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In the Trenches: A Defining Moment

Mike Lawson • Commentary • June 11, 2015

Music leaders gather for breakfast to celebrate the release of the National Standards for Arts Education and the adding the arts as a core subject held at the National Press Club March 11, 1994. Pictured from left to right are: Michael Greene, president and CEO – National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS); Secretary of Education Richard Riley; John Mahlmann – executive director, MENC; Bob Morrison – executive director, American Music Conference and director of Market Development, NAMM; Larry Linkin, president and CEO, NAMMOver the course of my time of more than 25 years as a music and arts education advocate, I have seen how our field has been shaped by a series of defining moments – those actions, whether isolated events or sustained efforts that – when looked back on through the lenses of history – have changed the trajectory of our field.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015 was just such a moment.

On this day, Senators Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray unveiled the new federal education bill (the revision to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act) that was just unanimously passed by full Senate Education Committee on April 16, 2015. The new bill has much to celebrate. An earlier bill (released in January) caused great concern because of the elimination of all core subjects, while retaining testing requirements for a few select subjects. This was of great concern to music and arts advocates across the country because of the hard won gains to include the arts as a core subject (accomplished with President Bill Clinton’s signing of the Goals 2000 Educate America Act of 1994 – the predecessor to both No Child Left Behind and the just passed revision). It was also concerning, because a de facto set of core subjects would be established based solely on testing requirements for the states.

What is important to note in the new Alexander/Murray bill, is that it not only adds back core subjects (including “arts”), it now goes further by explicitly listing music as a core subject.

The importance and magnitude of this achievement cannot be overstated.

This is a defining moment.

To understand this, I would like to provide some context based on defining moments of the recent past.

I had the good fortune of being on the leadership team that worked on the National Commission for Music Education and the National Coalition for Music Education – a partnership between the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM), The Recording Academy (NARAS), Music Educators National Conference (now known as NAfME), and the American Music Conference (now the NAMM Foundation), back in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In this role, I was witness to the defining moments outlined below.

A Defining Moment: Music and Arts Omitted from Core Subjects

 In the summer of 1989, the National Governors Association unveiled the National Education Goals. This was the first time any group had attempted to define, at the federal level, what the core subjects for our schools should include. The goals – released in Charlottesville, VA at a meeting chaired by Governor of Arkansas Bill Clinton – stated:

Goal Three: “children will demonstrate competency in core subjects English, math, science, history and geography.”

The omission of music and arts education from our nation’s educational agenda was the spark that brought together the partners of the National Commission for Music Education and ultimately led to the presentation of the report Growing Up Complete, to Congress, making the case for the importance of music education for EVERY CHILD. This was followed by the formation of the National Coalition for Music Education in March of 1991, to carry out the recommendations of the report.

Later in 1991, President George H.W. Bush announced America 2000 – and, again, core subjects were listed as English, math, science, history, and geography. Again, no music. No arts.

All the requests to change goals and include the arts as a part of the goals were met with blunt replies of “No,” from then-President Bush, then-Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander, and even then-head of the National Governors Association’s Education Goals Panel Roy Romer.

For the previous 2-1/2 years, the coalition had battled for “the arts” inclusion and recognition as part of education reform. All suggestions and requests for change were constantly rebuffed. No matter how strong the case being made and no matter how influential the leaders bringing the issue forward on the community’s behalf, the answer was always the same: No!

A Defining Moment: Mike Greene on the Grammy Awards

Mike Greene, angered by the lack of progress with national leaders, took the stage at the Grammy Awards on Tuesday, February 25, 1992, and in front of 1.5 billion people, like a preacher from the pulpit, launched the following salvo:

In the near future, you’re going to be hearing a great deal about the government’s plan for education. It’s called AMERICA 2000. 

It’s a supposed educational blueprint for the next millennium.  And guess what?  Among the goals, the words ‘art’ and ‘music’ are not even mentioned one time.  The very idea that you can educate young people in a meaningful way without music and art is simply absurd…

In an effort to head off the negative press, the U.S. Department of Education announced, the very next day, the “America 2000 Arts Partnership,” just in time to be printed in the paper. It would be three weeks before the formal details of the plan were released. When they were, music and arts education were, at least, invited to the table. The plan spoke of National Standards for Arts Education, but stopped short of embracing the arts as a core subject. It would take a change of administration and a new Secretary of Education to make that happen.

A Defining Moment: Secretary of Education Riley Adds the Arts to Core Subjects

With the change of administration after the 1992 election, a new Secretary of Education, Richard Riley, entered the scene.

After being in office for less than one month and following intensive discussions with the coalition leaders, on February 23, 1993, the new U.S. Secretary of Education released the following statement on the importance of Arts in education:

“As we work to improve the quality of education for all children, the arts must be recognized as a vital part of our effort. The arts–including music, theater, dance, and visual arts–are a unique medium for communicating what is common to all of us as human beings and what is special to each of us as creative individuals. The arts provide valuable opportunities for understanding our cultural heritage and that of all other civilizations. The arts also enhance our nation’s economic competitiveness by developing creative problem-solving skills, imagination, self-discipline and attention to detail.

Emerging national education standards will, for the first time, provide a clear vision of the knowledge, skills, and concepts that all students need to learn through studying the arts.

Building on existing arts education partnerships, the Department will implement and support new education reform efforts which insure that the arts are an integral part of every child’s education.”

The overwhelming response to this statement from music and arts educators, advocates, and supporters, from across the country, gave the secretary the courage to then change the National Education Goals and add “the arts,” as a core subject, to the new education legislation: Goals 2000.

Intensive lobbying was needed for the next year by the music and arts community to make sure the arts remained as a core subject. Letter writing, telephone and fax campaigns (remember this is pre-mainstream internet and email usage) were deployed. Kathy Welling (NAfME advocate extraordinaire) and I took to the capitol to meet with representatives and senators (even during an ice storm that paralyzed the city), to ensure that there were enough “votes” in town, before the Easter break, to pass the final bill. In the gallery with us were Secretary of Education Riley, Chief of Staff Terry Peterson, NEA Deputy Chair Scott Shanklin, and USDOE staffers Ted Rebarber and Jennifer Davis. With the final votes cast, hugs and high fives were all over the place. We had won!

A Defining Moment: Arts as Core Subjects Signed into Law

On March 31, 1994, the President signed Goals 2000 and the arts (dance, music, theater, and visual arts) were codified into federal law as a core subject. It took a full five years to make it happen. But it happened!

Since that time, a whole host of other “moments” have helped advance music and arts education in our country. From the first National Standards for Arts Education (1994), their implementation in various forms across most states in the nation, the advocacy efforts surrounding the film Mr. Holland’s Opus (1996), the creation of the Support Music Coalition (2003), the expansion of research documenting the many cognitive, social, emotional and educational values of music, increasing support from the public, a new version of the National Standards (2014), and an expanding presence and influence in both our nation’s capital and in state capitals across the country, are just the short list of successes. More than 20 years of advancements set in motion by relentless efforts to make the arts a core subject.

 A Defining Moment: Music as a Core Subject

The new explicit inclusion of music, when signed into law, will set the stage for future advancement of the field. No longer will there be discussions by lawmakers in states regarding whether or not the word “arts” includes music (it does and it did when it was added to Goals 2000, but has become somewhat obfuscated over the years). The “music” call out will bring this to an end. This accomplishment will create the positive conditions to further empower state and local leaders to advance music education with a clearly articulated federal imprimatur about music’s role as an equal partner in the education of our students. I have always argued that our most important advocacy efforts at the federal level were to keep the government from screwing things up. This achievement will actually be something that will help!

Now, I share all of this to highlight the magnitude of what has just been announced. Getting to this point was certainly a herculean effort by NAfME, their supporters, and members across the country. I am sure there is a tremendous backstory that I hope someday will be told regarding what it took to get to this important point. However, we are a long way from the finish line. There is indeed much more work to be done.

The promise of music being listed as a core subject will go unfulfilled if the Alexander/Murray bill fails to be passed by Congress and signed into law by the President. The next 20 years of advancement for our field will be greatly aided, or impeded, by this outcome.

How Will This Moment Be Remembered?

So, how will this moment end? How will historians look back on this time? What story will be written 20 years from now?

For context, I am sharing a story that was first shared with me by Bruce Boston, who was the author of Growing Up Complete: The Imperative for Music Education. Those who have seen one of my keynote speeches over the years will recognize it, since it is a story I use to make my final point. Given the title of this article, you will soon understand why it is fitting:

There hangs in the White House, a famous painting of President Theodore Roosevelt by John Singer Sargent. And like most fine paintings, an intriguing story exists behind it.

It seems that Sargent had been cooling his heels in the White House for several days waiting for an appointment to see the President to schedule a time for a sitting. But Roosevelt was always too busy.

One day, unexpectedly, Sargent encountered the President at the bottom of the stairway.

“Mr. President, Mr. President!” he asked, “When might there be a convenient time for you to pose?”

“Now” bellowed the President

And today there at the foot of the White House stairway stands Roosevelt in Portrait, his hand on the same newel post.

It is the best portrait of one of America’s great presidents because it captures Roosevelt, as he was in life as a man of energy and purpose, on his way somewhere.

“Moments come and moments go,” the president was telling Sargent.

“Here’s yours. Seize it. Do your best”

It is a message for all of us.

Music education in our nation has been advanced by a series of defining moments. How does THIS moment… THIS chance to codify music as a core subject, end? It is up to each of us to use our personal and professional influence, and networks both formal and informal, to do everything we can to push this to the finish line and write the end of the story, for ourselves, and for our children. When it is all said and done, we must each look back and know that we did all that we could to ensure that the promise of this moment lived up to its full potential.

Moments do come and moments do go.

For this generation of music educators and supporters:

Here’s your moment…

 Seize it.


Robert Morrison is the president and CEO of Quadrant Research and the founder of Music for All. He served as the director of Market Development for NAMM from 1993 through 1998 where he oversaw the work of the National Coalition for Music Education in partnership with the Recording Academy, National Association for Music Education, and the American Music Conference. He may be reached at bob@quadrantresearch.org.

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