Daily Bow: Setting a Bar with the Iowa Core

Daily Bow LogoMusic and math have long had an association in most people’s minds. The common view on it goes something like this: music is essentially counting, pitch relationships, and tempo, all of which relate back to mathematical relationships. So, if you can do math, you can play music–or vice versa. Most musicians (and certainly most mathematicians) can attest to the similarities between the two disciplines, but they can also all attest to the great differences that are glossed over in this oversimplification. One of the biggest differences is the diametrically opposed nature of the disciplines. Math is often based on the quantitative–sets of concrete procedures and correct answers that result in a measurable degree of success. At the end of the day, how do you know how well you’ve done on a math test? The percentage of correct answers is a pretty cut-and-dry indication.

Music, on the other hand, is not about right answers, and, the further a person goes in the field, the more apparent the subjective nature of the art becomes. It’s a sometimes cagey art: what one person finds sublime, another hates, and there’s often no recipe for success, either in the long-term as with a career or in the short-term as with the execution of a piece. There are, it seems, so many unquantifiable “x-factor” elements in music that have nothing to do with concrete, measurable parameters: sound, feeling, phrasing, musicality, charisma. As such, music tends to occupy the community’s consciousness as a subjective art, hard to nail down and hard to measure. So if we can measure mathematical success with a straight percentage of right answers, what’s the measure for success in a musical context?

The Iowa Department of Education is taking steps in the direction of answering that question. Iowa’s public school curriculum features a mandatory element known as the Iowa Core, which puts forth a set of criteria for achievement in the form of a timeline: each subject area has a set standards that students should be able to meet at any given age or grade level. The Core, which was enacted as law in 2008, sets math, science, English and language arts, and social studies as “core content areas.” The legislation also made it mandatory for the content of the curriculum to address “21st century skills,” which include civic, financial, technological and health literacy. The original language makes no mention of fine arts, music, or foreign languages. The omission concerned many arts educators and their organizations, and, shortly after the conception of the Iowa Core, these organizations met with legislators to make a case for inclusion of the arts in both the curriculum and the standard rubric. Two years after the meeting, a draft of music standards was released, and standards for other areas (like drama and foreign language) are under review. The process was led by Rosanne Malek, an arts consultant at the Iowa Department of Education and a music teacher for sixteen years. She created a process for the professional groups that were concerned about the lack of arts in the Iowa Core to create their own standards based on their members’ experiences and the national standards of their affiliated organizations.

The key question at the heart of the issue was the very one posed at the beginning of the article: how do you put a measurement process on an art form so very closely linked to the qualitative rather than the quantitative? It’s a question that many music teachers struggle with, and, as I began my teaching studio after finishing my master’s degree, I found that I had no real idea what I should expect of my students. How quickly should a student learn certain skills? Which skills should come first? The answers to these questions are, while debatable, often instinctive for long-time teachers. While music is, at the end of the day, an art form that offers few concrete footholds for quantification, there are parameters and skills that lend themselves to some degree of standardization.

According to the new standards, between kindergarten and second grade, Iowa elementary students should develop the ability to read and notate simple rhythmic patterns. Between third and fifth grade, they will have moved on to being able to read, sing and play sheet music. Eventually, they should be able to sequence, imitate, and repeat melodic ideas and use computers to create multimedia compositions around grades six through eight. These standards represent a portion of the new bar that Iowa is setting for its students, and, while educators may not all agree on the exact timeline of development–since music is such an individual thing–it is a fascinating springboard for a conversation that should be had. Above all, music should be in schools, and in order to be there, it needs to be able to lend itself to some kind of measurement for the public school system. Its slippery nature as a subjective art form has led to its marginalization by the public school systems in the country as an after-school activity, which is denying many students the exposure to a discipline that is universally human and has much to offer a developing mind.

The existence of a rubric that emphasizes skill-development rather than relying on context-specific achievements is a new and, from my perspective, very smart development. The Iowa Core would do well to serve as a model for departments of education across the country, not even in terms of its content, but simply for its idea and for its value as an instigator of discussion. Music is often treated as an intangible mystery, which makes it seem inaccessible to some students. By shifting the emphasis away from achievement level and moving it to skill development, it reminds us that music is a manageable discipline if attacked in a systematic, logical way–a lesson that many of us sweating it out in the practice room would do well to remember every now and then, too!


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