Fostering Equitable and Efficacious Reform in Music Curricula through Culturally Sustaining Education

May 15, 2024

In 2014, CMS issued a report calling for substantial change in the collegiate music curriculum (College Music Society 2014). Beginning in 2020, tertiary music units began engaging in diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) initiatives on an unprecedented scale following the 2020 murder of George Floyd and the beginnings of the Black Lives Matter movement. What implications has this activity had on schools of music? Hess (2022) attributes this surge in activity in part to Bell’s (1995) theory of interest convergence, where progress is made when the interests of marginalized people align with the interests of the majority and those in power (Hess 131). Unfortunately, substantive change may not occur as a result:

When policies are seen to be doing something unto themselves, these policies may allow institutions to understand themselves as having “done diversity”—having succeeded at equality. Policies themselves, then, may block those in institutions from recognizing the work there is to do…When the university engages in diversity as a way of not doing diversity, the institution upholds the status quo...PWIs1Primarily White Institutions and the people within them then can perform themselves as good while failing to cede any power or create institutional change. (Hess 141)

The Future of the Undergraduate Music Major (College Music Society 2014) indicated that “change has been confined largely to surface adjustments—what might be best characterized as `curricular tinkering’—at the expense of the systemic, foundational overhaul that is necessary…these and other additive attempts at change have left the conventional curricular and cultural core largely intact, and left newer areas on the periphery” (3-4). How might we ensure our efforts to update content and pedagogy are productive, instead of mainly performative?2Hess defines the word “performative” in two different ways: referring to both concrete actions taken to reach a goal, and to words, actions, or policies that appear to work towards a goal but actually accomplish little. In this essay, I am using it in the second way. In this essay, I integrate scholarship from culturally sustaining teacher education with my lived experience as a university professor of music, music education, and teacher education.

Creating an educational experience where all students feel welcomed, valued, and experience their best chance at success is the right thing to do ethically. Further, given demographic changes faced by higher education (Grawe 2018, 2021), I also believe we are in a moment where interest convergence may persuade some reluctant faculty and administrators of the urgency of substantive reform, even though a focus on recruitment and demographics alone is inadequate.

Culturally sustaining pedagogy (CSP), or culturally sustaining education, offers a way to critically examine curricula and instructional practices. Paris and Alim (2017) define its goals as follows:

CSP seeks to perpetuate and foster—to sustain—linguistic, literate, and cultural pluralism as part of schooling for positive social transformation. CSP positions dynamic cultural dexterity as a necessary good, and sees the outcome of learning as additive rather than subtractive, as remaining whole rather than framed as broken, as critically enriching strengths rather than replacing deficits. (1).

CSP began as culturally responsive pedagogy, as articulated by Ladson-Billings (1995). The habits and practices she identified as necessary in this sort of instruction involved one’s self-concept, how one views others, how one structures social relations, and one’s conception of knowledge as fixed or changing. In this short essay, I focus on conceptions of knowledge.

Many collegiate music faculty and our music education students struggle to create effective change in their classrooms, despite guidance from scholars including McKoy and Lind (2022). This difficulty occurs, in part, because effective culturally sustaining education is inherently contextual, involving specific groups of learners, a particular instructor, and a certain context. Thus, much writing about culturally sustaining education or anti-racist education offers mainly general guiding principles. At my institution, I teach a required course in culturally sustaining education to all teacher education students. The work of three scholars features significantly in my course and may provide promising lenses through which you might analyze your courses, unit, or institution.

Nieto (2008) posited four levels of multicultural education supports: tolerance, acceptance, respect, and the highest level—labeled affirmation, solidarity, and critique—as well as a description of their absence: monocultural. Many tertiary music units are a monoculture: "a situation in which school structures, policies, curricula, instructional materials, and even pedagogical strategies are primarily representative of only the dominant culture…or…the way things are" (19). In a tolerant environment, “differences…are endured, not necessarily embraced” (21). In an accepting environment, “differences are acknowledged, and their importance is neither denied nor belittled” (23). Respect “implies admiration and high esteem for diversity” (24). Affirmation, solidarity, and critique uses diversity as a tool for learning and embracing differences. As Nieto asserted, “conflict is not avoided, but rather accepted as an inevitable part of learning...culture is not a fixed or unchangeable artifact and is therefore subject to critique” (26). It is well worth reflecting on where your institution, college, department, program, classroom, or studio falls on this continuum, and what you might do to advance it to higher levels. 

Sleeter and Flores-Carmona (2017, 10-11) offer instructors a very specific, yet flexible model for making one’s practice more equitable. They pose the following questions:

  1. What purposes should the curriculum serve?
  2. How should knowledge be selected, and who decides?…What is the relationship between the teacher and the knowledge selection process?
  3. What is the nature of students and the learning process, and how does it suggest teachers should organize learning experiences and relationships?
  4. How should curriculum be evaluated? How should learning be evaluated? To whom is curriculum evaluation accountable?

Perhaps it is one of these areas, knowledge selection, that has the greatest implications for change within music studies. Sleeter and Flores-Carmona state that:

From perspectives of intellectuals from historically marginalized communities, knowledge is always situated in the context in which people create it, constructed, at least to some extent, in the service of knowledge creators’ communities. Traditional mainstream academic disciplinary knowledge—the foundation of most school knowledge—has been largely rooted in experiences, concerns, points of view, and ways of knowing that emerged in Europe…particularly economically privileged men. While it has value, it also functions to explain the social order more than to question it. (80)

Instead, Sleeter and Flores-Carmona suggest we organize our curriculum around counternarratives they call “transformative intellectual knowledge.” What might such a counternarrative look like within music studies? Some possibilities include:

  • Aural skills are as valuable as sight reading skills;
  • The complexity or length of a musical work does not directly correlate with its worth or value;
  • Music theory and history are not a linear evolutionary journey;
  • Considering whose worthy music has been invisible;
  • How can we both value and critique commercial musics?

Within my specialty of music education, possibilities could include:

  • Refocusing music education on lifelong learning;
  • Critically examining who chooses to not participate in school music, and why?;
  • Privileging spirituals, blues, and jazz as American folk music in elementary methods;
  • Centering a focus on songwriting and composition as central to secondary general music.

Culturally sustaining education is inherently local and contextual. What new conceptions of knowledge, conceptions of how students learn, and transformative intellectual knowledge could you cultivate in your own practice, and that of your institution?



Bell, Derrick A. 1995. “Brown v. Board of Education and the Interest Convergence Dilemma.”In Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings that Formed the Movement, edited by Kimberlé Crenshaw, Neil Gotanda, Gary Peller, and Kendall Thomas, 20–29. New York: The New Press.

College Music Society. 2014. Transforming Music Study from Its Foundations: A Manifesto for Progressive Change in the Undergraduate Preparation of Music Majors. Missoula, MT.

Grawe, Nathan D. 2018. Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education. Baltimore: JohnHopkins University Press.

Grawe, Nathan D. 2021. The Agile College: How Institutions Successfully Navigate Demographic Changes. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Hess, Juliet. 2022. “The Surge Toward ‘Diversity:’ Interest Convergence and Performative ‘Wokeness’ in Music Institutions.” Action, Criticism, and Theory for Music Education 22, no. 1: 126–155.

Ladson-Billings, Gloria. 1995. “Toward a Theory of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy.” American Educational Research Journal 32, no. 3: 465–491.

McKoy, Constance L., and Vicki R. Lind. 2022. Culturally Responsive Teaching in Music Education: From Understanding to Application (2nd ed.). Routledge.

Nieto, Sonia. 2008. “Affirmation, Solidarity and Critique: Moving Beyond Tolerance in Education.” In Beyond Heroes and Holidays, edited by Enid Lee, Deborah Menkart, and Margo Okazawa-Rey, 18-29. Washington, DC: Teaching for Change.

Paris, Django, and H. Samy Alim. 2017. Culturally Sustaining Pedagogies: Teaching and Learning for Justice in a Changing World. Teachers College Press.

Sleeter, Christine, and Judith Flores Carmona. 2016. Un-standardizing Curriculum: Multicultural Teaching in the Standards-Based Classroom (2nd ed.). New York: Teachers College Press.


[1] Primarily White Institutions

[2] Hess defines the word “performative” in two different ways: referring to both concrete actions taken to reach a goal, and to words, actions, or policies that appear to work towards a goal but actually accomplish little. In this essay, I am using it in the second way.

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