The National Association of Schools of Music (NASM) is an organization that assesses and accredits music schools and music departments across the United States. Towards that end, NASM develops and articulates general curriculum guidelines for music programs in higher education. Music departments must then adhere to these guidelines if they wish to be accredited, and accreditation isn’t cheap. There are yearly membership dues of around $2,000 (on average) per school, as well as eight other possible fees. With almost 650 members, the membership dues alone provide income of $1.3 Million per year.
The hidden costs to the individual music departments are even more significant because of the enormous amount of work done by the faculty (in addition to regular teaching duties) in order to maintain accreditation. One of the most important parts of the process is the creation of a “self-study,” which usually takes a year or two (and hundreds of faculty hours) to complete. This is delegated to the music faculty, most of whom work in music theory, music education, or musicology (performers generally skip out on this kind of work by playing the “I’m an artist, not a writer” card).
Once the department is accredited, it needs to be reviewed every 10 years in order to maintain accreditation. Here is where the fun begins: in order to be re-accredited, several NASM reviewers study the self-assessment, after which they visit the department “onsite.”
The onsite visits are always the same–the NASM Inquisitors are quiet, solemn, and secretive, as befits the incorruptible keepers of the accreditation flame. Like inscrutable Buddhas, they haunt the hallways, wandering from classroom observation to classroom observation, looking for…um…improper use of music theory? Unhistorical music history? Unapproved use of a sackbut? Regardless of the absurdity of the entire enterprise, the faculty respond as expected: walking on eggshells all week, hoping to glean a hint of approval from their humorless interlocutors, but nothing of the sort is forthcoming. The hallways, nonetheless, are filled with breathless and surreptitious chatter: Was that a smile I saw? Or was it just a non-committal nod? Maybe a friendly look from the back of the classroom? I think they like us–do you think they like us? I hope they like us. They don’t like us, I’m sure of it.
Like experienced carnies, the reviewers work the crowd, never divulging much until the big finale. There are always a few people on faculty (usually the Department Chair) who claim to have “inside information” (as might be expected of aspiring members of the nomenklatura). These people drop some vague hints that the reviewers seem pleased with what they are seeing. But then, a day or two later, the hints turn ominous as it may be that the tide has turned against the department; the reviewers now seem, perhaps, displeased with some element of the curriculum. (The vacillation continues as the rumor mill runs at a fever pitch and the dizzying “good cop/bad cop” routine keeps the faculty in a continual state of existential vertigo.) Finally, the big finale, and the department finds out that it is mostly in compliance (tsk-tsk), but there are sadly (and unpredictably), a few “issues” that require some attention in order to “fix the problem(s).” A collective sigh emerges from the faculty lounge as the tension dissipates, but alas, it is short lived. The department is technically “on probation” for a year or two while these critical pedagogical concerns are addressed and corrected, so the pressure is still on. NASM will then review the program revisions to see if the issues have been adequately addressed. If all is well, then the school is re-accredited, and the entire charade is played out again in ten years.
What’s the payoff for the enormous amount of faculty time (and stress) invested in preparing the self-study document and submitting to a curriculum colonoscopy every decade? What’s the “value added” for being accredited? Here are some of the rationales I’ve heard over the years:
1. Title IV: Money Money Money…Money!
To be eligible for Title IV funding (certain government scholarships), a department needs to be accredited by NASM. Sounds good, right? Federal funds rain from the sky for those lucky schools with NASM accreditation. Title IV funding for music students is, however, not significant.
2. NASM accreditation is a draw for students and parents because they will know that we’ve achieved a national standard.
NASM accreditation probably shows up somewhere in the department’s promotional materials, but no high school student in the history of higher education has chosen a school because it was accredited by NASM. Only about half of the schools in the country are accredited, so this obviously has no impact on enrollment.
3. NASM doesn’t enforce a “one size fits all” approach; to the contrary, NASM helps schools to individuate.
Look at the curriculum of the NASM accredited music departments in the United States and you will be hard pressed to find any that deviate significantly from the stultifying mean. They all offer the same courses in the same general order: music theory, music history, a variety of ensembles, and private instruction on various instruments. And how could it be otherwise? Here are some excerpts (emphasis added) from the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS):
Higher Education accreditation in the United States was developed “to protect public health and safety and to serve the public interest.” The process of accreditation gradually evolved along three parallel paths, commonly referred to as the Triad, forged by the development of peer-evaluation amongst institutions and accrediting agencies, and the development of regulation, legislation and oversight by state governments, and the federal government. . . The need to develop transfer of credit policies and equivalency of degrees between the United States and foreign countries drove the process towards national standards. In the early stages accreditation standards were developed on a regional basis, but gradually national accreditation standards were developed to provide minimum quality standards throughout the United States. . . The American Council on Education (ACE) was formed in 1918, a national association for higher education institutions interested in standardization, effectiveness and reducing duplication in the accreditation process.
Clearly, the purpose of higher education accreditation is to create and enforce national standards, which I certainly understand, but context is important. I don’t want any crackpot theories being taught to my future surgeon or to the young woman who is going to be designing the new bridge over the Detroit River. I don’t want any random errors being made by either the surgeon or the engineer; I do, however, want errors being made in the arts. In fact, “errors” often lead artists in new directions precisely because, by their very nature, “errors” stand in stark contrast to the standards and “rules” of bygone eras and can, therefore, lead to interesting new avenues of exploration (maybe even a new genre). Where would we be without the fringe dwellers, the oddballs, and the crackpot theorists? They are essential to the arts, and they are all unaccredited.
Thelonius Monk: The Pre-Accreditation Blues
Erik Satie: Still Unaccredited, After All These Years
4. NASM identifies future trends so your music school will be on the “cutting edge.”
Sure. A committee of third party music accreditation policy wonks in the Virginia/Washington D.C. power bubble are tapped in to modern culture to the point that they are able to prognosticate future developments in music. Can they really predict these changes in advance so that music departments will be “ahead of the curve”? For example, when I first became aware of NASM (mid-1990s), they were pushing “music technology” as an important future trend for music schools. Unfortunately, the “technology” trend in music was already underway for decades at that point. NASM is never ahead of the curve, they are always behind it. I’m no James Randi, but I would say that our NASM Nostradamus has an easy gig–making predictions based on what is currently happening or what happened a decade ago means that you’re never wrong.
And what’s this business about being on the “cutting edge”? Hardly. Bureaucracies of this type are not the engines of innovation, they are part of the unforgiving machinery that maintains the status quo. For example, when was the last time you bought a Wind Ensemble/Concert Band recording? When was the last time you heard a piece for Wind Ensemble/Concert Band in a movie or on the radio, or, heaven forbid, “live” (4th of July notwithstanding)? The answer to all of these questions is “never.” So why are Wind Ensembles (poorly named–they include percussion instruments) and Concert Bands the mainstay of most music departments and why isn’t NASM commenting on that anachronism?
I’m sure NASM started with great intentions, but today, 90 years later, it’s grown into a bureaucratic behemoth, with myriad committees, dozens of staff members (some paid, but most are volunteers who hold full-time teaching positions), dues and fees, and a Handbook with 271 gristle filled pages of rules and regulations. In 1924, when the organization started (and when there was barely a fraction of the number of music programs in existence) there might have been a real need for some curricular assistance and oversight. Today, however, music departments are staffed by faculty with extraordinary training in their disciplines (the vast majority have doctorates). It is absurd to suggest that these faculty, left to their own devices, will develop poorly-designed music programs, but if they do, wouldn’t that be reflected in the equally poor career trajectories of their graduates? And wouldn’t that, in turn, be reflected in the department’s future enrollment numbers? Accredited schools, as mentioned previously, account for only about half of the music departments in the United States. Does that mean the other half are substandard? Or does it mean the other half are, instead, developing their own curriculum and degree programs in response to their own strengths, weaknesses, interests, and perceived regional or national trends? (The truth is that the other schools are not all that different from the accredited schools; when the Federal Government, via the US Department of Education, recognizes an organization like NASM as the national standard for music department accreditation, these other schools tend to fall in line, whether accredited or not.)
With all of the problems faced by music and arts programs today, national accreditation should be reconsidered. We don’t need 15 music departments in each state doing the same thing (with the flagship universities generously funded while the others attempt to mimic the flagships with 10-20% of the funding). We would be much better served by five departments, each of which develops and builds itself as it sees fit.
We need diversity, not conformity; central planners of any stripe, as well intentioned as they may be or may have been, are anathema to diversity, as they implicitly reinforce conformity. In an era with severely truncated arts career opportunities and diminishing funding for the arts, curricular conformity is not what we need. We need experimental labs of curricular innovation, guidelines for which, I am quite sure, will not be found in any forthcoming versions of the NASM handbook.