Arts-Education Standards Set For Unveiling

By Debra Viadero — March 09, 1994 5 min read
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By the end of high school, every student should be able to create a dance, compose in different musical styles, or demonstrate a variety of acting techniques.

Alternatively, each graduate might be expected to write a script for a play or to create a work of visual art that conveys what the student means it to say.

These are among the suggested competencies federal officials and national arts groups are scheduled to unveil this week as part of the first set of national standards for arts education. The project is also the first federally backed effort to set national subject-area standards to complete its work.

The 82 voluntary standards in the arts, which have been reviewed by an estimated 250,000 people, outline what every student--regardless of talent or family income--should know and be able to do in dance, music, theater, and visual arts.

Standards-setters hope that national attention to the new benchmarks will help revitalize a neglected part of the curriculum.

“Standards set a tone for what we should really be reaching for in the arts,’' said Jane Alexander, the chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Arts. “For the first time, there are now real goals to be reached by students--either as a participant or an audience member.’'

Four groups--the American Alliance for Theatre and Education, the Music Educators National Conference, the National Art Education Association, and the National Dance Association--developed the new competencies. Their efforts, which included mass mailings of draft standards to their memberships, were overseen by a 35-member board of artists and educators.

The arts endowment, the Education Department, and the National Endowment for the Humanities funded the $1 million project. The resulting 109-page document is to be formally presented March 11 to Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley.

‘A Major Stretch’

The arts benchmarks are an outgrowth of the national education goals set in 1990 by President Bush and the nation’s governors. Inspired by the national mathematics standards already developed by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, the political leaders resolved that all students should meet challenging competencies in commonly taught subjects. Since then, the federal government, with help from private foundations, has funded projects aimed at setting standards for seven subjects. (See Education Week, Jan. 19, 1994.)

Like benchmarks being developed for other subjects, the arts standards outline what students should know and be able to do at the 4th, 8th, and 12th grades.

They suggest a curriculum for arts education that is more broadly based, more sequential, and more ambitious than what many schools now offer their students.

“For some schools, it’s going to be a major stretch,’' said John Mahlmann, the executive director of the music educators’ group. “Some inner-city schools don’t even have a music or arts program in place, and others have occasional visiting artists.’'

“On the other hand, other schools might even be achieving these standards already,’' he said.

The standards do not specify how much instructional time students would need to meet the new competencies. But they note in an introduction that national arts groups recommend devoting 15 percent of the elementary and secondary curriculum to the subject.

In high school, those groups say, arts studies should be required.

The standards recommend beginning arts instruction as early as kindergarten. By the time they leave 4th grade, students should be able to demonstrate eight simple dance movements and perform folk dances from a variety of cultures.

They should also be able to sing partner songs and rounds, to create and arrange music to accompany dramatic presentations, and to play simple rhythmic, melodic, and choral patterns on classroom instruments.

In the theater arts, the standards say, 4th graders should be able to improvise dialogue to tell stories and to plan classroom dramatizations.

And they should be able to identify specific works of visual art as belonging to particular cultures, times, and places.

At the high school level, the standards-setters separated their performance goals into proficient and advanced levels.

By 12th grade, they say, all students should be proficient in one art form. But only students who are specializing in an art form should be held to the higher standard.

A proficient choral student, for example, should be able to sing music written in four parts, with and without accompaniment. The advanced student should do the same with music written in more than than four parts.

Over all, however, the standards attempt to put as much emphasis on learning about art, analyzing it, and understanding its esthetic, cultural, and historical significance as they do on “doing’’ it. Panel members said that marks a change from school arts programs’ traditional orientation toward performance.

Understanding and Doing

“Some people thought the inclusion of historical and cultural context was a fad, that it put the emphasis on talking about music rather than doing it,’' said Paul Lehman, who headed the task force that wrote the music standards.

The standards also urge students to examine connections between the arts and with other disciplines.

While many of the performance goals are fairly specific, the standards generally do not dictate teaching methods or philosophies. Nor do they suggest specific works of art or artistic media.

“We were more wedded to the notion of teaching kids problem-solving and higher-order thinking skills,’' said Thomas Hatfield, the executive director of the visual-arts organization.

“We wanted to make the standards open enough so that schools could make them their own,’' said Barbara Wills, the theater alliance’s executive director.

Current Programs Spotty

That task may be more difficult for some schools--and some disciplines--than it will be for others. While no art form is taught in all schools, visual arts and music are offered in most elementary schools.

But programs vary widely. MENC says the time allocated for elementary music, for example, ranges from 20 to 120 minutes a week.

Dance and theater programs are even more spotty. An estimated one-fourth of elementary schools offer instruction in theater arts, while dance programs at that level are practically nonexistent outside of physical-education classes.

In addition to devoting more time to the subject, panel members said, many schools would have to invest more in resources and staff for their arts programs.

“Clearly, these are going to mean more personnel with broader talents than what we have now in schools,’' said Gordon M. Ambach, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers and a standards-panel member.

A version of this article appeared in the March 09, 1994 edition of Education Week as Arts-Education Standards Set For Unveiling


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