Things That Just Don't Make Sense: Music Teacher Edition

Over the last few weeks I've had the good fortune to spend time with my favorite group of persons: music teachers. And whenever I get a chance to hang with music folks we have the best conversations--and by that, I mean that I hear some absolutely jaw-dropping, eye-popping stuff about what is actually happening out in their schools with respect to educational policy and practice.

To be clear, in many school districts, things are going swimmingly: music programs are healthy and robust, performing ensembles are full and thriving, and schedules are constructed so as to make students' learning comprehensive and teachers' duties reasonable. But in too many places, decisions are being made that just don't make sense.

For example...

  • In one large urban school district, music teacher candidates are being asked to react to math and reading data during their interviews for a music teaching position. The justification from the district was along the lines of, "every teacher in our schools plays a role in producing these test results, so every teacher is required to understand what the data means and how to use it to improve their teaching."

    Except that every teacher in the district DOES NOT play a role in those students' test scores in those subjects--music teachers are not responsible for teaching the information on these tests, and should not be expected to teach this information. They weren't prepared to teach these subjects in their undergraduate or graduate degree work, did not take the appropriate course work or pedagogical courses to be qualified to teach these subjects, and should not be using math and reading test data to influence how they teach music.

    Further,  not even the math and reading teachers are actually *responsible* for the students' scores in those subjects. The truth is that "less than 7% of the differences in student learning are attributable to in-school factors, such as teacher quality--with more than 90% of the difference being a function of out-of-school factors, like test prep tutors, private music lessons and the resources to purchase instruments, after school sports, and access to travel, concerts, books, and movies."

    Finally, even IF all teachers in a school were somehow responsible for these math and reading test scores--which they are NOT--it is absurd to expect persons interviewing for a job in that school, who have never worked in that district, to be able to thoughtfully and meaningfully respond to this data, and to show they would use it to improve their teaching.

    Here's the thing: teaching is not acontextual. It occurs in very specific and particular contexts: with particular students, in particular classrooms, in particular schools, in particular communities. What "works" in one setting may not "work" in another--teachers know this. Why the persons establishing interview protocols do not is one of those things that just don't make sense.

  • In another school system, music teachers’ positions are being reduced from full-time to .90--or higher!--based on class assignments and student enrollments. As if a middle school band of 89 members requires “less” teaching than one of 91; or, as if an elementary music teacher who sees 1200 students per week (yes, this is a thing) can justifiably be reduced to .90 FTE (full-time equivalent) when the school enrollment dips down to 1150 students.

    Point #1: There is no such thing as a teaching position of .90 FTE. In practical terms, that 10% cut works out to roughly 90 minutes "off" spread out over the course of a 5-day work week. It's not enough time for that teacher to find a second job to make up her lost income, or to pick up some tutoring, or to stay home for a day to offset or reduce the cost of childcare.

    In other words, this is a business strategy to take a full-time job and artificially reduce the teaching load by a predetermined percentage in order to save a few dollars in salary, and/or to reduce the employee below a threshold at which they are required to receive a full benefits package. Teachers are not making widgets--they don't "punch out" at the end of their shifts. A 90% FTE music teacher doesn't take home 10% fewer scores to study, or provide 10% less constructive feedback on a student's clarinet solo, or correct 10% fewer mistakes in their beginning orchestra's rehearsal, or stay after school 10% fewer minutes to work with her elementary choir as they prepare for their Spring concert performance. Teaching doesn't work that way; especially music teaching.

    The fact that school district leaders would make this kind of financial decision about an employee who has worked in their schools for 10 or more years says more about the ethics of those making the decision than it does about the financial problems facing the district. And as a matter of common human decency, the ethics here should be no different with a 10 year veteran than they are with a brand new hire. Why school district decision makers don't understand this principle is another one of those things that just doesn't make sense.
  • In yet another district, teachers have been told that, due to budget constraints, “the designation of ‘highly effective’ is a place we visit, not a place we stay”. In other words, even if you come out ranked in the top group of teachers in your school, and were ranked as "highly effective" in the previous year, you may not receive the same ranking in 2 consecutive years.

    Imagine a music teacher telling her 3rd grade class of 42 children that the school only had enough resources for 2 of them to receive “A”s on their report card.

    Imagine a band teacher telling the marching band that even if they perform better than every other group at the state festival it won't be possible for them to win the first place trophy because they won it last year.

    Good leadership and good policy should be reflections of good practice in the domain--in this case, good policy should reflect good pedagogy. 

    In spite of the fact that this is not a sanctioned policy from the state's department of education, and violates every known principle of motivation and management, there is a school district superintendent who thought that this would be a smart thing to say to his or her teachers at the beginning of a school year. How this school leader didn't know the devastating effect his or her words would have on the district's teachers is one of those things that just doesn't make sense.
  • Finally, “specials” teachers (an unfortunate term used to specify music, art, and physical education teachers, among others) in one school district have been told by their Superintendent that “it is impossible” for them to receive a rating of “highly effective” because of what they teach. Leaving aside the wisdom or logic of a teacher evaluation system that groups all teachers into 4 subjective categories (i.e., highly effective, effective, minimally effective, ineffective), as though they were heads of lettuce on a conveyor belt, what possible reason could there be for the instructional leader of a public school system to tell his or her employees that teach a particular subject or discipline that their evaluation rating will be limited due to the subject that they teach?

    How would it feel to know that no matter how hard you worked, or how well your students sang, or played their instruments, or how much your teaching was valued by your students, their parents, and your community, there was no chance for you to earn the highest rating available for your efforts? What impact could this sort of statement have on employee morale? How would knowing this effect collegiality between "specials" teachers and their colleagues in other areas? How does such a statement make any sense?

Here are a few things that DO make sense:

  • Music teachers are teachers. Not "specials" teachers, just teachers.
  • The purpose of the music program is not to provide a "break" for the classroom teacher, or to provide "planning time" for other teachers. The purpose of the music program is to provide opportunities for children to make music, explore music, and express themselves with their voices and with instruments.
  • The purpose of the music program is not to provide a "break" to students during a long day of academics. Music IS an academic subject in its own right. Music has histories, traditions, theories, symbol systems, and all of the other characteristics that define an academic discipline. The fact that music is also enjoyable, engaging, and fun is just gravy.
  • Music teachers should be evaluated based on what they do as teachers--not on how well their students score on tests of math and reading, and not even on how their students do on music tests. The purpose of student assessment is to improve instruction--not to generate teacher evaluations. Teachers' evaluations should not be based on "data" or "scores", but on observations done by expert teachers who have a knowledge of the discipline of music, and experience as music teachers.

So, the next time you see your favorite music teacher, please tell them you value and appreciate what they do. Because music teachers make our schools and communities better, more harmonious places through the power of what they do for our children.


And that should make sense to everyone.


Write a comment

Comments: 29
  • #1

    Mary Wilson (Tuesday, 02 August 2016 20:30)

    Appreciated your piece.....wouldn't it be great if 'regular ' ed teachers were required to use concepts of art, music, and phys. Ed to teach math, reading, and general knowledge. .....awesome. ....

  • #2

    Alexandra DeRosa (Tuesday, 02 August 2016 20:52)

    Thank you for your thoughts. Your points make a lot of sense. In my evaluation two years ago, I was told I couldn't be rated as "highly effective" because our school system would get in trouble with the state department of education if too many teachers were rated highly effective. I "earned" a B instead of an A overall on my evaluation as a result. My observer admitted that he and others were told in district meeting not to "give out" highly effective grades anymore, or the state department of education would audit the district.
    Pretty amazing, right?
    The "logic" is unbelievable at times! I appreciate your insights into all of these situations you described.

  • #3

    Marilyn Barnes (Wednesday, 03 August 2016 07:20)

    Me too. Can't give out too many A's or our poor principals will get in trouble.

  • #4

    Sharon (Wednesday, 03 August 2016 09:13)

    The music teachers with whom I've shared this have responded, and they are in agreement with quite a few of your ideas.

    In our district, music teachers' assignments may be dispersed between two/three schools: .3 in one school, .7 in another to add up to their 100% FTE contracts. That means they are having to fit into each schools' schedules, rush from school to school (think about winter); they are not meaningfully connected to staff/events/children of either school (isolation).

    Thank you.

    FYI - just two writing issues:
    "Why school district decision makers don't understand this principle is another one of those things that just DOESN'T make sense."

    "In other words, this is business strategy to take a full-time job that and artificially reduce ..." (??)

  • #5

    Mitch (Wednesday, 03 August 2016 09:35)

    Sharon--thanks for the edits!

    I think it's pretty common for music teachers to be assigned to multiple schools--but it does make their jobs more disjunct and requires a lot of organization.

    I taught in 7 different schools each week in my first job--what a mess.

  • #6

    Jackie (Wednesday, 03 August 2016 11:09)

    After 25 years of music teaching this article is EXACTLY right.
    Thank you.

  • #7

    Mitch (Wednesday, 03 August 2016 11:31)

    Thanks, Jackie!

  • #8

    Amy (Wednesday, 03 August 2016 13:09)

    Excellent points. The one about a reduction in FTE really hit home for me. I was reduced from full time to .7 a few years ago when elementary "specials" went from being an hour a week to 45 minutes. I still had thirteen preps (K-12 band and music between two buildings) and saw several hundred students, I just had each group fifteen minutes less than before. The idea that I as suddenly doing 30% less work was ridiculously insulting.

  • #9

    Sara Child (Wednesday, 03 August 2016 15:41)

    Last year, my third graders took a music test to determine my pay. My students did well on the test and I still don't like it.

  • #10

    Cynthia (Wednesday, 03 August 2016 22:29)

    Regarding the first point of being asked to comment on math and reading data --

    This is perfectly natural and follows logically. Music, literacy, and mathematics all capitalize on similar cognitive skills, and as a music educator, one should be cognizant of that fact and how it impacts their students. Passion and aptitude for one subject easily translates to the art and technique of music. Recognizing that many subjects are inherently interdisciplinary is well within the role of the music educator, even if bluntly obvious references to "math" and "reading" do not directly manifest in the music curriculum.

  • #11

    Faculty Row Spam (Saturday, 06 August 2016 00:39)

    Thanks for sharing your views. But I don't and never understand the connection between music and maths. Every teacher want to enhance their learning and teaching results.

  • #12

    Micki Grant (Saturday, 06 August 2016 22:20)

    A very worthwhile article.

    There is really only one negative for me: there are many, MANY unemployed and underemployed K-12 music teachers around the country, of whom I am one. The start of a new school year is always incredibly difficult for me - and the rest of us - emotionally. I WOULD GIVE ANYTHING to have the "problem" of being a .90 music teacher instead of being "everybody's favorite substitute teacher" and working in a billion different schools, teaching a billion different subjects, and making almost exactly the same per diem as I did when I first graduated from college in 1992! On the very rare occasion that I'm lucky enough to actually teach elementary music (my favored age group), I very honestly cannot figure out just WHAT the absent teacher does differently or better than I do. I also honestly don't believe that MOST employed music teachers realize how very lucky they are to have been hired...many of them fresh out of college, without ever substitute teaching one day! Sorry for "raining" all over the comments section; just wanted to express that having a music position AT ALL is far better than the alternative.

    Now returning to your regularly scheduled programming.

  • #13

    Mitch (Sunday, 07 August 2016 09:34)

    Micki: thanks for your note. I keep an email list for job announcements, and would be happy to add you to that list if you'd like. There is currently a (manufactured) teacher shortage, and lots of jobs are open. I'd love to help you find a good one!


  • #14

    Hamza (Tuesday, 09 August 2016 21:05)

    It would seem for too long subjects such as math, science etc. have been placed on a pedestal. Is it that those of us in the field of music education are not educating the decision makers about the value of an effective music program? Perhaps a greater effort is needed.

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