Standards Seen as Step To Insuring Arts Education

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WASHINGTON--A three-day symposium here last week on setting national standards for what students should know and be able to do in the arts featured considerably more glitter than events of this nature usually generate.

Held at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the symposium included a sprinkling of well-known entertainers and artists, performances by dance and musical groups, an award presentation to members of Congress, and a visit from the Secretary of Education.

Beyond the glitz, however, the public-relations effort reflects the enormity of the task that confronts arts educators as they go about creating standards for student learning.

For more than in most areas of the curriculum, the task of setting standards in the arts may focus at least as much on convincing educators and policymakers that the subject belongs in the schools as on determining what students should know and be able to do in art, dance, music, and theater.

While there are few recent studies on the extent to which the arts are being taught in schools, it is widely believed that the field is suffering as districts seek to tighten their budgets.

"National standards,'' Jeanne Rollins, a member of the national-standards committee, told the participants at the meeting, "are one step on the road to making the arts 'legitimate.' ''

Approximately 300 educators attended the March 7-9 symposium, which was hosted by the Kennedy Center along with the Music Educators National Conference.

The event's purposes were twofold: to provide a national platform for arts education and to give the National Committee for Standards in the Arts, which is overseeing the standards effort, some feedback on early drafts of the standards.

Funded by the Education Department, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities, the arts-standards project was launched last summer. By this summer, the committee hopes to begin circulating a draft of what students in kindergarten through 12th grade should know and be able to do in art, dance, music, and theater.

The project is among nine such efforts taking place at the national level to set standards for student achievement in various subject areas.

For All or a Few?

A key issue for the standards committee thus far, said A. Graham Down, the chairman of the group, has been to determine whether to aim its efforts at all students or only at the artistically talented.

"Are we talking about developing a sophisticated consumer for the arts or many Baryshnikovs?'' asked Mr. Down, who is also the president of the Council for Basic Education. "I think the consensus is that we're more interested in the sophisticated consumer.''

Thus, the draft standards have set forth one level of achievement--proficient--for students in kindergarten through 8th grade. However, in recognition that there are students who are specializing in the arts in high school, there are two levels of achievement--proficient and advanced--for students in grades 9 through 12.

The standards committee also has struggled to strike a balance between maintaining the integrity of the individual disciplines covered by the standards and showing students how those disciplines interconnect.

On one key point, however, committee members said they are clear: The standards will move away from the current emphasis in schools on performing or "doing'' the arts to a more balanced approach that also includes instruction in culture, history, and esthetics.

'Delivery' Standards Planned

For many participants, however, such questions were overshadowed by the practical matter of how to implement new, higher arts standards for courses of study that may barely exist in schools now.

Although 42 states require some form of arts education, the degree to which the arts are actually taught varies greatly.

Moreover, the arts are often the first to go when school districts face tight budgets. In New York City, for example, a survey found that two-thirds of public elementary schools have no art or music teachers.

A music educator from another part of the country, writing in a letter that was read to the forum, described having to teach classes to 900 elementary school students in a trailer that is shared with an art teacher.

"The single biggest concern expressed by teachers is no way in the world are they going to have time to do all these things,'' said Paul Lehmann, who heads the task force working on the music standards.

"They're saying, 'Great, where are the standards that say music should get at least 100 minutes a week in elementary school?' '' he said.

Some participants in the project admitted that the standards may be a "moon shot'' for many teachers.

To more directly answer the needs of teachers in districts where the arts get little support, the four groups involved in the effort--the music educators, the American Alliance for Theatre and Education, the National Art Education Association, and the National Dance Association--all plan to develop their own "delivery'' standards specifying what schools need to do to meet the curriculum standards.

Arts educators are also hoping their standards will be bolstered by a closely aligned effort to develop national student assessments in the arts. The National Assessment Governing Board plans to begin testing students' grasp of the arts through its 1996 National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Vol. 12, Issue 25

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