MENC President Shuler Offers Vision for His Term, Part 1

MENC President Scott C. Shuler took office in June. He discusses his commitment to music education and the arts as well as how he views his two-year presidency.

What career path led you to the office of MENC president?

All music educators are leaders. Every day we enter our classrooms with a vision of quality for our classroom and an aural image of quality music; we work with our students to share, refine, and achieve that vision. Statewide and national leadership require skills similar to the classroom, but applied to adult peers: vision, motivation, energy and enthusiasm, and efficiency tempered by sensitivity to and caring about individuals. The transition from working with ensembles to working with boards is not as big a stretch as one might think.

Like most music educators, I see our profession as more mission than job. Toward that end (and after consulting many colleagues and mentors) I originally left K-12 for college teaching, then left higher education for Connecticut’s Department of Education to find out whether working closer to the top of the educational pyramid might enable me to be a stronger advocate for music/arts education. Generally, that was true – we have made a lot of progress in Connecticut, and my work has helped keep music and the other arts on the state’s educational priority list.

In 2005 I became very frustrated with the lack of progress in my agency on key arts education issues, particularly:

  • the lack of a true high school graduation requirement in the arts (we had a requirement in “the arts or vocational education”);
  • the failure to collect important local data about inequities in students’ arts opportunity-to-learn;
  • resistance to moving forward to create teacher certification in dance and theatre.

Hoping to be really “in charge” of decisions, I accepted a position as Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction in a wonderful local school district with strong arts programs. Rewarding as that work was, I missed music and the other arts, so I returned to my arts leadership position.

I am very grateful to have returned to statewide leadership. Not only was it inspiring to work with arts educators again, but together we have since been successful in convincing the legislature to enact a statewide high school graduation requirement in the arts, and certification in dance and theatre will soon be in place. Still, that continuing question nagged me – how could I make a bigger difference in promoting music/arts education?

When I was nominated for the national MENC presidency, it presented an important opportunity to make a national contribution at a time when many – some would say too many – decisions about local education are being made at the federal level. My wife and I discussed the timing and demands of the office, and she agreed (not for the first time, you can be sure) to sacrifice time together for a higher cause. So I said “yes,” and my agency agreed to grant me the time if elected. Now, due to the kind support of my colleagues in the field… here I am!

Your career includes teaching, writing, and more recently music education advocacy. Is it fair to say advocacy holds center stage for you?

Successful leaders focus not only on what they find interesting – which for us tends to be Beethoven, Miles Davis, music composition, etc. – but also on developing expertise in and becoming articulate about what seems to be most needed. Music educators have always had to be strong advocates – Lowell Mason had to work hard to convince town fathers to add music to the Boston Public Schools’ curriculum –and our need for advocacy has continued ever since. The unwritten (but arguably most important) part of my job in the state education agency is to stand up for music/arts education, whether by making sure that the DOE includes arts in statewide education initiatives, by collaborating with leaders in our state MEA, or by supporting teachers at the local level.

We should always place a high priority on advocacy. When times are good, we must build relationships and credibility that help us when the economy turns sour; when times are tough, as they are now, the need is simply more obvious – at the national MENC, state MEA, and local levels. Recently the Connecticut Music Educators Association helped push through a high school graduation requirement in the arts, which will play a major role in ensuring that all students in our state study the arts and that teachers of music and the other arts will be important part of secondary school faculty.

The federal government is dictating many more details of local education than ever before, so MENC is constantly identifying opportunities for federal legislation to support music education, then mobilizing music teachers and other like-minded organizations to influence that legislation. For example, it is very important that the arts remain “core subjects” in the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (formerly known as “No Child Left Behind.”) Other opportunities exist to help music teachers, sometimes indirect, such as the proposed stimulus funding for education. We selected our new Executive Director Michael Butera in part because he has considerable expertise and experience in lobbying. Advocacy therefore continues to be a major focus for MENC’s professional staff and me. For our profession to thrive over the long haul, all of us need to be articulate, persistent advocates.

Read Part 2 now.

Photos by Becky Spray

  —Roz Fehr, August 5, 2010 © MENC: The National Association for Music Education