Is music education on the decline?

Music educators are frequently defending their programs from budget cuts, space constrictions, and total annihilation. While this feels like an all-encompassing panic attack for a lot of music teachers, what’s really going on? Is music education really on the decline overall, or are we just not seeing the forest through the trees?

The answer is, of course, complicated. 

Yes, music education is on the decline.

This has been going on for decades. School bands were in their glory back in the days of Sousa (later 19th century)— and when I say glory, I simply mean they were on the rise and popular. Education was segregated and racist in those days, and music education was no different, so it really was only the “glory days” to those in power. Even so, those days were about 150 years ago. 

Millions of students are without access to music education during the school day. Several factors has contributed to the decline of music education:

No, music education is not on the decline.

While there is certainly room for improvement, over 90% of students have access to music education during their school day. There are new efforts to include music education in the school day, and even more work to transform music education to be more equitable and accessible. Here is what gives me hope:

  • Nonprofit collaborations: Where the schools fail to provide music education, nonprofit organizations are there to fill the gaps. 
  • New, different, and relevant music offerings in schools: The rise of music technology, songwriting, modern band, music production, etc in schools is very exciting. Though the majority of these programs are being offered in more affluent areas, there is hope that these models can be adapted in all schools for better student engagement 
  • Attention to DEI and SEL practices: Depending on where you live in the country, attention to DEI and SEL practices might also be on the rise. The application of more equitable and science-based approaches is a slow process, but the increased prevalence (in some places) is encouraging.  

Music eduction in schools is far overdue for a revolution. 

Truly, music in schools hasn’t really changed in DECADES. ⁠As evidenced by the ancient instruments and books in your closets… the emphasis on BOC (band/orchestra/choir)… the laser-focus on Eurocentric music… ⁠

Yes, some changes have come! More technology, new ensembles, new music…⁠ But if we’re being honest, a revolution is way, way overdue. ⁠

Unfortunately, schools are huge government-funded bureaucracies that change SLOWLY. And many, sadly, haven’t cared about the state of their arts programs. ⁠

So… it’s an evolution. It’s a step-by-step, inch-by-inch process. And it’s not happening overnight. Even if we want (or need) it to… ⁠

But! Our IDEAS can be revolutions! Our big goals, outcomes, dreams, visions can be MAJOR REVOLUTIONS!⁠ And our actions towards those ideas can be tippy-toe evolutions. ⁠

If you’re dying for a revolution but don’t know how to evolve towards it– that’s my jam. I walk you through those big, revolutionary ideas and make them into bite-sized “I’m only one person with a dream”-sized steps. That’s what my book “Planning on Purpose” is all about!⁠

So keep that dream of revolution ALIVE! And take one step closer every day. I’m with you!⁠


More than demographics: Knowing your students as complex people

When I was in seventh grade home-ec class, our teacher asked us “Who are you?”

Most of us attempted answers like, “I’m a seventh grader…”

But she would cut us off, saying “No… that’s what grade you’re in. Who ARE you?”

“I’m a girl who plays the flute.”

“Nope, that’s your gender and something you do. Doesn’t answer the question.”

After we all huffed in frustration for a while, she brought us to this conclusion… Identities are complicated. They change over time, they include labels that can be interpreted differently depending on the context, some parts of our identities change other parts… We are all very, very complicated. 

The many ways we are who we are

When we’re talking about identities in the classroom, often we get stuck focusing on race or gender, or other basic demographics. But everyone has a range of identities of varying personal importance to them. A quick exercise: Think about how you identify in each of these categories:

  • Age/ generation
  • Ethnicity
  • First language 
  • Gender
  • National origin
  • Physical/mental/psychological ability 
  • Race
  • Religion/ spirituality
  • Sex
  • Sexual orientation
  • Socioeconomic class
  • Familial titles (parent/son/cousin, etc)

To take it a step further, consider which of these identities are important to you, and which are mostly irrelevant to how you move through life. For example, someone who is an auntie might take their role really seriously, and others may be an auntie in name only. 

Identities in the classroom

It’s human nature to categorize other people, just to make things simpler for ourselves. But that gut instinct to put people into boxes and make assumptions based on those labels is stereotyping. The stereotyped thoughts can lead to biased actions and decisions. 

Here are some actions you can take, as a music teacher, to celebrate the diversity of identities in the your classroom:

  • Be aware of your own thinking. I had a therapist who told me all the time: “You can’t always believe what you think!” Somehow we believe we have control over our thoughts and assume that our first thoughts are always right. That’s often not true! If you were raised with media and a social context that shamed fat people, you’ll likely have a knee-jerk negative reaction to seeing a fat person. You don’t have to listen to those initial thoughts or reactions. Ask yourself: Why do I think that? Is that true? Where did that actually come from? You may not be able to control your first thought, but you can redirect your second thoughts, and then your actions.

“Like fighting an addiction, being an antiracist requires persistent self-awareness, constant self-criticism, and regular self-examination.”

-Dr. Ibram X. Kendi
  • Use student data ethically. Say it with me now: “My students are more than data!” Having demographic information about your students is an ok place to start, but making decisions based 100% on that data is insufficient. Knowing your students as the unique and complicated people they are– what they value, what their dreams are, what gets them excited about music– will yield less biased results. 
  • Design student leadership into your program. Nothing reveals a student’s true nature better than giving them decisions to make and issues to argue. Not only will opportunities to lead and choose help you understand your students better, but it will also put them in the driver’s seat. 
  • Ask questions, listen, and act accordingly. Get to know your students personally. This happens in both tiny little moments and in more formal ways like surveys, activities, and town hall conversations. However you ask your students more about themselves, these tips will bring you from curious to action:
    • ask open-ended questions
    • listen without judgment– repeat what they say for understanding
    • remember, record, or write down what was said 
    • reflect on how their words can change your classroom
    • make the change! 
    • ask for feedback on the change(s)

Knowing your students as individual people will not only open your mind to new musical and educational ideas, but it will also open your heart– and theirs too!

Part of this content is adapted from my self-guided course “Ethical Arts Educator” returning in summer 2023.


Don’t Dream It… Be It! Systemic Support for Music Teachers

Music teachers often feel like they never have “enough.” Enough space, time, money, instruments…It quickly morphs into feeling like you don’t have enough dignity or respect. Which means you feel like YOU aren’t “enough.” And that makes you… tired. Exhausted. Burnt out.

I’m not here to say you should be grateful for what you have and not rock the boat. Quite the opposite, in fact. The cold, hard truth is… we’ve been conditioned to think music programs shouldn’t have enough. That there’s some sort of pride in being scrappy and “making do.”

Nuh-uh. It doesn’t have to be that way. 

“But not in MY school, Allison! It’s just IMPOSSIBLE!”

Ok, then. It is impossible. Stop trying (I hope you can hear my sarcasm).

Getting the systemic support you need

Before you prepare to bring a request to the “powers that be” you need to have a few things:

  • Solid evidence that what you’re asking administration for is what is needed and will work
  • An unshakeable belief that you deserve and can have “enough” for your program
  • Achievable methods for consistently demonstrating that your program is indispensable 

And how do you get all that? 

  • Get connected to your community. Really connected. Listen to your students and their families. It’s just the beginning, but it’s the step you can’t skip.  
  • Be in community with other music teachers. Go ahead and vent about administrative drama– then work on solutions together. 
  • Get yourself to the best professional development. Yeah, there’s a catch-22 there… I need the administrative support to get the PD. Start small! This is how you get evidence that what you want to do with your students will work (and be worth the money). It’s not an easy part of the job (I don’t have to tell you that!) but it’s even harder when you feel alone. 
  • Reject the idea that you’ll have have/be/do “enough” The job of a teacher– especially a music teacher– is never done. There’s always an expectation to go “above and beyond.” And music is endless! Release yourself from the idea that you have to teach every type of music or concept, that you have to create new opportunities for your students at the detriment to your well-being, that you have to be everything for everyone. You don’t. You can’t. And you’ll always have a wish list of new things you’d like to have for your students. But– you are enough. You can do amazing things already! And there is money, time, and support for your program already out there. Go get it!

Culturally Responsive Pedagogy is NOT a classroom management technique

You’ve probably heard the term “culturally responsive pedagogy” or “culturally relevant pedagogy” by now. Maybe you know a little about it, or you’re curious about implementing it. 

Unfortunately, CRP has become a buzzword in the educational world, and we need to be careful with words and terms that “buzz.” Sometimes buzzwords are thrown around in the hopes of cultivating a certain idea or vibe, but without the weight of reflection and deep thought behind it. 

What CRP has been reduced to, in some uses of the term, is yet another technique for reducing undesirable behaviors. 

Can implementing CRP get the attention of students who often aren’t attentive? Yes. 

Can it engage students on a deeper level? Absolutely. 

Can it seem to reduce “undesirable behaviors?” It can do that, yes. 

But… Culturally responsive pedagogy is NOT a classroom management technique. 

Here’s what’s wrong with trying to implement CRP for the sake of classroom management:

Culturally responsive pedagogy does not seek to make “cultural others” more like the “cultural norm.”

A lot of “classroom management” comes from the desire for conformity. There’s nothing wrong with wanting a classroom that’s functional, effective, and engaging. But that doesn’t mean it has to be uniform, quiet, and wound up tight. Culturally responsive pedagogy celebrates uniqueness and has a wide lens for a variety of definitions of success and engagement. 

Here are some more truths on “losing control” in your classroom.

Culturally responsive pedagogy, at its best, is about creating more independent and confident learners, and increases learning capacity– and not just because students “behave better.”

There is a direct line between CRP and better learning outcomes– do not pass go, do not collect $200. There is no route that goes through “compliance-ville.” Simply put: when in a culturally responsive learning environment, students learn better. 

Culturally responsive pedagogy is way more than using diverse materials– it’s about your classroom culture. 

Including more diverse materials in your classroom is a nice start. However, if those materials are presented in a manner that is racist or into a classroom culture that upholds racist policies and ideals, then that isn’t culturally responsive pedagogy– It’s tokenism. The use of diverse materials is unlikely to make any meaningful change in your classroom without the proper supportive classroom culture. 

If you are looking for the meaningful connections and improved creative and learning outcomes that CRP promises, you’ll have to dig deeper than surface-level behaviors or a diverse composers series. Intentional changes in your music program’s policies, culture, and design– along with honest self-reflection and education yourself– will yield significant outcomes for all of your students.


POWER TO THE YOUNG PEOPLE: Engaging Students in Politics

This article was originally published in the Feb 2021 edition of Gifted Education Review

Most school-aged students do not see themselves in politics, and have relegated the entire concept to the land of adulthood. Practical adult responsibilities are often mysteries to students as they leave their public education: How do I buy a car? How do I pay taxes? What about voting? Arguably one of the most important responsibilities as an adult American citizen is voting and registering to vote. After all, election results can impact your ability to buy a car and pay your taxes. 

We sometimes forget that engaging in politics is more than simply visiting your polling place once you turn 18. Speaking at a town or city council meeting, contacting your state and national representatives, or just staying informed on political news are all ways to engage with the government. Those are also a few ways to get involved with politics before reaching voting age. Besides preparing young citizens for voting and perhaps someday running for office, getting involved in politics at a young age has wide-reaching benefits. When examining political issues, students can advance their moral development and develop their skills in debate, analysis, argument, and persuasive writing. 

We often speak about “politics” as governmental affairs, but we deal in politics in our personal and professional lives too. It is an unavoidable fact that much about politics is about power: who has it, how they use it, and how they treat people/groups without the same level of power. Any system, formal or informal, denotes these groups or individuals as the powerful and powerless, givers and receivers, haves and have-nots. Knowing how to recognize your power in relation to the people around you and use your power for good is a life skill every person should have, regardless of your involvement in government.


General classrooms and history or civics classes are not the only place where politics exist. Politics come into play in the arts (protest music, murals), STEM (research funding, bioethics), and English and literature (historical fiction, censorship). It wouldn’t be difficult to argue that asking students to fundraise for their after school club is an act of politics. Afterall, aren’t they using their political/social power to bring further power/funds to a cause that is important to them?

For more controversial issues, teachers must consider how political they want to be, while protecting their jobs. There may be topics that your school considers “off-limits” and there may be issues that you feel are worth putting up a fight that may cost you politically, or even your job. It is a personal ethical decision whether to adhere to these policies, defy them, or advocate for changing them. After all, there are politics in your workplace as well. However, keep in mind that by refusing to discuss any political or controversial issue, you show your privilege. Unfair, racist, or sexist policies and systems, especially those that affect your students and your classroom, must be called out. If you do choose to take up an issue in your class that could be controversial, consider if you are better off asking for your supervisor’s or principal’s blessing first, or asking for forgiveness later. 

Another word of warning: you can share your personal views, but do not push your views on students. They will not respond well, and may see themselves as outsiders in your classroom if they disagree, disconnecting them from their learning. The details of a student’s viewpoint or opinion is much less important than fanning the flames of their engagement in an issue and their ability to articulate their position. 


  • For the youngest future leaders, recognize and name anytime a student assumes a leadership role, whether formally or informally. 
  • Emphasize the purpose, power, and responsibilities of the government, not just the roles and systems. 
  • Harness the power of a child’s sense of fairness. If a student points out an unfair system, big or small, that is an opportunity to talk about power, privilege, and change. 
  • Engage in their burgeoning senses of morality. Older elementary students typically move from pre-conventional to conventional morality. Acknowledge the advancement from a “What’s in it for me?” mentality to a sense of broader societal norms. 


  • Treat your middle and high school students as voters. According to the Voting Rights Act (2009), regarding the literacy of voters: “any person who has not been adjudged an incompetent and who has completed the sixth grade in a[n accredited] public school in, or a private school … possesses sufficient literacy, comprehension, and intelligence to vote in any election.” (Voting Rights Act, 2009).
  • Use a verbal or written debate as part of an assignment, activity, or assessment. Then have students argue the “other side”– not only to deepen their understanding, but to encourage empathy. 
  • Politics and policies of the school or district may come to light in your classroom. Dress codes, prom policies, and punishments often come up in students’ lives when unfair practices are in place. Encourage students to not just complain, but to take action. If you believe they have the power to make a difference, they will too. For example, if a school program is being threatened, involve students in the school board meetings. They have the most to lose. 
  • If an issue comes up in local politics that is relevant to your class, have students write letters or emails to their elected officials in support of a cause. For example, a life sciences class could write to the city council defending local wildlife when a new shopping center is being planned. Be careful not to force students to take a certain position– allow students to abstain or write their own letter. Be aware of any personal connections students have to personal politics; a student’s parent could be on city council, or would benefit from the new jobs a shopping center would bring, for example. 
  • Inspire activism by watching and reacting to the West Wing episode “A Good Day” (Flint & Schiff, 2005) where a group of young activists visits the White House to lobby for child suffrage. It’s powerful to see a young person so eloquently and persuasively argue for their rights– even directly to the president himself. There’s a 4-minute smash cut of the relevant scenes on YouTube.
  • The Political Classroom ( has a bevy of resources on politics, particularly useful if law and government aren’t your strong suit. 

You may feel as though you are walking a tight line with politics in the classroom, but with some planning and research, you can set your students up for real life beyond graduation day and election day. A country of informed and engaged voters benefits us all. 


Flint, C. (Writer), & Schiff, R. (Director). (2005, March 2). A good day. [Television series episode]. In Sorkin, A. (Creator). The West Wing. New York: National Broadcasting Company. 

Voting Rights Act, 52 U.S. Code § 10101(c) (2009). 

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