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Schools Give Up 'a Significant Payoff' by Cutting Arts Programs

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Boston--When school districts cut back programs during periods of fiscal retrenchment, more often than not the first choices for elimination are offerings in the arts, according to several speakers at a recent conference here.

And that, perhaps as much as any other educational factor, they argued, is affecting the quality of education in the nation's schools.

The conference, which was sponsored by the Boston University School of Education, drew more than 150 educators and advocates for the arts here to discuss their importance in the curriculum and to map out strategies to reverse their decline into what one speaker called "a large null culture in the schools."

Acknowledging that the role of the arts in the schools has been eroded by state and federal budget cuts, most speakers agreed that future of arts education will depend on the development of "good and sound programs" that have the backing of "a constituency of citizens concerned with the quality of education."

"There is an anomaly that exists in this country," asserted Elliot Eisner, professor of education and art at Stanford University and the author of Cognition and Curriculum: A Basis for Deciding What To Teach. "We build museums to house works that represent important achievement ..., music of exceptional sound, and that support people who are exceptional in the arts.

"But when it comes to the public schools," Mr. Eisner said, "the arts do not command attention in the programs offered to students."

"What we have in the schools is a kind of curriculum that defines a certain culture and omits another part of culture," Mr. Eisner said. "To a large extent, the arts represent a large null culture in the schools."

In part, according to Mr. Eisner, that gap has been allowed to occur because of "a fair and longstanding view" that people are either talented or not talented in the arts. He said that the public accurately recognizes that the arts do not have "a significant payoff."

'Disincentives' for Art Education

When school officials "leave out the arts," according to Mr. Eisner, "it is because they are not asked by the public to account for student performance in the arts." Many colleges and universities, he said, also create "disincentives" for art education in the schools by not giving credit to secondary students for "high-level performance in the fine arts."

In the schools that still offer art programs, Mr. Eisner said, most do not provide sufficient time for instruction. "You cannot have quality programs in the fine arts unless adequate time is given for instruction," he said. "If we wanted to design a program that wouldn't work, we couldn't do any better than the programs we have."

'An Inadequate Analysis'

Referring to the recommendations of the National Commission on Excellence in Education, Mr. Eisner said that the published accounts of the report's findings were "very simplistic" and "an inadequate analysis of where the problems in education are."

"If the quality of instruction in the schools is not good," Mr. Eisner contended, "asking for more time in school is counterproductive.''

"What we want to provide is a balanced curriculum," he said. "There's no way we can spend $40 million to $100 million for math and science, neglect the rest, and expect balance."

Citing the property-tax-cutting measures that have limited funding for education in Massachusetts and California, Mr. Eisner said art teachers are becoming a scarce commodity in the schools and urged that states provide teachers with more opportunities for training in the arts. In this country, he said, "We're worried about the things that machines can do, but not worried about the things that only humans can do."

Agreeing with that assessment, Massachusetts Commissioner of Education John H. Lawson said the state currently has no arts specialists because of funding reductions and must rely on teachers who have no training in the arts.

Between October 1980 and October 1981, according to Mr. Lawson, the state was forced to lay off about a fifth of its art teachers and a seventh of its music teachers.

"We must get the message across that [unless we give more emphasis to the arts], in the future we may have people more like robots than human beings," Mr. Lawson said.

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