to task over their recent decision to make music education a compulsory part of the Kuwaiti curriculum. Mohammed Hayef has said that unless the schools revert to the old system, where music was an elective and not a requirement, he and his party will submit a bill in an attempt to ban music from schools completely.

Talk about culture shock. If a similar measure were even discussed in most other countries, an angry mob bearing pitchforks and torches would likely appear in the streets of the capital. Music is such an important part of cultures around the world, that it’s impossible to fathom music being banned from schools. Funding may be cut when times are tough, but an outright ban, to say that students can not participate in music even if the resources exist, is unthinkable.

Badrya Darwish of the Kuwait Times has published an excellent rebuttal to Hayef. She feels that banning music would essentially destroy a large part of Kuwaiti culture. Students across the country would not be taught about a large part of their cultural history, and would begin to lose their cultural identity.

It’s interesting that humans tend to place such a high premium on creativity and innovation, yet the very classes that help foster these traits—visual arts, writing, music, etc.—are often the first on the chopping block and are such a heated point of contention. Cuts to the creative areas of a curriculum are bad enough, but threatening an outright ban seems like a step toward a cultural Dark Age for Kuwait.

I’m going to make sure to keep tabs on this particular story. It’s entirely possible that Hayef has underestimated the power of music and could face a serious outcry from citizens should he go through with his plans. Outlawing something that tends to help give people a sense of cultural uniqueness is never a good idea.

A quick look back through history would show Hayef that music was not solely used for entertainment, but for protest and activism as well. Shostakovich was famously denounced twice for compositions that the ruling Soviet regime found to be subversive. Victor Jara and Quilapayun used their music—specifically, ¡El Pueblo Unido Jamás Será Vencido!—to speak out against Augusto Pinochet.

Music is a powerful voice, I doubt Hayef will be able to completely silence it in Kuwait.

Making Advocacy Work

Try and picture a day without any music. Go ahead, give it a real earnest shot. Even if you can imagine such a day, I bet it feels weird, inhuman to some extent.

That exercise alone should illustrate the importance that music plays in our culture and its role in everyday life. While we might not always be actively listening to music, we’re hearing it in films, on the radio and as we walk down the street. Incidental music is everywhere. Even if you don’t notice it during the day, you would certainly notice if it disappeared.

Plenty of people in today’s society have taken note of the importance of music. Michelle Obama is probably the highest-profile person to advocate for strong Arts Education in schools, with her Classical Music Student Workshop Concert at the White House. Not only is she an advocate, she practices what she preaches by enrolling her daughters in music lessons. A quick search of the MENC website also reveals a bevy of resources that support the idea that art/music education in a school is very beneficial for students.

It’s not enough to simply have vocal advocates though—we need advocacy influencing tangible actions. Here in Michigan, we might be seeing the very first signs of a change for the better in education. Gretchen Whitmer (D)-East Lansing has introduced a plan that would tie legislators’ pay to school funding. It’s a great idea—cut education, cut your own salaries. If such a measure were to pass, you can be sure that cuts would be made in education only as an absolute last resort.

What does this mean for the arts, specifically?

When schools are facing a budget shortfall, the elective classes are almost always the first to face cuts. The farther you are from the “Three R’s”, the less job security you’ll have if your school district is hurting for cash. On the flip side, schools with the available funds often make an investment in arts education. If a school has the luxury of investing in a broader curriculum, they tend to do so because it is very beneficial for the students.

The best way to ensure that music education thrives is to invest in the future of the country—education.