Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Essential Personnel Only

In my career as a music educator, I think I’ve heard it all.

Which is a foolish statement, since I’m not done yet. But, specifically, I’ve heard lots of variations on the theme, “well, music isn’t as crucial a subject as language arts, or math.”

Occasionally, this has come in the form of sympathy, where if there are cuts to be made to public school budgets, we music teachers (along with our colleagues in the art room, theatre, home ec kitchen lab, shop, etc.) work under the anticipation that we’ll be amongst the first to be let go. “We’re always on the bubble,” I have murmured.

Sometimes, this comes in the form of a version of … well, I don’t know if relief is the right word, but the usual quote is, “well, you don’t teach MCAS subjects, so you’re not quite as stressed out as those who do, right?” – MCAS being the local Commonwealth of Massachusetts (God save it!) acronym, and also pejorative term for, standardized tests. I have been known to half-joke, “if they ever decide to pilot a music-MCAS, I’m going into insurance.” Give or take a fine-arts course requirement, I always saw as a luxury the relatively large percentage of students who were in my music classes because they wanted to. Because they enjoyed it. Because they got something out of it … and frequently reported that in retrospect, those classes turned out to be really important in their development as well-rounded humans.

As often, music teachers hear (or overhear) the ol’ “music isn’t as crucial a subject as language arts, or math” refrain [and if you studied music, you know why calling it a refrain is exactly accurate!] in the context of what is considered important in education, and what is not.


In the last three decades, it’s been discovered that A Nation was At Risk, and that we must Leave No Child Behind, and that we must Race To The Top, and that we must ask whether our children is learning.

Amidst that environment, forces from within and, increasingly, outside of the sphere trained education professionals have emphasized that we must prepare our children for their inevitable role as cogs in the great works of a strong, competitive American workforce. Must remain economically competitive, first and foremost, after all.

No doubt, it’s important for people to be able to write well, to read well, to perform math well. If you ask me, randomly, out of nowhere with no warning, what are the important skills for children to develop so they can function in our society, I admit that I’ll autopilot back to the “readin’, writin’, and ‘rithmetic” thought.

Nonetheless, in this space, I have previously written a sufficient number of posts that if you’re a regular reader, you get the idea: it’s important for children to have access and exposure to the fine arts. Never mind the various studies that line up musical participation with higher test scores, and other very fine but arguably extra-musical benefits. That’s fine. But as Wynton Marsalis, one of America’s most well-known advocates for music education, has noted many and oft: Americans are in danger of losing their culture. We as arts educators are fighting to keep our population aware of the existence (never mind the effect) of Aaron Copland, Louis Armstrong, Madeleine L’Engle, Ansel Adams, Al Hirschfeld, Martha Graham, and Duke Ellington (for openers).

So, no news there.

Having spent some time as a teacher, and (happily) having been a student of some positively stellar teachers throughout my life, I have come face-to-face with the requirements of the profession. Comprehensive knowledge of subject, yes; but, equally, comprehensive knowledge of the craft of teaching, ability to work with children (never mind all the different kinds of children that come from all different backgrounds and bring all kinds of different baggage), and – something you can’t quantify in a test or from looking at a resume; you have to see it in action to know you’re looking at it – utter love for the activity and its participants.

A long-standing friend of mine heads a major university’s undergraduate teacher training program, and he blogs nearly constantly – and eloquently indeed, backing up his assertions with an almost ridiculous amount of research – about the daunting list of qualities that is required of teachers to be good teachers. He has also struck me as something of a ferocious guard dog to the profession, when he has written about the additional responsibilities that are increasingly being required of teachers once they enter the public-school teaching, thanks to (to be frank) the meddling of policy-makers whose “ed reform” philosophies appear to be motivated by factors having more to do with profits than with any kind of genuine care and concern for our children. He’s an often delightful thorn-in-the-side of people who really ought to get themselves gone from our game.

And he writes with the aforementioned utter love for the teaching profession, and concern for the young people that he and his colleagues are trying to prepare for that career. And he’s bugged, to put it mildly, by the environment that those new teachers are likely to get thrown headlong into. But he’s fighting the good fight, no matter how uphill it may be getting.

And then this sort of thing happens.


The headline read, “Late Night Budget Action Dilutes Teacher License Rules”.

Anyone with a bachelor’s degree could be hired and licensed to teach sixth- through 12th-grade English, math, social studies or science in Wisconsin under a provision slipped into the state budget proposal by a Republican lawmaker”, wrote the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. “And any person with relevant experience — even a high school dropout — could be licensed to teach in any other non-core academic subject in those grades, according to the provision.” [The emphasis is mine. Read on.]

This provision was approved as part of a K-12 education budget package by the Wisconsin legislature’s Joint Finance Committee last week in a vote that took place at 1:30 in the morning.

The measure’s chief legislative proponent claimed that its purpose was to help rural schools find and retain qualified teachers in hard-to-fill subjects. The executive director of the Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance riposted that the measure “totally destroys any licensure requirements that we have in Wisconsin.”

In an interview, the Wisconsin legislator said that the idea was “to help schools fill specific niche areas, not to help people bypass a four-year degree and some kind of formal teacher training.” [The emphasis is again mine. Continue, please, to read on.]

A spokeswoman for the state teachers union said that teaching requires more than subject-matter expertise; and that a teaching license provides some assurance that the person has received training in how to teach children.

But then I read this summary of the news story offered by Wisconsin Public Radio’s news website. And it may have been just an unfortunate turn of phrase … but words matter, particularly in the journalism business, and I don’t think the single word that got my attention is insignificant. I think it reflects to presumption of far too many people, inside and outside of the education profession:

Last week, a provision was placed in the state budget by a Republican lawmaker to allow anyone with a bachelor’s degree to be licensed and hired to teach core academic subjects. Under the same provision, no education would be needed to teach non-essential classes in middle and high schools.” [The emphasis is … everybody sing along … mine.]

I’m quite certain that amongst those non-essential classes … is music.


This is the uphill battle that arts educators have fought forever, and fight right now, and likely will have to continue to fight.

If it doesn’t help you in the world of the global competitive workforce … if it doesn’t get you ahead in the business world … if it doesn’t have a direct effect on The Economy … well, then it’s not essential. Ed reformers insist. Legislative lobbyists insist. Dear Lord, even public radio (on purpose or not) parrots the terminology that relegates any subject having to do with art, culture, or anything else that isn’t standardized-testable, to the academic underclass of non-essential.

Non-core academic subjects. Niche areas. Non-essential classes.

These people.


May 28, 2015 Posted by | arts, blogging, current events, education, government, journalism, music, npr, teachers | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment