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Draft Standards for Arts Education Stress Knowledge, Performance

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By the time they leave high school, students should be able to play a musical instrument competently, create a dance, and stage dramatic material, according to the first complete draft of national standards for arts education.

Released last month, the 155 standards attempt to describe what students in kindergarten through 12th grade should know and be able to do in the arts.

The federal government is funding the development of voluntary, national standards in the arts and six other subject areas. The efforts stem in part from one of the national education goals adopted in 1990 calling for American students to meet "world class'' standards in core academic areas.

True to that directive, the draft arts standards call for a more comprehensive, sequential, and ambitious form of arts instruction than most experts believe is now occurring in the nation's schools.

Many schools that strive to teach to the proposed standards would have to beef up and revise their arts programs. And those programs would have to put as much emphasis on knowing about and analyzing works of art as on making and performing them.

The arts-standards project is a two-year, $1 million effort funded by the U.S. Education Department, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. The final standards are not expected to be completed until early next year, but officials said they are circulating their first draft now in an effort to get feedback from other arts educators and from the public.

The effort is being led by four national arts groups: the American Association of Theatre Education, the Music Educators National Conference, the National Art Education Association, and the National Dance Association.

The new document contains draft standards in each of the four disciplines: theater, music, visual arts, and dance.

Within each area, however, the benchmarks are grouped under three broad themes: creating and performing, perceiving and analyzing, and understanding historical and cultural context.

"Discipline Based'' Learning

Standards-setters said the attention paid in the draft document to analysis, history, and culture represents a shift from the traditional emphasis in arts teaching on performing or making art to what is known in the field as "discipline based'' arts education.

In addition to learning to sing folk songs, for example, elementary students should be able to describe and compare the prominent characteristics of various genres of Western music or to determine whether specific musical works come from the same culture or from different cultures, according to the proposed standards.

In the visual arts, middle school students should begin to learn how to assess and interpret works of art as well as how to create their own. By high school they should be able to discuss what the artists intended to achieve in particular works of art, the draft standards say.

"There's a lot of stuff out there that we would call 'refrigerator art' or 'rainy day' art that is more entertainment and enrichment than it is education,'' said Thomas Hatfield, the executive director of the N.A.E.A. "These standards really focus on teaching the learning process.''

The draft also says that:

  • Jazz and popular music should be taught in addition to "art music.'' The document places more emphasis on encouraging pupils to improvise and create than is normally the case, according to Paul Lehman, a music professor who led that task force.
  • Technology, long shunned by many arts educators, has a place in the classroom.

"Technology represents the new paintbrushes and new pencils,'' said Dave Master, a California teacher who sits on the national panel overseeing development of the standards.

But he cautioned that "what we don't want to see is someone setting up a computer graphics-arts class where the technology dominates the curriculum.''

  • In all of the arts, all students should be given opportunities to perform, regardless of talent. In high school, however, the standards set two performance levels--advanced and proficient--to allow students planning a career in the arts to specialize.

"We're trying to take away that elitism that's been associated with the arts for so long,'' said Rebecca Hutton, the executive director of the dance association.

Panel officials acknowledged that the standards could mean more hours of instruction in the arts--now widely considered to be among the least taught subjects in the curriculum.

Teaching to the new standards in music could require as much as 125 minutes of instruction a week, Mr. Lehman said.

"Usually, we're pretty lucky to get 100 minutes a week,'' he said.

"We're recognizing there are a lot of other things taught in school besides music,'' he said. "On the other hand, there are some good programs out there, and we don't want to write the standards for less than they have.''

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