Setting Benchmarks for Your Music Students

Setting Benchmarks for Your Music Students

Using the OTL Standards to Inventory Your Secondary Choral/Instrumental Program

By NAfME Immediate Past President Glenn E. Nierman

Our lives are filled with benchmarks and goals these days. Personally, we all want to be financially independent enough to provide for ourselves and to lead a quality life that might include opportunities to attend quality musical events in the community/region and to travel beyond the boundaries of our city or state. As professional music educators, we want all of our students to be able to understand musical concepts and to make music at a level that allows them to be “musically literate,” e.g. they are able to create, to respond, and to perform music at a level that allows them to encounter music for a lifetime. This idea of Revised National Music Standards that focus on not just the artistic process of performing as has been the traditional emphasis, but on the processes of creating and responding as well, outlines a bold new direction for many middle school/high school music programs.

Setting Benchmarks
iStock/Bastiaan Slabbers

The Revised National Standards (2014) urge the development of Artistic [Music] Literacy: “the knowledge and understanding required to participate authentically in the arts” (NCCAS, 2013, p. 10). This includes developing the artistic processes of creating and responding, as well as performing. Education, however, does not exist in a vacuum. For teachers to teach about artistic literacy and for students to master the artistic processes of creating, performing, and responding outlined in the Revised National Standards Performance Standards (curriculum standards), certain “ancillary standards,” i.e., standards in the sense of a model that can be used as a basis of comparison in these four areas:

(1) curriculum & scheduling;

(2) staffing;

(3) materials & equipment; and

(4) facilities must be in place.

These “ancillary standards” have been labeled the Opportunity-to Learn Standards (2015).

Is your secondary music program ready to offer students a chance to achieve the outcomes that the Standards advocate to lead toward music literacy for students? Does your secondary program offer opportunities to engage a different and broader segment of the student body in musical encounters?

This session at NAfME’s In-Service Conference will offer music supervisors, music curriculum leaders, and secondary choral/instrumental participants the opportunity to self-evaluate their secondary choral and instrumental programs in the areas of scheduling, staffing, curriculum, facilities, and equipment based on the standards outlined in NAfME’s Opportunity-to-Learn Standards (2015). If these ancillary Opportunity-to-Learn Standards (OTLs) are not in place, it will be difficult for schools/districts to achieve at the levels specified in the Performance Standards of the Revised National Standards. The session is conceptualized in four major segments:

(1) a brief review of how the Revised National Standards (2014) are different from the first edition of National Music Standards (1994),

(2) a brief review of what the Opportunity-to-Learn Standards are and what they are not,

(3) a synthesis of how the OTLs are organized, and

(4) a large segment of time spent in small groups actually “inventorying” secondary choral and instrumental ensembles based on the Opportunity-to-Learn Standards (2015).

NOTE: Participants should go to the NAfME website using this URL: and download both the OTL Standards Checklist – Specialized Areas Including Ensembles Checklist and the OTL Standards Checklist – General K-12 Checklist on their computers prior to attending the session.

Music Benchmarks


1. What’s New in the Revised National Music Standards?

Traditionally, music educators who teach performing ensembles at the secondary level have focused on teaching through performance and then displaying those skills/knowledge (products) at concerts and festivals. Developing performance skills and knowledge is an important goal and should not be abandoned. The Revised National Music Standards, however, invite music educators to move beyond a product orientation to a more process orientation. So, when teaching students to develop their performing abilities, they not only learn to present those performing skills/knowledge in concerts; but they are also involved in the entire decision-making process that surrounds performance—selecting the music, analyzing the music, interpreting the music, and leading the rehearsing/evaluating/refining process that precedes the performance.

The Revised National Music Standards not only call upon students to grow in the area of performance, but to be involved in creating music and responding to music as well. Students in all music ensembles should learn to improvise and to compose their own music. This doesn’t mean that all high school orchestra students will be writing symphonies before they graduate, for example; but it does mean that they might be asked to compose a rhythmic warm-up for their group, for example.

This new process orientation requires a different kind of assessment, which has been labeled NAfME’s Model Cornerstone Assessments, which will be explained briefly in the session, too. Model Cornerstone Assessments, an expanded array of processes to be mastered in addition to performing, and an emphasis on process rather than product are what is new about the Revised National Music Standards.

Music Benchmarks


2. What are the Opportunity-to-Learn Standards?

As mentioned previously, in order for students to achieve the Performance Standards, certain ancillary standards, the OTLs, should be in place to ensure this new process-oriented learning can occur. The OTL Standards are a set of guidelines—a model—for assessing the efficacy of the tangible areas (curriculum, scheduling, staffing, facilities & equipment) necessary to deliver curriculum to meet the Performance Standards. Further, they can be an advocacy tool for strengthening the learning environment needed to teach to the Revised Standards. They are not a Supervisor’s “Wish List” for materials needed to deliver music curricula. (See also the advocacy webinar “Title IV, OTLs, & You!”)

3. How are the OTL Standards Organized?

The OTLs offer guidelines in the following areas: Curriculum & Scheduling, Staffing, Materials & Equipment, and Facilities. In each of these areas, a model for what is needed for a basic program and what is needed for a quality program is presented. Although the OTL Standards present guidelines for three levels of general music classes, this session will focus only on using the OTL Standards for taking an inventory of four strands of classes typically found in secondary school programs—ensembles, harmonizing instrument classes, composition/theory classes and technology classes.

4. Taking an Inventory of your Program’s Readiness to Achieve the Standards

The majority of time in the session will be spent here. With the help of an OTL Summary Sheet (provided at the session), participants will inventory their secondary school programs—ensembles, harmonizing instrument classes, composition/theory classes, and technology classes—at the basic or quality level, in the four areas in which OTL guidelines are presented.


Whereas NAfME’s mission includes promoting the making of music by all, this session is designed to help secondary music educators think about how they might reach more and different (a more diverse group) students by modifying their scheduling to include composition classes, technology classes, guitar or keyboard classes. Further, to increase students’ understanding of music, another part of NAfME’s mission, this session will advocate for modification of current curricula, equipment, and facilities to enable students to create and respond to music, as well as perform music, in their traditional ensemble classes. I hope you will decide to join us at the Dallas Conference for this exciting session!


About the author:

past president

Immediate Past President Glenn E. Nierman is currently a member of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln School of Music faculty. He teaches graduate classes in research and curriculum development, as well as a non-major popular music guitar class. His public school teaching experience includes work with middle school general music and choir, as well as high school band and orchestra. Glenn, a Past President of NAfME’s North Central Division and a Past President of the Nebraska Music Educators Association (NMEA), also served his state as the Chairperson of College/University Affairs and Chairperson of the Coalition for Music Education, the advocacy arm of NMEA. Learn more about Dr. Nierman.

Dr. Glenn E. Nierman presented on his topic “Using the OTL Standards to Inventory Your Secondary Choral/Instrumental Program” at the 2017 NAfME National Conference last November in Dallas, TX. Dr. Nierman also led two Presto Discussions: “Assessment – Portfolio Development (secondary v. elementary),” and “Support Beyond High School: Helping H.S. Musicians Apply for Scholarships.” Register today for the 2018 NAfME National Conference!


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