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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Does Arts Education Matter?

By Peter DeWitt — May 15, 2013 4 min read
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The public education system is at serious risk of only focusing on numbers, and we all know there are more important things in life than numbers.

Does everything in education need to be measured? Do we need some sort of proof that everything taught in schools has to lead to student achievement? Not everything in the public school system needs to be tied to a number. There are numerous ways to show whether a program or subject is successful. Unfortunately, due to accountability, all subject areas are held under the same microscope and only the strong will survive.

In our present system of Social Darwinism, the arts are constantly fighting for a place in the public school system. Many educators are concerned that if they can’t prove it leads to student achievement, it will be cut from the public school system for good. Even worse, when it is a fight to the death between programs in schools, adults show support to one subject over the other and the arts are usually on the losing end.

Students are not provided with the experience to explore their artistic side unless it can be proven that it will lead to increased test scores and higher graduation rates. Accountability is forcing schools to churn out cookie cutter students who can all perform well in the area of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). However, not all students are STEM students.

Education is all about STEM these days. STEM is clearly important but it seems to be the fix du jour to all of our problems. STEM will help U.S. students become more globally competitive. Unfortunately, we have seen contradictory reports about whether the U.S. is competitive or not. It seems to depend on who is backing the research.

The arts doesn’t have the same kind of support that STEM does because the arts are seen as something that “feels good.” They are not seen as a real pathway to college. The arts are seen as something kids can experiment with while they are in school. After all, how many kids get into the Julliard? How many jobs are there for students who are artistic? Being artistic is something good to have as an “extra.”

We know that students who excel at STEM clearly do well academically. They must be good students to get into STEM-type classes. However, there are studies that show students who are in the arts are more civic-minded and do well academically. In a 2006 study, Catterall et al. says, “Teenagers and young adults of low socioeconomic status (SES) who have a history of in-depth arts involvement show better academic outcomes than do low-SES youth who have less arts involvement. They earn better grades and demonstrate higher rates of college enrollment and attainment.”

But why does it have to be that way? Can’t student achievement mean more than test scores?

A Case Not to Measure the Arts
In his famous 2006 Ted Talk, Sir Ken Robinson questioned whether the public school system was killing creativity. In the talk he even gave examples that focused on the importance of the arts. Remember the story about Gillian Lynne? Turning to dance saved her from being misdiagnosed for academic issues in her early years.

“Art education should be championed for its own sake, not because of a wishful sentiment that classes in painting, dance and music improve pupils’ math and reading skills and standardized test scores.” This was the thought of Ellen Winner and Lois Hetland. Winner and Hetland are two researchers who found that arts education did not improve academic performance. Yes, they said it did not improve academic performance. They later wrote a book entitled Studio Thinking, which focused on the real benefits of arts education.

In a 2007 N.Y. Times article Winner and Hetland said, “We feel we need to change the conversation about the arts in this country,” They continued by saying, “These instrumental arguments are going to doom the arts to failure, because any superintendent is going to say, ‘If the only reason I’m having art is to improve math, let’s just have more math.’”

They’re right. The arts should be important because it gives students the opportunity to express themselves in different ways. The arts provide an outlet for students who may not have other opportunities once they step outside of school. They may not always lead to increased student achievement, but they may lead to increased self-esteem or an increase in student confidence that may lead to improved performance over time.

Participating in the arts may also lead to a better appreciation for...the arts. Think of the last math problem that made you laugh! What about the last science experiment that brought you to tears! The arts lead to the same inner passion for students that other subjects do.

Data is a Four Letter Word
Not everything needs to be measurable. The public education system is at serious risk of only focusing on numbers, and we all know there are more important things in life than numbers. When we want an escape from a bad day we turn on an old movie. When we go to the city we long to see a play.

Every summer, I head to the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC) to catch at least one performance of the New York City Ballet. It’s something everyone should experience at least once. Seeing a story unfold in such a beautiful way is hard to articulate. When I’m at SPAC I think of all of the concerts I have attended and have fond memories of hanging out on the lawn with friends or family. It is my hope that simply having the arts offered in school does not become one of those fond memories.

Randy Cohen gives his Top Ten Reasons to Support the Arts below:
True prosperity
• Improved academic performance
• Arts are an industry
• Arts are good for local merchants
• Arts are the cornerstone of tourism
• Arts are an export industry
• Building the 21st Century workforce
• Healthcare
• Stronger communities
• Creative Industries

For a more detailed explanation of Cohen’s top ten list, click here.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.