Equity & Diversity

Laws That Limit Teaching About Race and Gender Imperil Music Instruction

By Alyson Klein — March 31, 2023 4 min read
Image of a female student playing the flute, and another student in the background playing a horn.
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A high school choir director is afraid to ask students to perform spirituals—a central form of American music—because they might have to explain a song’s origin as a form of expression for enslaved people.

A teacher is unsure how to teach about jazz and the blues without mentioning that those musical forms took root among Blacks after emancipation.

A band director fields angry calls from parents after sharing with students that the composer of a piece of music they were playing is a member of the LGBTQ community.

These and similar situations face music educators working in 19 states with so-called “divisive concept” laws or policies that limit discussion of topics like race, gender, sexuality, and U.S. history in K-12 schools, according to a report released March 31 by the National Association for Music Education.

In fact, about 2 of every 3 music educators who work in states with divisive concept laws say these policies hurt their teaching. They no longer feel comfortable selecting certain songs or sharing facts or issues about race or gender related to musicians’ careers and musical history, according to the report.

The organization sent the survey to its members in October and received 315 responses, including 136 from educators in states with divisive concept laws or policies. Those states include Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and Virginia.

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The laws, some of which are murky, can have a chilling effect on teachers, said Karen Salvador, an associate professor and chair of music education at Michigan State University and the author of the report.

“Administrators and parents are interpreting [the laws] in the most conservative possible way and that’s making teachers self-censor,” Salvador said. “They are limiting their curriculum. They’re worried about ruffling feathers and they don’t want to have to deal with complaints.”

For instance, one educator said “these policies don’t allow us to have honest conversations about the experience of the people who write or wrote our music.”

Another said their state’s law “was hastily implemented and no one knows what to do. Each district is doing something completely different, and even each school. Music materials are in a gray area, where no one in our district can answer how band music, chorus music, theory materials, etc. fit in.”

A district fine arts director reported constantly getting questions from teachers worried that certain choices—such as having her choral students sing a spiritual, which is required in some singing competitions—could run afoul of the state law.

An old textbook stirs new controversy

Even anecdotes about musicians that weren’t controversial just a few years ago have raised parents’ ire. For instance, in spring of 2021, one teacher—referred to by the pseudonym “Rita” in the report—shared a story with students included in a textbook her district had used for the previous 15 years about Benny Goodman, a celebrated clarinet player nicknamed “the king of swing.”

Goodman, who was white, famously refused to play at any club unless members of his band, many of whom were Black, could accompany him through the front door. “We all come through the front door, or we don’t come in at all,” Goodman said, according to the district-approved materials.

The story prompted questions from students: Why couldn’t the Black musicians go through the front door with Goodman? What was Jim Crow? Rita did her best to respond, linking her answers back to Goodman’s life and music. The discussion was short, she said, and the class moved on.

But less than an hour later, Rita received an email from a parent, who had been watching the lesson on Zoom with her child. “This is inappropriate, unprofessional, and illegal. You should be jailed, sued, and fired. This law is meant to stop students being subjected to this kind of information,” the parent wrote.

Rita felt blind-sided. She discussed the email with her administrator, who told her to apologize to the parent. She declined. The administrator instead sent an email telling the parent the situation had been handled.

“Teachers are frightened and are afraid to mention anything that could be viewed as divisive with no guidance on what that means,” Rita said, according to the report. “You can’t teach the approved curriculum; you can’t frame things how they were meant to be framed. Guidance and administration avoid this topic all together, so nothing gets addressed. There is fear around who is listening into class and who is monitoring. Who defines what is beyond the line?”

To be sure, other teachers in states with such policies in place said they had not experienced any impact. And some educators agree with the reasoning behind the laws.

“I believe these laws are not divisive at all, and they are preventing young students from being exposed to potentially harmful and damaging topics that should not be discussed in classrooms,” one survey respondent wrote. “The laws are preventing teachers from having the ability to raise children under their beliefs and returning that right to the parents where it belongs.”

In other cases, educators don’t feel the impact because they simply refuse to change their approach to teaching music.

“A dark cloud looms over my (our) head, knowing that the state may actively challenge me for teaching truth in a developmentally appropriate way,” one anonymous teacher wrote. “They seem to be actively encouraging parents to object if the truths of racism and classism are taught. However, this is not affecting my actual teaching at all because I refuse be bullied in this way. I WILL teach truthfully and openly as long as I am in a classroom.”

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