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Posted at 04:00 AM ET, 05/20/2011

Report: Why we need arts education (not only to improve test scores)

A new report by a presidentially appointed committee on arts education makes the case that art education not only helps young people find their voice but also is an effective tool in improving student achievement in all subjects. It even ends up helping the private sector too.

The report, released by Obama’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities and called Reinvesting in Arts Education: Winning America’s Future Through Creative Schools, is the first federal analysis of arts education data in more than a decade and was 18 months in the making.

It makes the following five recommendations that serve as a blueprint for schools to increase arts education in public schools and integrate the arts into an array of other subjects:

1) Build robust collaborations among different approaches to arts education

2) Develop the field of arts integration

3) Expand in-school opportunities for teaching artists

4) Utilize federal and state policies to reinforce the place of arts in K-12 education

5) Widen the focus of evidence gathering about arts education

What the report advocates makes a great deal of sense, especially in an era when the arts have been given short shrift in a rush to concentrate on subjects that are measured by standardized tests, especially math and reading, and education funding has been cut.

But, in a sign of the times -- meaning the era in which standardized testing is supreme as a measure of achievement by students, teachers, schools, districts and states -- the report rushes to connect arts education to test scores.

In fact, it doesn’t take more than two paragraphs (albeit fat ones) in the first chapter of the 76-page analysis to introduce how arts education helps improve standardized test scores. That first chapter is titled “The Case” (with “Arts Education Outcomes” as the subtitle). What is the case the authors are trying to make? Here it is:

“While there is support for the intrinsic value of developing cultural literacy and teaching artistic skills and techniques, leadership groups typically emphasize instrumental outcomes derived from high quality arts education in one or more of the following categories:

• Student achievement, typically as represented by reading and mathematics performance on high stakes tests, including transfer of skills learning from the arts to learning in other academic areas—for example, the spatial-temporal reasoning skills developed by music instruction;

• Student motivation and engagement, including improved attendance, persistence, focused attention, heightened educational aspirations, and intellectual risk taking;

• Development of habits of mind including problem solving, critical and creative thinking, dealing with ambiguity and complexity, integration of multiple skill sets, and working with others; and

• Development of social competencies, including collaboration and team work skills, social tolerance, and self-confidence.

Notice what came first. The standardized tests.

The report strains to discuss research that attempts to connect arts education with student achievement, because today, somehow, we have to have “research” that proves things that are self-evident.

If you have ever watched kids learn, you know that engaging them through the arts is much easier than trying to get them to memorize facts. It’s a no-brainer to infuse arts in learning across the disciplines, but, because there is no standardized test attached to it -- at least not quite yet -- it is looked on as less important.

The same has become true of physical education, where advocates bend over backwards to link PE to improved test scores and student academic outcomes. As if helping kids stay physically healthy isn’t a good enough outcome on its own.

So this is where we are today: Not only do advocates find themselves in the defensive position of having to “prove” the value of arts education in relation to test scores, but the whole exercises belittles the importance of creativity as a value necessary to the development of young people who are going to become active participants in American civic life.

The report is useful in reminding the public of the importance of arts education and why we should put it back in public education everywhere. Since the committee that produced the report is appointed by President Obama, and since the panel’s honorary chair is First Lady Michelle Obama, just maybe someone in the administration will actually pay attention in regard to future education policy.

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By  |  04:00 AM ET, 05/20/2011

 
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