Arts Agency’s Curriculum Plan Gets Mixed Reviews

By Robert Rothman — May 31, 1989 4 min read

Washington--After a skeptical review from its new advisory board on arts education, the National Endowment for the Arts is reconsidering a plan to provide grants to schools and school districts to develop model curricula.

The plan, launched last month, is aimed at implementing a recommendation in the endowment’s 1988 report on arts education, “Toward Civilization.” The report contended that a key problem in arts instruction is that schools lack a clear definition of what an appropriate arts curriculum should be.

But at their first meeting here last week, the 40-member advisory panel of educators, artists, and state and federal officials questioned whether such grants would be the most effective use of the agency’s relatively modest education budget.

“The relationship between the resources and the magnitude of the job is way out of balance,” said Richard C. Glowacki, president of the Danberry Company in Toledo, Ohio. “Is strategic ‘seeding’ going to work? I don’t think so.”

Rather than spend $1 million to develop new curricula, he and others suggested, the endowment should spend its funds on convincing policymakers of the importance of arts education--or on developing criteria for evaluating effective programs.

Warren Newman, director of the endowment’s arts-in-education program, said the agency had already solicited applications for grants to develop a general art-appreciation curriculum for high schools. But it may reconsider in light of the pan4el’s remarks, he said, whether to seek bids for other planned grants.

“You said there are other first steps before we look at specifics,” Mr. Newman told the advisory group.

Mixed Results

The proposed initiative reflects an effort by Frank Hodsoll, the endowment’s former chairman, to direct a greater share of its $180-million budget to education, and to focus its school programs on making the arts a basic part of the K-12 curriculum.

In contrast to the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, the arts agency devotes a relatively small proportion of its budget--3 percent, or $5.5 million--to precollegiate education.

The agency’s largest education program, the $3.3-million state arts-in-education grants, primarily funds traditional artist-in-residence programs.

But the endowment in 1986 created a new $1-million grant program to spur basic arts education. To date, 29 states have received grants to plan or implement projects designed to de8velop sequential arts curricula.

Although the nea is currently evaluating the three-year-old program, initial reports indicate it has had mixed results, according to Mr. Newman.

“In some states, it is working. Change is occurring,” he said. “But that is highly idiosyncratic to that state at that particular time.’'

“In other states,” the official said, “there is not a desire to change, or else the conditions are so negative that the desire is not going to happen regardless of how much money we give them.”

To speed up change, Mr. Newman argued, the agency should “go below the state level” and provide additional aid to districts and individual schools.

“We need to engage a different unit,” he said. “We’re looking at schools and school districts as the beginning point for curriculum development.”

Under the plan, the agency would provide three-year grants of up to $30,000 per year to schools that developed curricula for: a high-school art-appreciation course; a high-school American-history course that focuses on cultural history; a junior-high-school media course; and an upper-elementary design and environmental-arts course.

A Selling Job?

Some members of the advisory board, however, questioned the effectiveness of the model-curriculum approach.

Robert Glidden, dean of the school of music at Florida State University, said such projects could lead to “canned curricula” that are “patronizing, almost insulting, to professionals in the field.”

Ramon Cortines, superintendent of the San Francisco Unified School District, countered that such documents can be useful to teachers who lack the time and skills to develop curricula on their own.

“This is not a cookie-cutter approach,” he insisted, “but setting guidelines and parameters.”

Other panel members argued that the proposal addresses the wrong problem. A more urgent need, they contended, is support for arts education among policymakers.

“We focus too much on how to make education work, and too little on how to sell education to the general public,” said Samuel Farr, a California state assemblyman.

When school budgets are tight, noted Manya Ungar, president of the National pta, “the first thing a board of education will do is cut arts.”

Rather than produce new documents, added Gordon M. Ambach, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, the endowment should identify and highlight existing programs that are effective.

“If there is one thing we have learned from the education-reform movement,” he said, “it’s that we should not rely on written reports.”

“Teachers change when they go next door and watch somebody else do it,” he said.

Fred Lazarus 4th, president of the Maryland Institute’s College of Art, argued that both curriculum development and advocacy are needed.

“If we don’t have a high-quality product,” he said, “whatever the reform movement does to the arts in the next five years will get tossed out again in 10 years.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 31, 1989 edition of Education Week as Arts Agency’s Curriculum Plan Gets Mixed Reviews