From the Trenches: My Christmas List for Santa

Mike Lawson • Commentary • December 24, 2014

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Appropriate holiday gift ideas for notable names in the music ed world

Dear Santa,
I hope you are well. It sure did seem like the North Pole relocated to North Jersey with all the snow we had last year. I don’t know if you can do anything about this, but would you please ask your pal Old Man Winter to lighten up? I know the folks in Buffalo would certainly appreciate it! I hope Mrs. Claus and the reindeer are doing well. If they are anything like the deer leaving their little “presents” all over my yard, they must be getting plenty to eat! Thank you for taking the time to read this and for considering providing the following presents to those I have deemed either most worthy or most in need. So, without further delay:

For UK Education Secretary Nicky Morgan: A new job.
The Education Secretary stated at a recent event: “The arts and humanities were what you chose because they were useful for all kinds of jobs. Of course, now we know that couldn’t be further from the truth, that the subjects that keep young people’s options open and unlock doors to all sorts of careers are the STEM subjects.”

Huh? Of course Morgan cites absolutely no proof supporting her statement. STEM = good. Arts and humanities = bad. Well, tell that to Steve Jobs, Jef Raskin, and the entire MIT Masters Computer Science program! With this kind of narrow-minded, philistine approach to education, she should not be allowed anywhere near children – let alone have any say over their education. Calling Sir Ken Robinson! Please save your homeland!
For All Educational Policy Makers: A new definition of “Core.”
It seems the only thing that counts anymore is Common Core, and Common Core is not really “common.” Common Core is about language arts and math, period. Two subject areas – not four, or six, or nine. Two. Last time I checked, history is “common.” So is science. Our education leaders and policy makers need to stop pretending Common Core is about all subjects – it is not! Are there some connections between subjects? Yes, but they are few and far between. We do not teach music to teach literacy or math. We teach music to teach music. We measure student outcomes on their ability to play, sing, or compose, and measure their growth based on how they mature musically. Stop trying to make authentic connections where they do not exist and stop pretending that all we need to educate our children is Common Core. 

For the Developers of PARCC and Smarter Balanced State Tests: A calculator.
The inventors of these tests can’t even pass these tests (at least in math). That’s because they have failed to determine a) the actual amount of time these tests will take away from learning time, b) how much these tests will cost, and c) if these tests will actually, you know, work! Other than that, they are awesome! Schools in various parts of the country are now reporting the moving or cancellation of spring concerts, field trips, and extra ensembles due to concerns over these new tests. The fact that they are now all computer-based was supposed to make this more efficient. But alas, it seems they failed to take into account the wireless bandwidth and number of devices needed for the students to take the tests (as well as the keyboarding skills). Oh, and who pays for the bandwidth and the millions of new devices needed by the way? You and I. Cheaper? No. Less time testing? No. More valid measures? No. So why exactly are we doing this again?

For the Developers of the Value Added Model of Teacher Assessments: Reading glasses.
There have been a flurry of reports from noted researchers and educational research associations clearly pointing out that there is no evidence to support the use of value-added measures and student test scores to evaluate a teacher. In fact, the evidence that does exist shows that this system is deeply flawed and doesn’t work. Even the American Education Research Association has called foul, stating they “do not reflect the content or quality of teachers’ instruction.” Now there’s a damning statement. So either the people promoting this model can’t read or they are willfully ignoring the facts. Either way, it’s bad. What happened to the “research-based decision making” that was supposed to infuse the new education reform movement? They have kept the “decision making” but abandoned the “research.” 

To All Music Educators: A 36-hour day.
Music educators were pressed for time before the recent round of education reform initiatives – now they are drowning. Lesson plans, curriculum maps, SGOs, evaluation forms, evaluation pre- and post-conferences – whew! It has gotten to the point where music educators spend more time on paperwork than they do teaching. Enough already. Can we please get some common sense back into the system? Let my people teach!

For Lassiter High School Director of Bands Ginny Markum: A peaceful year.
During Mrs. Markum’s inaugural year as the director of bands at Lassiter High School in Georgia, she had the unenviable task of following the legendary Alfred Watkins. As with any transition, change can be hard. Ginny had no idea how hard! After completing her first marching band season (including a Bands of America regional championship win) there was an attempt by a few disgruntled band parents to oust her from the program with tactics that would even make Machiavelli blush (complete with false accusations, innuendo, and an unexplainable level of vitriol I have never seen before). The whole escapade could become a new B-rated film franchise: Band Parents Gone Wild. Fortunately, the Board of Education would have none of it. Mrs. Markum was able to hold off those out to slander her and has just completed her sophomore season. So for Ginny, here is some peace and quiet. For the crazy parents, please go get a life. May this be a lesson for band directors everywhere!

For the Ohio State Marching Band: Common sense.
After everything that happened with the unfortunate hazing death of Florida A&M drum major Robert Champion, you would have thought that everyone across the collegiate band world would understand that there is no place for hazing in our community. None! Apparently the memo did not make it to Ohio State. An investigation has led to the dismissal of highly regarded director Jonathan Waters after uncovering a long-standing culture of hazing and sexual harassment. This coming on the heels of Ohio State being hailed around the world (and twice in this column) for their innovative approach to halftime design and instruction.

 And while we are on the subject of hazing…

For the Florida A&M Marching Band: Closure.
In the case of the conviction of a former band member in relationship to the death of drum major Robert Champion (in which a total of 15 students were charged, 11 have settled, and three await trial) one can only hope that the horrible lessons coming from this tragedy will allow the program the opportunity to reach new heights.

For Sayreville (N.J.) Superintendent Dr. Richard Labbe: A speaking tour.
In his first two months as the new superintendent, Dr. Labbe was faced with a crisis of unimaginable proportions when, over the objections of many in the community, he decided to shut down the perennial championship football program due to severe criminal hazing uncovered in the program. His thoughtful approach and swift decision making is a model for how schools must put the needs of all students first, despite the risk of scuttling a championship football program.   

To the Sayreville (N.J.) Marching Band: A cleaned up football program.
Cancellation of the storied Sayreville High School football program has had far reaching collateral damage, including the loss of the Sayreville Marching Band. The band had always been a respectable program. They deserved better than to be caught up in the criminal antics of seven individuals. Kudos to all the people and organizations who reached out to the band to provide additional performance opportunities.

To Maestro Gerard Schwarz and the All Star Orchestra: a third season!
The brilliant idea of bringing together the world’s greatest orchestral musicians to record musical works for broadcast and educational purposes (all while using advanced technological tools and more cameras than you can shake a stick at) has been a true stroke of genius. In the first few months as the only music education content on the Khan academy, the All Star Orchestra’s lessons have reached more than 250,000 unique users who have consumed nearly 1 million hours of content. This is an exceptional start to this brilliant project. Season two airs in the spring of 2015 on PBS.

To the New Jersey Department of Education: An “atta boy”!
Due to the forward thinking inside the DOE, New Jersey has become the first state in the nation to include arts education performance measures in the individual school performance reports (think school report cards) released annually by the Department of Education. This major breakthrough has helped engage policy makers, citizens, and the media in discussions about the important place of music and the arts in our schools, as well as how to help schools increase both the quality and quantity of music and arts education being offered to our students. This is a model for other states to emulate. 

To University of Delaware Marching Hens Band Directors Heidi Sarver: 20 more years!
When she arrived at the University of Delaware, the band had only 147 students in the band. Twenty years and thousands of students later, the band now numbers 330, is the favorite of Vice President Joe Biden, and has become one of the elite collegiate marching programs in the country. Along with her trusty assistant director, Jim Ancona, they have found a winning formula based on respect, honor, dignity, and a commitment to excellence. A protégé of the legendary band director George Parks, both as a drum major and a band director, we can only hope Heidi has 20 more years sharing her knowledge and inspiring our youth.

To Music for All: 90 more years!
In 2004, my family and I sat in our family room and launched a new non-profit organization: Music for All Foundation. We had no idea then that 10 years later Music for All would become a national leader in music education, touching the lives of more than 300,000 students every year. May the organization grow to reach the century mark touching the lives of millions more!

To the Tarpon Springs (Florida) High School Outdoor Performance Ensemble – A new Trophy Case!
As the 2014 Grand National Champions, they have set the bar high for those that come after them. Long recognized as one of the elite music programs in the country for the high level of musicianship across all the musical ensembles, the Tarpon Springs Outdoor Performance Ensemble has truly reached new heights. Congratulations to director Kevin Ford and the entire Tarpon Springs family for capping a season for the ages!

And lastly, for all of my readers…
My sincerest thanks and gratitude for the work you do all year long to bring the joy, wonder, inspiration, and excitement of music to millions of students.
Have a wonderful holiday and an exceptional new year!
Robert B. Morrison is the founder of Quadrant Arts Education Research, an arts education research and intelligence organization. In addition to other related pursuits in the field of arts education advocacy, Morrison has helped create, found, and run Music for All, the VH1 Save The Music Foundation, and, along with Richard Dreyfuss and the late Michael Kaman, the Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation. He may be reached directly at

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