Educators Urge That Arts Be Added to 'Basics'

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Washington--Education in the arts should become an "academic basic" in the school curriculum, educators meeting here argued last week. But for that to happen, they said, what students learn in the arts should be organized, tested, and evaluated by methods that have long been used in other disciplines.

Some of the obstacles to including classes in the arts as essential rather than "enrichment" studies, they noted, are the imprecision of the language usually used to discuss the arts; incorrect assumptions by educators, students, and the public about the arts and learning; and a lack of precedents--except in higher education--for setting minimum academic requirements that can be tested and evaluated.

The meeting, "Arts in Education: An Action Agenda for the 80's," brought together state and local school officials and teachers representing seven states and the District of Columbia. It was held at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts under the sponsorship of the Maryland Alliance for Arts Education, the Maryland State Department of Education, and the mid-Atlantic regional chapter of the Alliance for Arts Education.

New 'Language'

Many speakers urged that arts educators develop a new "language" that both they and the public can use when advocating the arts in education. Standardized terms that deliberately avoid jargon are necessary, they said, if the arts are to "compete in the academic arena."

Speakers who had participated in the preparation of national, state, or local reports on education, such as the College Board's "Academic Preparation for College: What Students Need To Know and Be Able To Do," said they had found it difficult to agree with their colleagues on the wording they should use.

"We need to find a language," said Richard J. Deasy, assistant superintendent in Maryland's department of education, "that the public can use to articulate their desires; the arts are a part of their daily lives in their community."

Participants pointed, as an example of the "language" problem, to ''A Nation at Risk," the report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education. It states: "A high level of shared education in [the commission's recommended] basics, together with work in the fine and performing arts and foreign languages, constitutes the mind and spirit of our culture." And a later reference in the document says that the arts and vocational education "complement" the commission's "new basics."

One person commented that references to the study of the arts that use words such as "spirit," "culture," and "complement" imply that the arts are somehow amorphous or a "frill" and should be treated differently than more "academic" subjects.

Preferred by some participants was the wording of the College Board's recommendations for college preparation during high school.

Listing the arts as one of six "basic academic competencies," the report states, "The Basic Academic Competencies are the broad intellectual skills essential to effective work in all fields of college study."

One teacher remarked that she was glad the report mentioned the term "intellectual skills."

Misconceptions about the arts can also hinder efforts to raise their status within the school curriculum, according to researchers who spoke at the conference. The assumption that the arts are exclusively "emotional or physical" is belied by recent research, the educators were told. Recent research on brain-damaged people indicates that nonverbal communication requires the "cognitive processes" that are used in reading and mathematics and that have been traditionally thought of as the function of the left, or "verbal," hemisphere of the brain.

"We have assumed that cognition is verbal and propositional and that all nonverbal activities are therefore noncognitive and therefore second-class," said Martha N. Rashid, professor of education and human development at George Washington University.

It has also been thought, the researchers and other speakers said, that what children learned in the arts could be neither proven nor catalogued. But they told the audience that educators in the arts must be willing to let their students and programs be studied, tested, and evaluated. "We need to consider the latest theories of learning and the latest understanding of pedagogical processes," said Clyde M. McGeary, chief of the division of arts and sciences in the Pennsylvania State Department of Education, during a session on high-school graduation requirements.

"There are essential skills and essential facts" in the study of the arts, Mr. McGeary said, that may be identified as clearly as accepted categories for science and mathematics.

Mr. McGeary, a member of a science and mathematics task force for Pennsylvania's education department that will soon present its recommendations to the state board of education, said the categories that he had used to evaluate science and mathematics courses for the task force's study could be used to evaluate programs in the arts.

One high-school principal asked that educators continue work on "maps" that chart comprehensive studies in the arts spanning the years from kindergarten to high-school graduation and that standardize the requirements for exposure to the arts for every child. A few states have begun work on such plans.

Many speakers mentioned "pressuring" the testing agencies to include facts on the history and theory of the arts on national standardized tests, such as the Scholastic Aptitude Test.

One educator in the audience said she had approached one school administrator repeatedly about the role of the arts in the schools, with disappointingly little effect. One day, the official approached her and said, "I've been watching 'It's Academic' on TV. You know, there are a lot of questions on the arts on that show. Maybe we should have more classes on the arts here."

Vol. 03, Issue 06

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