I used to be a regular listener of Michael Feldman’s humor, interview, and quiz show radio program, Whad'Ya Know?
During one show, a member of the audience asked, “How do you know when jazz is bad?” As a jazz lover for over 40 years, I had to laugh. A complex music form that stretches boundaries can be difficult to evaluate. “Smooth jazz” is probably the most popular form within the genre, but hard-core jazz fans consider it boring because it eliminates all the challenges. But the most challenging jazz can be atonal and cacophonous—it might sound terrible to ears that aren’t ready for a wild assault on conventional sensibilities, and sublime to those that are prepared and receptive.
Does Counting Notes Measure Music?
A friend of mine in a university music department once complained mightily about the dominant research approach in his field, which was to measure learning in music by counting notes: how fast they are played, how many can be remembered from a musical score, and so on. To him, such research missed the point of making music, because it measured what was most easily quantifiable instead of what mattered.
Emperor Joseph II is reputed to have told Mozart that The Marriage of Figaro was flawed because it contained “too many notes,” and such criticisms were common of Mozart by his contemporary critics. But people have forgotten the critics and continue to see and hear Mozart’s operas and other compositions, having become acclimated over time to his noteworthiness.
I am no musician, though I listen to a lot of music. That makes me as much of an expert in music as Arne Duncan is in education.
I see similarities between the inappropriate measurements used in some music education research, and the current approach to evaluating the effectiveness of teaching.
Musicians might be judged in a variety of ways: by understanding how their interpretation of a particular piece fits within a larger genre, by measuring the musician’s commitment to his or her art when not playing the instrument, by listening to the tone, by appreciating the ability to play harmoniously within an ensemble, by paying attention to lyrical quality, by understanding the musician's willingness to take interpretive risks, by feeling the infusion of appropriate emotional timbre into the notes performed, by recognizing the musician’s grasp of when to follow the musical script and when to improvise, and by applying many other criteria that contribute to a complex, virtuoso performance.
Few people who attend a jazz concert bring along a calculator to count the notes, even though that would be the easiest way to measure its effects. Now, speed and frequency can be telling indicators of some things, and one’s dexterity on an instrument can often be an important factor in a musical performance. But speed and frequency don’t mean everything; they don’t distill the whole of music into a single, brittle measurement.
Yet even piano great Oscar Peterson was once criticized by a writer who said, essentially, that he played too many notes, such that his stunning speed was more comparable to efficient typing than dazzling piano playing.
Perhaps that critic grew up to be Arne Duncan. Duncan didn’t play a jazz instrument. Nor did he ever teach. So it’s entirely possible that he could reduce both to the easiest measurement available.
It’s an old problem that when school budget cuts are necessary, music and art are the first programs to go. Under Arne Duncan, the music and art of subject-area classrooms are being abandoned as well, as reductive test scores are viewed as the only indicators of learning.
How do we measure teaching? Counting...what?
Like the jazz musician, the teacher might accomplish a great deal that is difficult to measure: create harmony in potentially divisive classrooms, contribute to schools when not teaching in the classroom, support fragile young people emotionally, understand how poverty and hunger and poor health affect learning potential, connect students’ personal knowledge and experiences to their academic learning, teach genre-based improvisational strategies for writing artful papers, orchestrate lively discussions of compelling problems, promote interest in school learning, and engage in diverse other activities whose effects don’t show up on multiple choice tests.
When you listen to music, what do you appreciate? When you think back on great teachers, what do you remember about their qualities? Was their effectiveness available from questions you answered that were written by people you’d never met on topics you didn’t care about, with single correct answers from four given possibilities? Or was there something else about them that left a strong and favorable impression?
If your answer is the latter, how can you allow today’s teachers to be so grossly mismeasured, and young people’s education to be so horribly reduced, by the current endless crush of multiple choice tests?