Music education always & always looking forward.

The Path Forward for NAfME

In addition to the insane schedules that all music teachers run in May, it has been a week of reckoning for our national professional organization.

Over the course of the last week, there has been a great deal written about comments made by Michael Butera, the (former) Executive Director and CEO of NAfME (the National Association for Music Education) at a meeting organized by the National Endowment of the Arts that convened primarily to discuss equity, inclusion, and diversity in artistic organizations.  The most comprehensive report on the incident and the aftermath I've read so far was written by Howard Sherman on the Arts Integrity website.  

Remarks attributed to Butera indicated that Blacks and Latinos lacked the basic keyboarding skills to succeed in the music education profession, that music theory was too difficult a field of study for minority students, and that it was not his job to ensure that the board of his organization was racially or ethnically diverse.  Many regarded this first as hearsay, but these words and Butera's reaction to being called out over them has been corroborated by many present at that meeting.  Obviously, there has been a huge fallout from this.  Faculty members of some of the most notable music education faculties in the country, including the University of Michigan, Arizona State University, and one of my alma maters, The Florida State University, have made bold statements condemning Butera.  Whether or not he actually believes these things is at this point irrelevant; you can apologize for a wayward baseball all you want, but no amount of saying "I'm sorry" can actually fix a broken window.

 Butera has parted ways with the organization, in a move that I agree with.  But while some will see this as an end to the controversy, as NAfME said themselves in an e-mail to its membership, this is only the beginning of the difficult conversations we have yet to face within our membership.

Sadly, I was not surprised to hear that an educator, even one of Butera's stature, made these remarks.  I have heard similar remarks made by other music educators as well as other teachers of other subjects.  In my experience, at least, some white teachers seem to spend a disappointing amount of time disparaging their students' cultures and minimizing their struggles.  I have sadly heard the same from some white teachers who spend a lot of time to provide a great deal of opportunities for their racially and ethnically diverse students; deeply held beliefs on race and class are hard to shake.  And with white teachers making up the majority of the profession, both in education in general as well as music education, this makes for a bigger issue at hand.

And as many have noted, the problem of underrepresentation in music education has more to do with class and economic opportunity than it does innate abilities.  But that is not what Mr. Butera said.

I have spent my entire career in deeply impoverished public middle schools in South Florida.  Currently, the percentage of my students who are non-white hovers somewhere around 90%.  As both young singers and instrumentalists, these same economically disadvantaged kids that Mr. Butera made disparaging remarks against are fearless.  They amaze me every day.  They are hugely determined, and they soak up whatever I can teach them.  They come early and stay late.  They hang their heads in apology when they can't make rehearsals because their parents are working brand new jobs and cannot take time off or their family car has stopped running.  Some of my student's families have no cars whatsoever -- they still find ways to get to Solo & Ensemble, even if it is all the way across the county.  They talk about spending six hours at a time on school projects.  Many of them can decipher music they hear on the radio by ear, and several of my students have assisted in arranging tunes for our bands.  I've had beginners who unwittingly identified Dorian mode in popular songs.   A huge number of these kids are pretty well-primed to one day study music theory.

But I don't need to belabor the point.  The assertion that Black and Latino students lack innate skills required to play piano well and are less capable of studying music theory is factually incorrect.  My kids disprove that every day.  The massive number of legendary Black and Latino music educators disprove that assertion.  The reality is that young Black and Latino students are statistically more likely to be impoverished than their white peers and there are often fewer musical opportunities in schools with higher impoverished populations.

Again, if that's what Mr. Butera meant, then that's what he should have said.

The problem with NAfME, however, goes so far beyond those comments.  The problem with NAfME is that I have a hard time pointing a finger at anything they are doing to fix the situation.  Obviously, it would be impossible to end child poverty and run state MEAs at the same time, but there has to be some sort of action taken.

So many schools full of impoverished and often extremely culturally, racially, and ethnically diverse students have problems.  Re-segregation of schools is happening, and it is something that needs to be addressed in our profession.  (The Tampa Bay Times recently won a Pulitzer Prize for local & investigative reporting on Pinellas County elementary schools that have dropped precipitously as a result of re-segregation.)  In many schools with impoverished populations, teacher turnover is a crippling issue.  It becomes near impossible to keep accomplished, devoted educators in many struggling schools, and it is common knowledge that a music program is better off when great teachers stay there for many years. 

What if NAfME began a mentoring program specifically for teachers in highly impoverished schools?  What if the organization called upon a task force, gathering some of the finest educators who have experienced undeniable success in impoverished schools, made a list of best practices, and connected with young teachers just starting out in struggling schools?  I could name at least five local educators I would nominate for that task force without even blinking.  Wouldn't that at least begin to close any achievement gap between racial and ethnic demographics?  

In my most active phase of my NAfME membership, I was the state president of the organization's Collegiate branch (back when the organization was MENC - Music Educators National Conference, and we were referred to as CMENC).  My board and I (who were admittedly not as diverse as we could have been) worked hard to connect schools and connect future music educators.  We worked to provide collegiate music education students with opportunities for networking.  I do wish, however, that in my tenure I had made a greater effort to reach out to our state's Historically Black Colleges and Universities.  Many of my colleagues, graduate school classmates, friends, and some of the finest music educators I have ever known graduated from these HBCUs, and I am not entirely sure our state organization reached out them as well as we could have.  It seems that promotion of diversity & inclusion among pre-professionals is another huge step NAfME could take at this time.

The school that I teach at right now is a wonderful school.  We have a terrific reputation, outstanding programs, a communicative administration, and despite the many struggling students we take in every day, we have stellar academic records.  But the school did not get that way by shoving its problems down the road.  The teachers I work with see potential in their students.   They provide opportunities for students at every turn.  My school and my administration recognized the problems our kids face, and have done everything within their power to help these kids born into economic struggle move upwards.

What I would like to see from NAfME is fewer feelgood stories about boomwhackers.  I know that we all feel burned out, especially at the end of the year, but I think that moreover we need to know that our professional organization is looking out for the most vulnerable of our students and looking out for us as well.  If there are behind-the-scenes efforts to save struggling school music programs -- like those in some of the poorest neighborhoods in Philadelphia -- then the membership wants to know about them.  

It makes me feel treasonous saying it, but I have often doubted the stated mission of another of my governing professional organizations: the Florida Bandmasters Association (FBA), which is a segment of the Florida Music Educators Association (FMEA), which is run by NAfME.  FBA claims that its goal is "A Band in Every School."  And yet, in Miami-Dade county alone, up to 45% of public middle schools do not have a band program.  More than anything, I would like to see these organizations stay true to their stated goals, fulfill their promise, and focus on providing opportunities for young music students of every demographic.

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