Arts Education: Saying the Right Things Is a Start, but Then Undercutting What You Appear to Be Promoting Is Either Ineptitude or Hypocrisy

A very recent post on the Department of Education blog Homeroom promotes “Arts in the Schools Month.” Written by Doug Herbert, a special assistant in the Office of Innovation and Improvement, the post begins: “The arts are an important part of a well-rounded education for all students. Arts-rich schools, those with high-quality arts programs and comprehensive course offerings, benefit students in and outside of the art or dance studio, music room, or stage. “All children deserve arts-rich schools,” Secretary Duncan told an audience of arts education advocates in 2012, as he discussed the disappointing results of an ED survey that showed many students lacking adequate access to arts education.

“There’s no better time to echo the secretary’s pronouncement than in March, widely known as “Arts in the Schools Month.” Under the leadership of national associations representing teachers of dance, music, theatre, and the visual arts, a variety of activities unfold throughout the month—some that showcase the achievements of students and others that focus on the professional growth of arts educators committed to achieving the goal of arts-rich schools for all students.”

The post is divided then into such sections as “Music with a Message,” “Honoring Artistic Achievement,” and “Putting a Focus on Professional Growth.”

Under the heading, “It’s Your Turn to Get Involved,” the post then closes: “Arts-rich schools benefit everyone. Research increasingly shows that arts education heightens engagement for all students and can increase motivation and persistence for those most at risk of failing or dropping out of school. Learning in the arts also uniquely equips students with the skills in creativity and divergent thinking as well as problem-solving and teamwork that they need to be college and career ready. The Arts Education Partnership, with support from ED and the National Endowment for the Arts, has publications and a research clearinghouse, ArtsEdSearch, to help you learn more about why the arts in our schools are worth honoring for a month.

“Take advantage of Arts in Schools Month to learn more about arts education, connect with teachers of the arts to show support for their efforts, and do what you can to help achieve the goal of arts-rich schools for all students.”

Long a promoter of arts education, I have for years coordinated the arts at our campus and, in particular, the arts outreach to the K-12 schools in our service area. So I applaud the focus of this blog post.

But, if you have been reading my posts to this blog with any regularity, you know that I seldom stop simply to applaud something. There is almost always a “but,” especially if the post has something to do with the Department of Education.

Here’s the “but” in this case. What follows is from a brief post to the Progressive Review’s blog Undernews. The post is titled “How the Test Tyrants Are Destroying Arts Education,” and it reports on a survey conducted by a the education advocacy group Raise Your Hand. The survey covers one-third of the schools in the Chicago public schools, and these are the salient results:

“14% have no arts instruction

51% have less than two hours of arts instruction per week

26% have two hours of art instruction

9% have more than two hours of arts instruction

31% saw a decline in arts instruction this year.”

These results run counter to Mayor Emanuel’s public assertion that every school student should have a minimum of two hours of arts education each week and the Chicago public schools own arts plan, which asserts: “the case for the arts is clear. We know that arts education strongly correlates to substantially better student engagement, academic performance, test scores and college attendance, along with significantly decreased dropout rates and behavior problems. And we know that the correlations are strongest for low-income students…Even more, there is growing recognition that the arts contribute to essential 21st century skills like innovation, creativity, and critical thinking.”

The problem is that emphasis on standardized-test scores and the cost of administering standardized tests and other mandated assessments is cutting into the budgets for arts education, among many other things. So, despite everyone’s asserting the “right things” about arts education, the financial support for arts education is being diverted elsewhere.

And this is not simply a problem in the Chicago public schools or in other urban districts. It is a problem nationwide, in all sorts of districts. And it reflects the Department of Education’s own very persistent promotion of standardized testing.

This situation is then extended to the post-secondary level, at which everyone seems to talk out of both sides of their mouths at once, saying the right things about the arts while often simultaneously complaining that arts programs are an expensive and/or unprofitable drain on “institutional resources.” Consider how often at your own or nearby institutions, arts faculty have been cuts and support for arts programs has been slashed either to promote programs in business, healthcare, or the STEM disciplines, or to “free up” resources to create yet another administrative department supporting yet another institutional initiative.

To be clear, I am not saying that arts education and standardized testing should be or necessarily is an either-or proposition. What I am saying that the current emphasis on standardized testing as a core component of education policy has clearly made it, in practice, an either-or proposition.

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