On the Music Education Teacher Shortage

The shortage of music teachers available to public schools in the United States has been discussed by MENC The National Association for Music Education, CMS Board Members for Music Education Maud Hickey and C .Victor Fung, the National Association of Schools of Music, and the Journal of Music Teacher Education, among others. The conference of the Society for Music Teacher Education, to be held at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, 15-17 September 2005, will enable all musicians to turn serious attention to this continuing concern.

If there is a critical shortage of music teachers, what prevents musicians in the higher education community from helping solve the problem by participating in K-12 education at least part time? Why are the K-12 and the higher education communities sometime perceived as incompatible?

I suspect that part of the answer lies in the hegemony of the large performance ensemble as the only curricular model in grades 7-12. There is nothing, of course, wrong with large ensembles choirs, bands, and orchestras have importance in the history of our art and roles to play in the education of young people, for both musical and extra-musical reasons. However, many musicians do not have the training for or interest in conducting large ensembles. The result is that, however many years many musicians may have spent probing the depths of the musical art and expanding the ability to teach and communicate, there are few places for them in grades 7-12.

I wonder how many of us in the music and higher education community are full of passion for the art of music and yet are deemed unfit for service in the public schools. Is this educational system defensible in light of the current condition of American cultural life and the needs of K-12 students? The governing bodies that have constructed and now perpetuate this system need to be persuaded to examine it closely.


The first task is to reconsider that nature of K-12 education in the arts disciplines in light of the outcomes desired by the end of the 12th grade. Thoughtful dialogue is needed among all teachers in the visual and performing arts so that music curricula can be reenvisioned in the context of the goals for broad aesthetic education.

Musicians have much to learn from teachers of visual arts, dance, and theatre about curricular models and pedagogy. Not all students can possibly become accomplished musicians, dancers, painters, and actors, and we therefore need first to concern ourselves with teaching to the National Standards and the principles the Standards articulate.


Second, the music community must develop alternate curricula for public school music education. Curricula used in grades K-6 provide an excellent model for how education in music could be extend effectively through grades 7-12. The large ensemble model is fine for certain types of school districts, teachers, and students with the right combination of personality, economic background, parental support, and social and musical interest. But what of those school districts, teachers, and students that do not fit this profile? The challenge before the music community is to develop alternative curricula so that all students can study and enjoy music in their own way.

As Will Earhart, an Indiana music educator in the early 1900s put it, the goal is not to fit the pupil into a musical life, but to fit music into the life of the pupil. ¹

Certainly curricula could be developed for music study through composition, electronic music, class piano, guitar, music theory, history of music, gamelan, world music, recording technology, music business and industry, and many, many others. Many curricular models are in place in K-6 curricula; these could be reimagined and, through the leadership of our Music Education faculty, adapted and expanded in myriad ways for grades 7-12.


If expanded curricular options existed in grades 7-12, a wide variety of musiciansincluding independent musicians and faculty in higher educationcould be asked to participate in music education at least part time. There are many musicians who may not have the skills required to conduct large ensembles but are highly qualified to teach via other studio and classroom approaches. This could help solve the teacher shortage, widen the educational experience for students, and result in increased musical and cultural engagement.

Finally, in the words of Peter Quince, But there is two hard things! The first hard thing is arriving at consensus by all the stakeholders in K-12 arts education concerning appropriate education in the arts disciplines. Only consensus will make the second hard thing a possibility: convincing every local school board and related state agency that these changes are necessary to revitalize the scary U.S. cultural life.

We may long for the magic national program that will transform K-12 curricula in every school in the country, but, in fact, every school is managed through local school boards. Given the reality of the U.S. educational system, there is much work to be done to solve both hard things.

Ultimately, is the teacher shortage really in the number of musicians available to teach or in our vision of what K-12 music is really about? Is the crisis in our schools or in our lack of imagination and will?

¹ Quoted in Charles Gary, Public School Music Education in the Twentieth Century, in Reflections on American Music The Twentieth Century and The New Millennium, Bibliographies and Monographs in American Music 16, ed. James R. Heintze and Michael Saffle (Hillsdale, NY: Pendragon, 2000), 143.

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Last modified on Wednesday, 08/05/2013

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