Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Standards: What They Are and What They Are Not

If you are a teacher (music or not) on the road towards standards-based learning, then at some point you are going to have to deal with ... standards.

In a previous blog, I encouraged music teachers to divorce themselves from the idea that a piece of music you are rehearsing is a "unit of study".  It does not matter if the piece is going to be performed in a public concert or not - the pieces you rehearse are not units in your curriculum.  They are mere activities, and as such, they live near the bottom of the curricular food chain.

I can't tell you how hard - how painfully hard - it was to come to this realization as a department.  But it's easy to prove.

How many times have you said this to your students:
"We just talked about phrasing in our last song.  Let's see if you can transfer that learning to the next song in our rehearsal."  (Substitute phrasing for any musical topic.)  As teachers, we want our students to take one concept and apply it in many places.  In other words, good music teachers teach transferrable skills.  Songs themselves are not transferrable skills - they are activities.

So then, what are units and standards in music?  Here's how I view it as a music teacher:
Adapted from our district's curriculum handbook

Notice that "standards" do not appear on this image.  That is because standards are something that are written elsewhere and adopted by a state or local governing agency.  According to Tony Frontier & James Rickabaugh in Five Levers to Improve Learning, standards have two primary functions: "to
clarify what should be taught (content) and to articulate expectations for how work should be evaluated (quality)" (68).    

But just because you have standards does not mean you can embark on standards-based assessments. What will you teach?  How will you teach it?  How will you measure it?  What represents quality in an student work?  How will you offer feedback?  How will students incorporate the feedback into a continuous growth model?  How will you measure growth?  How will parents be involved in the process?  Standards do not answer these questions. Standards are not, in themselves, going to increase achievement - the power is in what you do with the standards.

Frontier & Rickabaugh go on to say a "standard-based system is largely concerned with developing a shared understanding of quality, generating accurate developmental feedback to inform one's efforts, and strategically utilizing effort to attain or surpass the articulated standard" (83).

If you would like to see how we structured our curriculum, click here to view a copy of one example. All of our 6-12 ensembles follow the same pattern.  It also includes our K-12 Enduring Understandings & Essential Questions.  The document looks simple, but it was years of work.

All of our 6-12 ensembles have four units:
• Musical Skills - the performable aspects of music (topics are closely aligned to contest ballot)
• Musical Knowledge - what a musician needs to know for success, but is not evidenced through performance (topics include sightreading, theory, and music history & culture)
• Concert - topics include stage presentation, audience etiquette, and self-evaluation
• Music as Creative Endeavor - as a department, we felt strongly that fully developed musicians make personal, social, and creative connections to the music (topics include character ed and creative process)

To be continued ...

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