The Standards Challenge
On March 11, 1994, U. S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley received the first set of national voluntary standards for use at the K-12 level. Given traditional priorities about elementary and secondary education, one might have expected that English, science, history, geography, mathematics, foreign languages, or even civics would be first out of the gate. Not so. The first standards received by the Secretary were those for music, dance, theatre, and the visual arts. The other areas are to follow. Being first, even though only a symbol, is welcome. But, the arts standards are far more than symbolic. If we are careful and fortunate, they can have tremendous benefits for the total arts effort in the United States, and for the arts in higher education in particular. Imagine the effect of having large numbers of students matriculating to our colleges and universities with as much knowledge and skills in one or more art forms as present-day students exhibit in math and science. Forget for a moment what this might do to the number of music majors, and consider the vast cultural development opportunities inherent in being able to teach music to the general student at a truly collegiate level. The impact could be enormous on everything from the breadth and depth of our musical culture to budgets and professional opportunities. Remember, the standards presented to the Secretary are intended to apply to all American students in the K-12 years.
Of course, positive developments will not happen by themselves, nor will they be instant. The standards project is complex, and the standards document arrives at a point in our educational history where great forces are in collision. Rage is fashionable; the thoughtful quiet that often exemplifies the most productive pursuit of art and scholarship at any level seems in short supply. It will take long transcending commitment from many sectors of the arts and education to make the standards a reality for most American students. Because the standards are fundamentally based in the world of ideas, we in higher education have special roles to play. Before reviewing several of those, there are four important facts that need to be understood.
First, the standards focus on content-what students should know and be able to do in arts terms-not on process, methods, or resources. This focus is by design. It is consistent with the standards that will be written for the other K-12 disciplines. Thus, the music standards represent generic goals for student achievement rather than lists of specifics, a national curriculum, or endorsement of particular ways of packaging and presenting content. They do not express preferences about how students become capable. Instead, taken as a whole, the standards outline a knowledge and skills framework intended to open doors to serious work in and about music much the way that K-12 math studies open doors to higher mathematics and the sciences. The standards call for comprehensive competence, based on the interdependence of creating and performing abilities, analytical capabilities, and historical-cultural knowledge.
Second, standards implementation relies on local decision-making about specific content and methods. Different communities will respond with their own approaches. Although it is hard for many people to put standards and freedom in the same conceptual arena, this project achieves precisely such a result. The standards challenge rather than direct. Throughout the United States, local content decisions will be fundamental success factors.
Third, the standards are the result of a massive cooperative effort involving hundreds of organizations and thousands of professionals and concerned individuals. They represent for the first time a true national consensus about the meaning and content of K-12 arts education. They demand attention to music as an area worthy of serious study by all students. They provide clear descriptions of expected competencies at grades 4, 8, and 12. The consensus behind these standards gives them both validity and power that no other set of K-12 educational objectives in the arts have ever had before.
Fourth, the standards effort is part of a huge reform movement in K-12 education that has the general support of governments at all levels. Development of the arts standards was funded by the U. S. Department of Education and the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities. The Music Educators National Conference managed the arts effort on behalf of a consortium that involves MENC and its counterparts in dance, theatre, and visual arts. The result has initial credibility because of its association with the larger government-sponsored reform operations. The text will be one of the several sets of standards defined nationally as delineating what students should know and be able to do in "challenging subject matter" mentioned in Part III of the National Educational Goals statement. These goals have been widely adopted, endorsed, and used as the basis for state and local decision-making.
What should we in higher education do about these facts and this opportunity? First, we should channel our professional skepticism productively, at the very least being publicly thankful that the arts will have parity with other disciplines in terms of national standards. Under current conditions, the arts would be especially disadvantaged and more K-12 arts programs would be lost without this powerful symbol of and mechanism for inclusion.
Beyond gratitude for a new type of chance to build general music competence, higher education has a number of important roles to play with a variety of intellectual matters associated with the standards. As we have noted, individual communities and states will be responsible for developing the action agendas and curricula they intend to use in helping students meet the standards. Individual teachers will be creating lesson plans to the same end. Higher education has a tremendous opportunity and responsibility across the range of state and local curriculum and content decisions. We can build on tremendous work that has been done already. There is no need to start from scratch. The standards express nothing radical. But we do need to consider carefully the vision of music education that the standards provide, a vision informed by interrelationships between work in art and work about it.
Higher education has an obvious responsibility with respect to teacher preparation and professional development. Here again, there is a strong foundation. But in order for the standards to have full effect, teacher education must become the entire music unit's conscious responsibility. The standards require elementary and secondary students to deal with content associated with every musical specialty from performance, to composition, to analysis, to history, to ethnomusicology. Granted, this content is at a basic, not collegiate, level, but it is present. If students are to achieve the broad understanding of music the standards compel, all specializations must be more involved in the development of teacher competence. Related and critically important is work that helps prospective music teachers become proficient at integrating content from various musical specializations according to the pedagogical needs of specific situations.
Higher education also has a strategic role to play in policy analysis that supports wise decision-making at all levels. American K-12 education is often faulted for being far more interested in matters of power and process than in matters of content and substance. Consistent with this tradition, many ideas are already in place and others are on the horizon that could do great damage to conditions necessary for the standards to have a chance. Spin-masters and illusionists from many quarters will attempt to deflect attention and resources from substantive learning and focus them on symbolic gestures that feed an image-devouring press. Costs, time, and global competitiveness will be cited. Critics will rise to damn the standards because of their failure to support or endorse a particular "thing." The standards and their motivation will be misunderstood and then critiqued on that basis. Complex issues such as the extent to and the ways in which the arts and other disciplines should be combined will be contested vigorously. All such issues need the most thoughtful analysis and attention. Higher education has the resources to search for the best way forward on these and other vital questions.
In short, the opportunity, the intellectual challenge, and the potential benefits seem equally great. As is the case with most situations of this kind, the extent to which the enterprise moves forward productively depends in large part on the wisdom of choices made by thousands of individuals who have an opportunity to influence the outcome. It would be inappropriate and contrary to the traditions of higher education to propose unquestioning veneration of the standards, either as an effort, or as a text. Our creative, critical, and evaluative faculties need to be brought to all K-12 standards questions with the full force of our intellectual and artistic powers. But in doing so, it is extremely important to begin by doing three things. First, obtain, read, and become familiar, first-hand, with the standards. Second, understand the contexts in which this effort is taking place, what the standards are supposed to do, and what they are not supposed to do; and third, develop a thoughtful appreciation what the possibilities, the standards, and especially efforts to meet them, hold for the future of music and the other arts in the United States.
If we in higher education believe that basic formal music study for all is central to the kind of American musical culture we wish to see in the future, these standards provide the best starting point ever available to the music community nationally. The standards have application not just to school-based programs, but to all efforts to teach young people in whatever setting. Although time will tell what happens, let us not make the mistake of convincing ourselves at the outset that the whole project will not work. Many young people who study music are meeting or surpassing most of these standards already. If we do our part to keep the effort focused on development of musical knowledge and skills in students, and if we bring our expertise to the broad range of intellectual questions presented by the standards effort and the standards themselves, we can be assured that the future of American musical culture will become brighter. If we do not do our part, we can be sure that this critical effort for content and substance will be seriously damaged or fail altogether. No other group important for success has quite the same resources and responsibilities as higher education. In the midst of all the concerns that beset us and all the dark portents which surround us, this effort can begin to build real public understanding of nd commitment to our art and our work. It can be a major engine of progress. It is a tool in our hands. What will we do?
Samuel H. Hope is the Executive Director of the National Association of Schools of Music.