Promoting New Standards of Professionalism & Educational Enrichment

Promoting New Standards of Professionalism & Educational Enrichment


October 2007

A publication of the Association of American Educators

By Niki Hayes

Suppose those learning to play musical instruments had to learn to play them by ear. There would be no focus on the symbols of music, sounds of specific notes, practicing scales, learning classical pieces, or even learning some standard tunes from which creative “extensions” could be made. The small percentage of students who could play an instrument by ear could not help others as they try to craft their own natural talents into productions because the intuitive players couldn’t translate their innate abilities into internationally known music symbols.

Discovery Learning

So the adopted method for all other students would be called “discovery learning.” Students would “manipulate” their instruments with teachers “facilitating” the students’ efforts to discover how to form a particular tune, which, of course, they had created themselves. There would be no continuous practice—no “drill and kill” of repetition. All tunes would be considered acceptable because they were the original, personal creation of each student. Comparisons to respected or classical renditions might be possible, but that would be extremely time-consuming, and it would not be considered “relevant” in today’s modern classroom.

Students who needed to learn by the old-fashioned methods, such as studying music symbols, their related sounds, and repetitive practice would need extra tutoring. Supplemental materials might be allowed that taught some “basic skills,” but the bigger picture to learning music, or the conceptual approach, must be maintained. All of this supplementary material would cost extra money for the schools—and extra time for the students and teachers.

Schools of education that train teachers would insist this “discovery” method of learning music is progressive and provides social justice for girls and students of color in the music profession. They would base much of their beliefs on a few education researchers in the 1970s who had concluded that inductive and intuitive methods—those that focus on process rather than product—were needed by these two “subgroups.”


White males and Asian students were the only ones who had benefited, they said, from the traditional methods of learning music for the past several thousand years. The progress made in music by the “ancients” and their methods were considered of no significance in the child-directed “discovery” teaching philosophy.


Many elementary school teachers liked the discovery method because it did not require their learning the music symbols and the many complicated relationships that could result from those symbols. High school music teachers hated the discovery method because they had difficulty finding enough qualified students to form a school band, symphony, or choir.


Many parents of elementary students accepted the discovery learning because the students seemed to “enjoy” it and they always had good grades in the subject. After all, the grading was based on subjective judgments about the student’s process of creating his or her own musical piece, and it was not a comparison to another’s work.


Some Math Programs are Out of Tune There would be no continuous practice— no “drill and kill” of repetition. All tunes would be considered acceptable because they were the original, personal creation of each student.

If we taught music like some “experts” say we should teach math, it would be the end of the road for music in America


Dire Consequences


The consequence, however, would be a growing lack of new musicians. This would impact high school bands, symphonies, musical productions in theatres, and the entire music industry. Foreign students who had studied traditional music lessons would become the heart of America’s shrinking music scene.

How long before the public would refuse to tolerate this destruction of music education and ultimately music’s contribution to society and the world? Would it take five, ten, or even twenty years?

Would college music teachers stand by quietly as their incoming students’ proficiencies continually disintegrated? Would professional music companies and businesses ignore the shrinking pool of talent? Would business leaders buy into the progressive philosophy that insists we must focus on “creativity thinking” and not worry about the significance of foundational work in the music discipline?

Music & Math

Now substitute “mathematics” for “music” and you have a picture of what has been happening in American mathematics education for the past 40 years. “Whole math,” based on conceptual, intuitive, processed-thinking has replaced traditional mathematics education. (Yes, it is the parallel universe to the “whole language”fiasco that produced two generations of poor readers and writers in American education.) Algorithms, symbolic manipulation, and basic skills are no longer mastered in elementary mathematics—and therefore in high school classes—because those represent the traditional, classical education formerly reserved only for white males, according to the leaders of “reform mathematics.” The traditional program represents “drill and kill,” they say. Traditionalists say the program offers “drill and skill,” as well as mastery of concepts.




This reform pedagogy was codified in 1989 by a private group called The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) when they published their Curriculum Standards for K-12 mathematics education. The National Science Foundation (NSF) bought into their ideas, probably due to their emphasis on egalitarianism. From 1991 through 1999, the NSF pumped $83 million into universities and publishers that would create math curricula that supported the reformists’ social engineering agenda. In 1999, more than 200 professional mathematicians  sent a letter to Richard Riley, Education Secretary, asking him to withdraw support for the reform math products, due to their poor quality of mathematics instruction. He ignored them. Even more millions have been funneled into the programs from both government and private sources.


Educators have latched onto these cash cows as money is offered to “pilot” reform programs and students have become research subjects. Math wars have erupted among parent groups and districts in pockets across the country, as parents (and a few teachers) try to change the direction of mathematics education in their schools. Parents are learning, however, that schools really do not want parent involvement if it means they are going to question curriculum choices. Moreover, test scores continue to show the disintegration of mathematics’ skills among American students.


When educators and businesses wonder why this is happening, they should think about students learning to play music by ear. That is the real world of mathematics education today. It has been going on, officially, for almost two decades. How much longer will it be allowed by the people who can make a real difference?