After Music Association Leader’s Diversity Comments, Calls for Resignation

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — May 09, 2016 3 min read
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The director of the National Association for Music Education’s comments at a meeting focused on equity and inclusion in the arts have drawn the ire of some of the association’s members and ignited a debate about diversity in music education.

According to a blog post by Keryl McCord, the operations director for the Atlanta-based nonprofit Alternate ROOTS, Michael A. Butera, the executive director of the music education association, told a room full of arts education professionals at an April conference convened by the National Endowment for the Arts that NAfME’s membership is not diverse in part because black and Latino people “lack the keyboard skills needed for this field.”

In the post, published May 4 on Alternate ROOTS’ website, McCord writes that Butera “intimated that music theory is too difficult” for people of those races and “faulted our public schools as the cause of the problem, having all but abandoned the arts in their curriculum.”

McCord’s post also noted the fact that the music education association’s board is entirely white.

Michael Butera responded in a public Facebook post that the blog post was a “deeply inaccurate portrayal” of what happened at the April meeting.

Butera wrote that while the association’s board members are all white, it would be a violation of policy to appoint a member specifically because of his or her race. The board’s members are chosen via an election.

Meanwhile, he wrote of his comments on diversity among music educators:

I also mentioned that the field of music educators, much like the general population of educators, is skewed toward white individuals. We have had ongoing and rich discussions in our association community about how best to address this issue, but have not yet been able to actualize a solution. This is not for lack of trying, but simply because of the enormous complexity of the issue. I am personally passionate about increasing the size and scope of the music education “tent,” and want nothing more than to grow the participation in our field of individuals from all different backgrounds.

McCord’s blog post caught the attention of others in the music education world and prompted responses on social media.

Deejay Robinson, a music teacher who has written publicly about his journey as a black man studying classical music, shared a Facebook post that showed him burning his National Association for Music Education membership card:

Others called for Butera’s resignation:

Still others pushed back against the reported slight against black and Latino musicians’ keyboard skills:

In responses to Butera’s Facebook post, a handful of members noted Butera’s commitment to diversity and commitment to music education. But more commenters on the National Association‘s page said the response didn’t satisfactorily address McCord’s allegations that Butera generalized about ethnic groups’ keyboard skills or that he left the room when challenged about his comments.

The National Association for Music Education released a statement emphasizing its commitment to diversity and inclusion on May 5. From the statement:

Our stated mission is “to advance music education by promoting the understanding and making of music by all"—with an emphasis on “all.” And among five values of our Association, we list “Inclusion and Equity,” which we define as “building strength and promoting diversity in a profession representing the wide spectrum of people and cultures, abilities, economic backgrounds, and gender identities.” In some recent conversations and electronic exchanges, this value seems to have been questioned. NAfME stands firmly behind its mission and values.

The question of diversity in music education is not theoretical. Nine in ten music teacher candidates are white, according to research that University of Maryland professor Ken Elpus released late last year. That’s at a time when most public school students are not white.

Elpus’s research didn’t determine the reasons why so few people of color are working as music teachers. (About 80 percent of teachers in general are white, compared to 90 percent of teacher licensure candidates in music.) That’s not to imply that white teachers shouldn’t or can’t be effective music teachers for all students, but a quick glance at the pop music charts is a reminder that musicians are certainly not monolithically white. Elpus suggested that the expectations that music education majors have studied instruments privately may be a limiting factor for some potential teachers.

Another potential reason for the racial imbalance: Many school districts do not offer the same level of arts and music programs in every school, with poorer and higher-minority schools frequently getting fewer programs.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.