What Really Counts?

I’m sitting here this morning in a silent classroom as a group of sophomores diligently completes part of their Keystone Exam. They read, re-read, fill in their bubbles, check their work and repeat for a solid hour and 45 minutes. The “powers that be” in the PA Department of Education want us all to believe that this is the most effective way to both measure student learning and hold teachers accountable for the growth of their students. While standardized testing may have it’s place, there’s something about the sterile, uninspired, lethargic, draining and boring environment of a standardized testing room that does a particularly good job of reminding me why I enjoy the music classroom—with all of it’s noisy, inspired, energetic and interesting moments.

Somehow in the past 10-15 years, our conventional wisdom about what our citizens believe about public education has shifted drastically. If you can’t measure something concretely on a test, it apparently doesn’t have value anymore. Last year, at a visit to the middle school, I overheard some 7th graders talking about what they had to do that day and heard the following exchange:

“Well, is it graded?”


“Well, then if it’s not graded, it’s not important. The only important things in school are the things that are graded.”

Seventh. Grade.   If students in seventh grade (or younger) have this attitude about what is “important” during school, what kinds of important yet less tangible aspects of their education may they be missing out on?

It’s not just the students who have this view. Adults are susceptible to it as well. Our conventional wisdom used to be that we should tell students “you can accomplish anything if you set your mind to it.” Slowly but surely, adults have added well-intentioned, but ultimately unnecessarily stressful caveats to that message:

“You can accomplish anything if you attend the right school and get good grades.”

“You can accomplish anything if you have the right amount of talent.”

“You can accomplish anything, but you have to make all the right choices.”

I’ve actually heard some version of the above quotes. I would challenge all of the successful adults out there to show that all of their grades were always good, that they never made a bad choice, or that they never had to make up for talent with work ethic. While there are exceptions for everything, this is simply not the way success happens for most of us—but when we tell students that these things are the path to success, imagine the unnecessary stress that is imposed:

“What if I don’t pick the right school? What if I can’t keep good grades?”

“Can I ever be successful at anything I am not naturally good at?”

“What if I make a big mistake? Can I recover? Is it better not to take risks in order to avoid mistakes?”

These are the questions our 14-18 year olds are asking themselves daily. Stressing themselves out over questions that should have much easier answers than their 14-18 years of relatively limited life experience will allow them to latch onto.

What happens if you don’t pick the right school? You’ll learn to adjust or you can switch schools.

What if you struggle to keep good grades? Grades aren’t a measure of your worth as a human being—they’re a measure of your ability to satisfactorily complete a given task, which may or may not be relevant to you and your future. Keep perspective as you work to improve.

Can you be successful at something you’re not naturally good at? Absolutely, but you have to acknowledge that you’ll have to make up for the talent gap with work ethic.

Can I recover from a big mistake? Every one of the adults in your life has and you will be able to also—not if it happens, but when it happens.

Is it better not to take risks in order to avoid mistakes? Absolutely, positively not.

Meanwhile, in our standardized testing/high-stakes accountability culture, music and the fine arts are under increased scrutiny, because so much of what students learn through the arts cannot be quantified in a rubric. A generation ago this was okay, but somehow now the conventional wisdom would have you believe that only the learning that can be quantified through a grading rubric is what is valuable. This is of course, baloney—but we need to keep reminding students, their parents and our community members as to why the unquantifiable aspects of music learning are some of the very most important.

Earlier this year, I asked a focus group of students about what they thought needed improvement in band and orchestra. I was surprised to hear so many students say something along the lines of “I enjoy class and feel like I’m learning, but I’m not exactly sure what I’m supposed to be learning.” Because if you are a student in high school right now, if you can’t quantify it, it doesn’t count! If I can’t list it in a rubric or a syllabus, they don’t easily perceive it as “learning.” We have to change that perception. At Sunday night’s annual band banquet, I asked the following questions to help illustrate this point—and while they are obviously geared toward band, it doesn’t take much to see how similar questions could be applied to other areas of music or any fine arts class for that matter:

“What is the educational value of band—our ability to learn to create great musicians, or our ability to learn to create great people?”

“How does band, an activity in which nothing less than 100% accuracy is the acceptable standard, teach you to be your best in all things that you do?”

“How does music, a discipline in which every person can improve but no person can be a master, encourage you to be ambitious?” (By the way, I’m pretty sure the biggest thing in which every human being participates that cannot be mastered but can always be improved upon is something we call LIFE).

“What have the many mistakes and frustrations that come with playing an instrument, tossing a flag, or marching a drill taught you about how to handle setbacks or adversity?”

“What have you learned about integrity when in band, you not only have to be accountable to me as your teacher, but also to dozens of your peers who depend on you to get things right? Or accountable to an audience who expects you to be as close to perfect as possible?”

“What has band, an activity where it is inherent that you rely on other people for your own success, taught you about trusting those other people?”

“Band is ripe with leadership opportunities—when you reach a point where you have the power to make a difference and your moment comes, do you know how to recognize it or not? Will you let the moment pass you by? Or will you seize it?”


How about THOSE questions for educational accountability? Forget bubble sheets—NOBODY has greater accountability of student learning than arts education. Music instruction in particular is inherently high stakes…just without the bubble sheets. Every day in music classrooms across the country, a continuous loop of immediate assessment->constructive feedback->guided practice->demonstration of knowledge/ability takes place.

We even have a word for it: Rehearsal.

Challenge the conventional wisdom about what constitutes learning, academic rigor, and accountability in public education. Music is second to none when it comes to student accountability and learning—I wish we could quantify that better…but also wish that our conventional wisdom were not that only the quantifiable counts. Take an inventory about what is most important in your life—unquantifiable aspects of love, happiness, fulfillment and success are doubtlessly at the top of that list. If we want for the same to be true for future generations, the time to instill the value of what cannot necessarily be quantified is now.


Discuss: “What Really Counts?”

  1. May 20, 2015 at 7:24 am #

    I don’t often comment on these blogs, but came across this and felt complelled. You have put into words the intangible benefits of discipline over time, perseverance, and hard work that comes with success in the music, dance and sports which cannot be measured. These are all qualities that will make these students succeed in whatever they choose. It is these intangibles that will carry them into the future regardless of their career path.

    Posted by Gretchen Medich
    • May 20, 2015 at 11:25 am #

      Thank you for your comments. I couldn’t agree more and am glad you introduced sports into the conversation as well. Speaking of conventional wisdom, the conventional wisdom about sports and the arts being at odds is also baloney (at least in schools like ours that are savvy enough to value both). In my opinion, if you sat down with any good coach and any good music teacher and asked them to list the top ten things that they would hope students gain from participating in their activity, I would wager that those two lists would be far more similar than different–and that neither list would likely be specific to sports or music, but rather to those “intangibles” you mentioned. I don’t know how true this is in other schools, but I happy to say that from a music teacher’s perspective at QV, every single coach I’ve ever interacted with here has been far more interested in developing students as young people than they are in developing athletes with a particular allegiance to their sport. For my part, I’ve tried to do the same–I’ve had several students over the years who have left music to focus more on one thing or another, but if it is apparent that doing so is the best “fit” for the growth of that student’s “intangibles,” then I really can’t complain.

      Where I am most concerned is where students are cutting out EVERYTHING that does not relate to an AP or Honors class (or a course that will put them on track for a particular AP or Honors class), something STEM-related, or something otherwise related to something that will be measured on a standardized test, simply because the conventional wisdom says that these are the things students MUST focus on to be successful in both school and life. Not every course of action is right for every student. Many students cut out the arts classes that they would otherwise be interested in (and would learn from), and then load up on so many advanced classes (some of which don’t carry interest or a sense of relevancy for them) that they feel like a study hall is necessary (it’s usually not). The result is that students and sometimes their parents believe they simply “do not have time” for things they might actually want to do at the expense of thinking they need unstructured free time to complete work for things they might not actually want to do, but feel like they have to do. While I know I am generalizing here, I also know that every year I see students making class/schedule choices that are more geared toward a false idea of what they think they “have to do” in order to be successful rather than what they may want to do. I admit that some students are both capable and interested in taking all the highest-level classes in a variety of different content areas that may or may not relate to one another and/or that students intended college major–but those students are not the norm and while everyone sees that being an academic high-achiever is a path to success for them, few see the large sacrifices those students have to make in order to achieve their goals. Without a realistic idea and acceptance of those sacrifices, students wind up making choices they regret (such as quitting band for instance!) Again, I know I’m generalizing, but it is a trend that I and others in arts education are seeing statewide. Within our own school, I am glad to see students later in their HS career coming back to band and orchestra after having realized that quitting was a mistake–this year in band alone we had 4 seniors rejoin the program after having quit several years earlier.

      One more thought going back to athletics: the one place where I do see a difference between athletics and music is that, because music is mostly an in-school activity and athletics are mostly extra-curricular, in general music and the other arts are more threatened by our current educational climate. It’s far too easy to push music to the side during the school day in order to make time for things that have a greater perception of importance. At the end of the day, I hope people realize that “education” is not arts vs. athletics, or extra-curriculars vs. curriculars, or STEM vs. STEAM. It should be arts AND athletics AND extra-curriculars AND curriculars…. It is possible to balance all of those things–but we need people to realize that balancing does not put them at a disadvantage–if anything it is quite the contrary.

      Thanks again for reading and commenting!

      Posted by Cory Neville
  2. May 20, 2015 at 11:56 am #

    This post is so eloquently perfect. I’ve been loving reading and keeping up with all things QVMB recently, and reading this post has filled my heart with warmth. The amount that band, or the arts in general really, taught me in my high school years has been way more useful to me than the things I was taught in other classes. Not necessarily because of the material, but because of the difference in ethics. In my other classes, whether on purpose or not, grades and marks were prioritized. And now, two years since I’ve graduated, the scores I got and the stresses I had are irrelevant. They don’t affect my life at all. Which isn’t to say they don’t matter, they certainly do for a lot of people and at the time they did matter. But the ground didn’t break open and the skies didn’t turn red because I got less than an 1700 on my SATs. The stress I was put under made it feel like that could have happened, though.

    In my arts classes, I was always taught that improvement and challenging myself were most important. That even when I felt I had reached my limit, I could push just a little bit harder. I was taught how to work with people I didn’t get along with. I was taught how to lead and how being part of a team that creates something beautiful is the most rewarding thing imaginable. Those are the types of lessons that can’t be quantified or put with a letter grade, but that’s what learning is all about. It was things I learned in my arts and music classes that I still carry with me every single day.

    You truly are an amazing educator and I feel incredibly lucky to have gotten to learn from you. Thank you for this post.

    Posted by Alex Cusma
    • May 20, 2015 at 12:09 pm #

      Wow. You seriously made my day. I was lucky to have you guys helping to lay the groundwork for the successes we are starting to see now. I know it was not easy for all of you at the time with so much change in the direction of the program, but it is paying off and we could not have done it without the students trusting that a different direction might pay off for future students that would be in the program long after you had left.

      I’m humbled by your comments and that you chose to share them. Your message about perspective, stress and what you feel like you learned through the arts is very, very important and I hope you and the other alumni will keep sharing this message with others. Some students are simply not interested in school music, and I understand that–especially if it is evident they have a passion elsewhere that is teaching them the unquantifiable skills we’ve been discussing. Many students are interested in music study, choose to take school music and get the experience you describe. But the students in the middle–those who are interested and yet do not prioritize making time for music in their schedule–are missing out on an incredibly valuable experience…an experience that is life-changing for many. It should be unacceptable to us a community to allow those students to have to wait until they are older adults to realize that they made a mistake. How many students go to college, the military, a trade school or into the workforce after high school, have the same or similar realizations you’ve shared about stress and perspective, and regret falling prey to “conventional wisdom?”

      Good to hear from you Cuz!

      Posted by Cory Neville
      • May 20, 2015 at 1:23 pm #

        I agree whole heartedly. Those kids don’t know what they’re missing and what an impact it can have on their lives. Even if someone told them, I don’t know if they would believe it (I probably wouldn’t have at that age). But there is a way to reach them and there is a way to make them even more excited about music. i have full confidence that if anyone can figure it out, it’s the great minds working over there and I know us alumni will do our best to nudge them and say “Hey…they’re right.”

        Always happy to give my two cents.
        And by the way, anytime You Dropped a Bomb on Me plays on the radio while I’m at work, I conduct to myself and desperately try to push it faster and laugh when it doesn’t work… Old habits die hard.

        Posted by Alex Cusma