Published Online: July 9, 2007

Bubble Music

I am a music teacher. Handling 300 students per day in a secondary music program, I live with the irony of being the the most likely to receive the first pink slip, as well as the most cost effective teacher in the district. If my district shut down the instrumental music program to “save money,” it would take two full-time core academic teachers to replace me.

I teach students how to work together in groups small and large, melding their skills into authentic musical performances at concerts and festivals. Every year, my students and I provide traditional and ceremonial music for public audiences at community events, including holiday gatherings for Senior Citizens, the Memorial Day parade and cemetery services, and regular concerts that pack with diverse and challenging music. For the school, we perform at athletic events, honors night, and commencement.

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More than half my students have performed solos and ensembles at contests, developing their personal proficiency and forming the center of a musical network which sends them out into churches, family gatherings, the regional battle of the bands, the metropolitan youth symphony, and on to their own careers and avocations as life-long musicians.

During my 30-year career, I have efficiently taught my students a new, complex language of symbolic interpretation (which, research shows, strengthens their regular reading rate and sharpens their aural perception). I have bolstered muscular coordination and lung capacity, and given them a broad introduction to the cultures of the world through the stimulating experience of playing music from other times and places. Few subjects are more creative, interdisciplinary, team-oriented or universal than mine.

And yet, under many of the performance-pay proposals now circulating, I would be out of the running when it comes to being rewarded for meritorious teaching—the kind of teaching that makes a long-lasting difference in kids’ lives. Because, of course, there’s no standardized test to assess student learning in music performance.

Somewhere around 60 percent of American teachers do not have their work “measured” by state accountability systems. For those who define teacher effectiveness as “the ability to raise test scores,” this is only occasionally seen as a problem. For some psychometricians, if it can’t be tested in a standardized way, with answers recorded on a bubble sheet, it may not be worth teaching. For other policymakers, the solution lies in creating tests for currently untested subjects—even if the tests don’t measure the competencies and understandings valued in the discipline.

Sure, we could test my students’ knowledge of music theory or history (and I’d bet my kids would do well, because I incorporate this musical content into the curriculum). But we wouldn’t get a clear picture of what they’re taking away from studying instrumental music. And music teachers everywhere would stop seamlessly integrating theory into learning scales and arpeggios, or selecting literature to explore music history. Instead, as sentient human beings, they would begin cramming unrelated history and theory facts into their teaching—because doing so could label them a meritorious teacher, even if it kept them from far more important things.

This is not just an issue for elective teachers. It is a concern for all teachers whose students should not be subjected to standardized tests. There are few educators with greater impact than kindergarten teachers, those brave and cheerful souls who lay the foundation and template for school success.

Good kindergarten teachers are master assessors, observing each child daily (and remember, some of them see one class in the morning, and another in the afternoon) for evidence of growth in language facility, understanding symbols, manipulating and interpreting objects, motor control and the all-important socialization skills. Do we want 5-year-olds bubbling in test grids? I think not. But shouldn’t early childhood educators be eligible for special recognition for their exemplary and important work?

So what’s the answer? We might begin by encouraging teachers in various disciplines to outline what a master teacher should know and be able to do—including expected results evident in student work. For me, I would begin with some of the descriptors in the first three paragraphs of this reflection—qualities that I believe are markers of effective teaching in instrumental music: consistently strong student musical performances (in groups and individually), service to the school and community, applied student knowledge of musical tools and symbols, and interdisciplinary connections. And, of course, the ability to reach large numbers of students daily.

When the template for this exceptional teaching is defined, who will determine if a teacher is meeting the challenge? Perhaps a panel of peers, knowledgeable and invested parents, a supervisor, and a neutral administrator from another school. It would certainly be a useful exercise for teachers to prepare a collection of evidence that demonstrates their own effective teaching.

There are rich and valid ways to evaluate teachers’ work in all disciplines and at all developmental levels. If we want to use available resources to foster and spread good teaching, we can’t limit teacher incentives and rewards to a specific number of those professionals whose students take standardized tests.

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