Arts education, which tends to be something of an afterthought in many American school districts, is facing an even tougher time than usual. Twin threats — budget cuts necessitated by dwindling tax revenues and the push to focus on math and reading skills as measured on standardized tests — have left music and art classes in a particularly vulnerable state.
What is being lost — and what, if anything, can be done about this trend — is addressed in two scholarly papers published in the new issue of the Arts Education Policy Review. One notes students whose education is dominated by rote learning will not be prepared for “the jobs of tomorrow,” while the other explores the value of the arts in helping kids understand their emotions.
In “No Child Left Behind and Fine Arts Classes,” Tina Beveridge of Lower Columbia College in Longview, Wash., details the obvious and subtle ways a test-centric approach to education devalues arts instruction. (Obvious: School districts being judged on student test scores have little incentive to fund such programs. Subtle: The courses that remain are often classified as “fun,” which conveys the unintentional message “the arts do not require skill, knowledge, commitment or work.”)
Beveridge finds considerable irony in the fact that the original stated goal of the 2001 federal No Child Left Behind Act, which mandated standardized testing, “was to close the achievement gap in education.” She argues that by narrowing the focus of education to a few testable topics, it ends up doing just the opposite.
“If we marginalize all non-tested subjects, we create a system in which only the affluent members of our society have access to the most comprehensive and well-rounded educations, which widens the achievement gap rather than closes it,” she writes.
Specifically what arts-deprived kids are missing is explored in “How the Arts Help Children to Create Healthy Social Scripts” by Liane Brouillette of the University of California, Irvine. She argues that for children to become successful adults, they need to know more than just how to read, write and multiply. They need to learn fundamental social skills, such as the ability to “persist in goal-oriented activity, to seek help when needed, and to participate in and benefit from relationships.”
The arts are an invaluable teaching tool in this regard, in that they “naturally and frequently involve group tasks,” she notes. “Activities such as dramatic play or dancing in unison provide a venue for learning collaboration and cooperation.”
Brouillette interviewed 12 first- through fourth-grade teachers who had participated in an artist-in-residence program for at least one semester. The program brought professional artists into their inner-city classrooms for one hour per week.
“It was the teachers whose students had participated in drama workshops who spoke most eloquently about the impact of art lessons on students’ interpersonal skills,” she writes. “The teaching artists who taught drama had put a strong emphasis on teamwork, also insisting that children act as respectful and responsive audience members when others presented their work.”
“Most drama activities were designed to explore narratives that were already covered in language arts or social studies texts,” she adds. “Through the incorporation of creative drama, however, teachers felt that children experienced this familiar material in a deeper way. Acting out a scene required deeper exploration of the meaning of the words, and therefore led to better comprehension.
“Teachers especially valued the opportunity that the acting exercises provided for discussion of emotions, bullying and friendship — sensitive topics that were difficult to address elsewhere in the curriculum without students feeling embarrassment or defensiveness.”
Brouillette concludes by proposing arts advocates — and anyone else who realizes the skills learned in arts classes “are basic to the maintenance of a healthy democracy” — campaign to enlarge the scope of teacher training.
“If all teacher certification programs at the elementary level were to equip teacher candidates with arts-based techniques for supporting the social-emotional development of children,” she writes, “this would not only benefit students but also create a broader base of support for the arts.”
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