Curriculum

Arts, Foreign Languages Getting Edged Out

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — November 05, 2003 4 min read
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After a decade of expansion of arts and foreign-language programs, particularly in elementary schools, many educators are warning that the subjects are in danger of being edged out of the curriculum as districts spend more time on reading, mathematics, and science.

Ordering information for the full report is available from the National Association of State Boards of Education.

From New York to Washington state, administrators have proposed cutbacks to other subjects as they struggle to meet the demands of state accountability programs and the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Low-performing schools, observers say, are feeling the greatest pressure to spend more time building students’ basic skills in order to raise test scores.

Such decisions, exacerbated by budget cuts and a shortage of qualified teachers, have left less time and fewer resources for the other subjects in the core curriculum that are excluded from accountability measures.

A recent report by the National Association of State Boards of Education underscores the concern in the field. After a year of study, a working group of the Alexandria, Va.-based organization concludes that the arts and foreign languages indeed “are at risk of becoming the lost curriculum.”

“With our heavy focus on testing a limited number of subjects, schools are using all the available time to shore up kids’ basic skills in order to have them show improvement on the tests,” said Brenda L. Welburn, NASBE’s executive director.

“While we understand the need for every student to have strong fundamental skills, we are not providing a comprehensive education for all students,” Ms. Welburn added

The report, “The Complete Curriculum: Ensuring a Place for the Arts and Foreign Languages in America’s Schools,” released last month, calls on administrators and policymakers to ensure that those subjects remain part of the core curriculum through strong teacher-licensure laws, graduation requirements, and elementary programs.

Although the arts and foreign languages are included in the core curriculum prescribed by the federal law passed in 2001, states are not required to report student-achievement results in those subjects, leaving the subjects vulnerable to cuts, the committee of state education officials argues in its report.

The group’s assessment is based primarily on anecdotal evidence from the field.

Research, however, has shown that teachers spend more time on subjects that are tested and for which they are held accountable for results than they do on other subjects. (“Concentration on Reading, Math Troubles Social Studies Educators,” Feb. 20, 2002.)

Responsible and Responsive

Even if drastic cuts to existing programs do not occur, some observers say, the intense focus on the tested subjects could hinder attempts to maintain or expand academic offerings.

The most recent survey of foreign-language programs, conducted several years ago, showed continuation of a decade-long trend toward increasing enrollments.

Still, districts in Indiana, Kansas, Nebraska, South Carolina, and Wisconsin recently announced they would cut arts and foreign-language programs and teaching positions, according to data gathered this fall by the National Education Association. It is not clear if those actions were the result of state and local budget cuts, testing requirements, or a combination of factors.

Proponents of the standards and accountability movement say little evidence is available to suggest that district leaders are jeopardizing comprehensive academic programs as a result of testing initiatives.

“I don’t think that there’s much concern that a school’s going to get rid of the arts, and phys. ed., and foreign language to have more time to prepare for the tests in English, math, and science,” said Matt Gandal, the executive vice president of Achieve, a Washington-based group led by governors and corporate executives that promotes rigorous standards and accountability. In most cases, he said, such cuts would be irresponsible.

“While obviously every good school leader has to be responsible to the accountability system,” he said, “they also need to be responsive to the broader needs of students and desires of parents, which include the arts, languages, and other subjects that are the basis of a quality education.”

Mr. Gandal acknowledged, however, that many low-performing schools must make a tradeoff and choose more basic-skills instruction at the expense of other curricular offerings.

An Equity Issue?

Parents and community members in Memphis, Tenn., were able to save a program that enables children to study Spanish, French, or Chinese beginning in kindergarten. The 118,000-student district has expanded the program over the past seven years to 73 of its 110 elementary schools.

When the school board considered a plan to cut the program this past August, protesters convinced officials it was a valuable part of the curriculum.

“The good news is that when they tried to eliminate it, the community rallied support,” said Maggie Lee, the program’s director. “The clincher was [that we argued] we don’t want poor children to get any less academically” than their better-off peers.

Advocates for the arts and foreign languages argue that evidence is growing that their subjects can actually enhance student achievement across the curriculum.

“We need to give every student every possible avenue and tool as a window into learning,” said Hollis Headrick, the executive director of the Center for Arts Education, which provides grants to support arts programs in 150 New York City schools. “Without these programs, you reduce the ability to give these students a complete education.”

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