Music Education in the Law

And what to do about it

This document was developed as a service to the music education community by the National Association for Music Education. It may be reproduced or quoted freely, as long as NAfME is properly credited. This document is current as of April 2002, but may be updated at any time in the future. Please use the following credit line:

Copyright © 2002 by MENC—The National Association for Music Education. Reprinted with permission.

Music Education has, for the past decade, faced modest expansion in some parts of the nation and stability in most other areas. This stability has been fed by many things including the activities of advocate organizations such as MENC: The National Association for Music Education to increase public awareness of the benefits of music education and, not least, the overall strength of the economy and willingness of decision-makers to support a full curriculum.     


So much is relatively certain about the past, but the future is far from clear. American education, notoriously subject to a regular succession of reform movements, has just undergone a significant change in the administrative structure that controls federal expenditures for education. As the implications of that structural change become evident at the state and local level, the practical status of music education in our schools may be altered.  

This is not necessarily a cry of doom; the documents underlying the new structure actually include some things that are very good from a music educator’s point of view. It is, however, a plea for all those interested in music education to become aware of the changes that are upon us, to establish the state and local contacts that will allow monitoring and action of these changes, and to become active in maintaining a place for music education as those changes become reality for our schools and our children.

Key Documents 

The law that authorizes the Federal government to actively engage in education is PL117-110, which is the “Elementary and Secondary Education Act” (also titled, “No Child Left Behind.”). The law was signed on January 8, 2002, and unless Congress takes completely unexpected action, most Federal action on education for the next six years will be limited to activities expressly authorized under this act. 

The actual expenditures that represent the Federal government’s actions are spelled out each year in an appropriations bill. The appropriations bill for Fiscal Year 2002 (October 2002 through September 2003) represented a considerable increase in education spending over previous years, totaling $54.5 billion. This included more money than ever before, $30 million, in a special “arts in education” section, which allowed for $2 million specifically for music teacher professional development. The administration’s proposed appropriation for the U.S. Department of Education for FY2003 is $56.5 billion (an increase less than the projected rate of inflation), and includes nothing for arts in education. This amount will almost certainly change as the appropriations bill is debated by committees and by the full Congress. 

The blueprint for achieving the goals set out in “No Child Left Behind” and given power with the various appropriations acts is the U.S. Department of Education’s (USED) Strategic Plan. The plan for 2002-2007 was just published and includes goals such as, “Create a culture of achievement,” “Improve student achievement,” and “Transform education into an evidence-based field.”

A little study of the three key documents (“No Child Left Behind,” appropriations bills, and the strategic plan) can shed some light on what we can expect in the coming years. It won’t entirely explain actions on the school or community level, however; that action will be greatly dependent on the ways that states want to – or are constrained by budgets to – implement education.

Principal Reforms 

The No Child Left Behind Act basically is constructed on the idea that states and localities are best qualified to make decisions regarding how funds for education – including Federal funds – should be spent. In most sections of the law, the states are given the bulk of the monies to be spent in broad categories – for disadvantaged children, for example, or for teacher preparation and retention. They must prepare and present to the United States Secretary of Education a plan for their expenditures in each area. The states, in turn, hand over the bulk of that money to the Local Education Agencies (LEAs), who must similarly spend according to an appropriate plan. The requirements for the plans are really quite flexible, but must generally include four aspects that are of importance to music educators:

1. They must include accountability for student achievement.
2. They must be designed to increase student achievement in “core academic areas.”
3. They must be designed to make use of “scientifically based research”
4. They must help student achievement as measured by “challenging State standards.”

As these four aspects run through practically every section of the law, advocates for music education need to understand a little bit of the way each aspect is likely to be put into practice.


This is the aspect that has led some educators to call the law, “No student left untested.” In one way, this should not be a problem for music educators, who have led the field in authentic evaluation methods. It could be, however, a major problem because the testing mandated by the law is specifically in reading, in math, and (somewhat later) in science. This preference for three subjects is reflected in the Department’s strategic plan at the national level, and is likely to create real anguish among school boards and administrators as they teach toward whatever tests states adopt. States will scramble to put into place tests that may or may not be effective; localities will follow up with curricula that may or may not be effective, but stand a good chance in some cases of being narrow to the point of effectively excluding music.

Suggested Strategy

Lose no chance to point out to administrators and decision-makers that music, in addition to its inherent value for students, is associated with higher achievement on important measures such as the SAT math and verbal scores.

Achievement in Core Academic Areas
This is one of the best parts of the law from the point of view of music education advocates. Title IX, part A. Section 9101, of the law says that “The term ‘core academic subjects’ means English, reading or language arts, mathematics, science, foreign languages, civics and government, economics, arts, history, and geography.”

Suggested Strategy

Find out what plan your state and local education agencies are making for spending federal education funds – keeping in mind that the much larger expenditures of state and local monies often follow the federal dollars. Remind those in charge that the clear will of Congress was to include music, as one of the arts, in the development and maintenance of programs meant to help our schools and our students. This is particularly important in the administration of Title I funds (for Improving the Academic Achievement of the Disadvantaged) and for Title II (for Preparing, Training, and Recruiting High Quality Teachers and Principals).

Scientifically Based Research This presents another challenge for music education. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 stresses, in almost every section of the law, that decisions about the allocation of federal resources for education should be based on “scientifically based research.” The intent, as interpreted in the U. S. Department of Education’s draft Strategic Plan, is no less than to leverage this new decision-making process to im
prove the quality of curriculum in our schools. By 2007, for example, the Department would like to see 90 percent of K-12 policymakers report that they “routinely consider evidence of effectiveness before adopting educational practices and approaches.” And it has three basic procedural challenges that have yet to be worked out:

1. Defining what constitutes acceptable “scientifically based research” for the purposes of administering our educational system; and
2. Encouraging and instituting research in arts education activities and programs that meets the procedural definition of acceptable research; and
3. Working to ensure that, as a practical matter, important information regarding the real-world growth and development of American children is not excluded from the decision-making process because it has not been collected or formulated in terms of “scientifically based research.” 

Regarding the first point, the law specifies that research should involve “the application of rigorous, systematic, and objective procedures to obtain reliable programs and valid knowledge relevant to education activities and programs.” It further defines research with terms like “empirical,” “rigorous data analyses,” “valid and reliable data across observers,” and “experimental or quasi-experimental designs.” In sum, the definition is narrow to the point that scholars, administrators, teachers, and decision-makers in most curricular areas (including the arts) are likely to find that the data to support programs – even programs acclaimed as highly successful by all concerned – is difficult to come by.   

For this reason, encouraging and tracking research that meets this particular standard will become important in the six years for which this authorization of our national education legislation provides the blueprint. 

That is not to say that no such research exists. Research that is certain to meet the emerging definition of “scientifically based research” exists alongside other valuable but less narrowly construed research. One important aspect of finding research that is of value for winning practical support for arts education in the current climate is that, in the terms of the law, the research be “accepted by a peer-reviewed journal or approved by a panel of independent experts through a comparably rigorous, objective, and scientific review.”

Suggested Strategy

Become aware of the research that meets the specifications of the law (particularly peer-reviewed research) and use it, as far as is accurate and appropriate, to justify the educational practices used in music education. Second, join MENC in asking for:


The collection of data by scheduling of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in music and the other arts every 5 years and including regular probes for data on music education by the Department of Education as part of ongoing statistical capture or research about our nation’s schools. Specific funding allocation to support research that identifies how, and by what means, music education can best contribute to the development of our nation’s children.

Challenging State Standards 

This is another “good news” area, because all 50 states and the District of Columbia have standards in music (though some are advisory). This is yet another bit of evidence to show that music education expenditures are allowed by the law.

Suggested Strategy

Find out what plans your state and local education agencies are formulating that will affect music education. Remind those in charge that the clear will of Congress was to include music, as one of the arts, in the development and maintenance of programs meant to help our schools and our students – and that the State backed up that judgment with the development of Standards.

Other Important Federal Programs

One section of the law, Title V, part D, subpart 15, Section 5551, is designed to “support systemic education reform by strengthening arts education as an integral part of the elementary school and secondary school curriculum”; to “help ensure that all students meet challenging State student academic achievement standards in the arts”; and to “support the national effort to enable all students to demonstrate competence in the arts.” This section includes money authorized specifically for music teacher professional development. The amounts involved are and have been quite small, but are symbolically important as giving the Federal imprimatur – the one that counts – to education in music and the other arts.

Suggested Strategy

Contact your members of Congress and ask for support for ongoing full funding of the “Arts in Education” part of the law.

State Action

Now, more than ever before, the real decisions in education are being made at the state and local levels. Keep decision-makers at those levels aware of the value and importance of music education. Feel free to use the resources on the MENC web site at for general advocacy resources. This round of education reform is likely to generate a fair amount of chaos as it moves from theory to implementation, and a little knowledge of the Federal statutes will be most useful to those who can maintain a great deal of knowledge of state and local structures.

Suggested Strategy

Develop your knowledge of local education and funding issues, and build a contact network among those who, in your state and locality, make the real decisions regarding education. Identifying those decision-makers will be different in each state and locality, making the task a little difficult. But you cannot overemphasize the importance of the task of communicating to these decision-makers the issues of music’s place in Federal law, in the development of children, and in the community.

No Subject Left Behind: A Guide to Arts Education Opportunities in the 2001 Education Act (requires Adobe Acrobat Reader)