The Untold Story: How Music and Arts Education Became Core Subjects

SBO Staff • ChoralFrom the TrenchesMarch 2012 • April 5, 2012

Share This:

By Bob Morrison

Last March, I wrote about the 20-year anniversary of the release of the landmark report “Growing Up Complete: The Imperative for Music Education” by the National Commission on Music Education, which was a partnership between NAMM (Larry Linkin, Karl Bruhn), NARAS: The Recording Academy (Mike Greene), and MENC/NAfME (John Mahlmann). I noted how in March of 1991, several hundred people from music education, the record business (yes they did sell records at one time), the music products industry, and government leaders all gathered at the JW Marriott Hotel in Washington D.C. to release this groundbreaking report to Congress and the Bush I administration. This was the culmination of two years of organizing of the broader music community against the threat of marginalization in our schools.

The Commission, with its work complete, was disbanded.

Immediately, a new group was formed out of this meeting to lead the national campaign and thus began the National Coalition for Music Education. MENC, NAMM, and NARAS were joined by the American Music Conference (AMC) to lead the push to implement the recommendation from “Growing Up Complete.”

I noted in that article that there was more to the true story of how the arts actually came to be recognized as a core subject. Today, borrowing a phrase from that historic commentator Paul Harvey, here is the rest of the story… and it is extraordinary…

The Back Story

In 1989, the “National Education Goals” were unveiled by the National Governors Association. The goals, released in the summer of 1989 at a meeting chaired by the Governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton stated:

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

Something missing? Yep: no music and no arts!

Well this omission of music and arts education from our nations educational agenda was the spark that brought together the partners of the National Commission for Music Education and ultimately the report “Growing Up Complete” followed by the formation of the National Coalition for Music Education in the March of 1991.

Later in 1991 President Bush announced America 2000… and again core subjects were listed as English, math, science, history, and geography. Again-no music, no arts.

All requests to change Goal Three of America 2000 and include the arts were met with blunted replies of “No” from then President Bush (I), then Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander (who had served as Governor of Tennessee), and even head of the National Governors Association’s Education Goals Panel Roy Romer, among others.

The Comment Heard  “Around the World”

Then, in a November 1991 letter to MENC, secretary of education Alexander, the highest ranking education official in this country and himself a musician, called music and arts education…


He went on to write: “If it were my community, I would want to be sure that the school provided music and art.” These words would soon haunt him.

This provided the coalition partners with the kind of proof that was needed to get people moving to fight for our music and arts programs. Calling arts education “extracurricular” was like waving a red cape in front of an angry bull.

For the previous two-and-a-half 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 was made and no matter how influential the leaders were who brought the issue forward on the community’s behalf.

But, in one ten-day time period – almost exactly 20 years ago – because of the efforts of just a few people, everything changed.

The Bully Pulpit of One

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 at the pulpit, launched the following salvo:

...America’s creative environment affords all of its citizens the opportunity to create and appreciate music, and that begins with education. 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… If current trends persist, music will no longer be a universal entitlement, but one of the markers future historians point to as the beginning of a cultural caste system tied to personal and class economics… If a child has never been inspired by a poem, if a kid has never been moved to tears by a great symphonic work… why on earth should we believe that our future generations could even be bothered by the banning of records or the burning of books?

Immediately following the show, Secretary Alexander called a friend in Nashville’s music business and asked (sanitized for publication): “Who is Mike Green and what is his problem?”

The Maryville Two

On the Friday of the week following the Grammy Awards, a concert had been scheduled to protest the lack of inclusion of the arts in the National Education Goals and the threatened cuts to the music program in Maryville, Blount County, Tennessee. The concert was organized by the choral director, Stacey Wilner, and the art teacher, Carla Thomas, with the support of the Tennessee Coalition for Music Education (an affiliate of the National Coalition). The second half of the concert would open with an empty stage to represent the loss of the music program. Country stars were sending in letters of support, Mike Greene had considered attending, and there were rumors and local newspaper stories about Garth Brooks (the hottest star at the time) attending the concert to support the protest.

Why was this so important? Because this is the hometown of Lamar Alexander, the same person who said, “If it were my community I would want to be sure that the school provided music and art.” Well, this was his community and he was about to be held accountable for his words. The secretary of education became so obsessed with the potential for bad publicity in his hometown he went so far as to have his public affairs officer contact a local newspaper and pose as a parent to see if Garth Brooks would be at the concert for fear of the additional negative media that would create. That’s right you read this correctly. And yes… this was amazing!

The combination of being called out on the Grammys telecast and the potential to be publicly embarrassed in his own hometown proved to be too much.


In an effort to head of the negative press, Secretary Alexander announced from a pay phone in an airport to an education reporter for the Tennessean Newspaper in Nashville, the creation of the “America 2000 Arts Partnership,” just in time to be printed in the paper the day of the concert (March 6, 1992). Think about this. A major new education initiative for music and arts education for the country coming from the US Department of Education is announced to an education reporter in Nashville! 

Which brings us to the main question: Did this decision have anything to do with… children? The answer, unfortunately, is no. It was all about politics and perceptions. This is a very important lesson that has driven the modern day arts education advocacy movement.

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 America 2000 Arts Partnership. 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 this happen.

The New Administration Seals the Victory

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 – on February 23, 1993 (we know for a fact this was strategically released on the eve of the Grammy Awards), the new US 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.”

I guess he saw the Grammy Awards from the previous year!

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.”

On March 31, 1994 President Clinton signed Goals 2000 and now music and the other Arts are codified into federal law as a core subject. That same month, the National Standards for Arts Education were released. Not long after new research studies would be published connecting music and arts education to all sorts of educational benefits.

Leading When It Matters

The battle the music and arts education community had waged for the inclusion of the arts as a core subject ended in victory largely due to that ten-day time period in 1992, between the Grammy Awards and the Maryville protest concert.

Mike Greene had nothing to gain by taking the Grammy stage on February 25, 1992 to deliver what is now the most important speech ever delivered on our behalf. Stacey Wilner and Carla Thomas had everything to lose – including their jobs – when they stood up against the system, against a sitting secretary of education, to fight for the rightful place of music and art in their school.

When the future of music and arts education hung in the balance these individuals did something. They did not know at the time their actions would be responsible for sending music and arts education into a new and higher trajectory. They all did stand up for what they believed regardless of the personal risk.

It is a lesson for us all.

As we look 20 years hence, it is clear the future of music and arts education in our nation will be determined by how individuals and groups work together to right now to face the challenges of our time, not based on self interest or personal gain, but based on doing the right thing for our students regardless of the personal risk… just as Mike and Stacey and Carla did 20 years ago.

So when you come face to face with a new challenges or opportunities in your school or district to fight for music and arts education for your students, I have one simple question: What will you do?

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, Mr. 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

The Latest News and Gear in Your Inbox - Sign Up Today!