What Really Counts?

Cory NevilleUncategorized

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.