Duncan: Well-Rounded Education a Necessity, Not a Luxury

By Erik W. Robelen — April 09, 2010 3 min read
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Here’s something you probably didn’t know about our nation’s secretary of education: He played the drums when he was in middle school. But he apparently wasn’t very good.

“I learned some good lessons in the process—despite my forgettable performance,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan says in prepared remarks for a speech he’s set to deliver this afternoon to a conference hosted by the Arts Education Partnership. (His father, by contrast, was an accomplished banjo player, he notes.)

The speech offers what Education Department officials say is Duncan’s most extensive remarks to date on the administration’s recent call to promote a “well-rounded education.” That idea is embedded in both the Obama administration’s budget request for the Education Department in fiscal 2011 and in its blueprint for reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (a.k.a. No Child Left Behind).

“For decades, arts education has been treated as though it was a novice teacher at school, the last hired and first fired when times get tough. But President Obama, the first lady, and I reject the notion that the arts, history, foreign languages, geography, and civics are ornamental offerings that can or should be cut from schools during a fiscal crunch,” he says. “The truth is that, in the information age, a well-rounded curriculum is not a luxury but a necessity.”

And yet one of his core policy prescriptions at the federal level may not come as welcome news to proponents of arts education. Or history education, or civics education, for that matter. That’s because the administration wants to consolidate nine existing programs into a larger, more flexible spending pot, titled “Effective Teaching and Learning for a Well-Rounded Education, with a price tag of $265 million in fiscal 2011. Among the programs to be consolidated under the proposal are the $40 million Arts in Education, the $119 Teaching American History, and the $27 million Foreign Language Assistance programs.

Duncan says he recognizes that the proposal “may make some arts providers nervous, even if they can potentially compete for significantly more funding than in the past. Change can be unsettling. But I urge arts educators to have the confidence of their convictions to compete and demonstrate the value of their disciplines on student outcomes.”

Indeed, a variety of organizations and lawmakers—Republicans and Democrats alike—have criticized elements of that plan. A chief concern is that the consolidation would lead to the neglect of issues Congress has long identified as national priorities through separate funding streams.

Duncan also notes in the speech another idea in the administration’s ESEA blueprint that he says could help bolster attention to subjects like the arts and history.

“Our ESEA proposal will allow states to incorporate assessments of subjects beyond English/language arts and math in their accountability systems,” he says. Presumably, the idea is that if these tests count, teachers and schools will devote more time and attention to other subjects. And yet, I have to imagine many states would be reluctant to go this route.

In addition, Duncan highlights some other ways the Education Department will help to promote a well-rounded education.

“The department will ... continue to fund research studies on the effectiveness of curricula as it has in the past,” he says. “We are currently in the midst of conducting the first large-scale survey of school principals, music teachers, and visual -arts specialists in 10 years.”

Duncan closes his prepared remarks with a nod to President Kennedy:

“Let the arts, as President Kennedy said, establish the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment.”

Update: Rocco Landesman, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, also spoke at the arts conference today.

He announced five states that the NEA will work with this summer—Oregon, Washington, New Hampshire, Illinois, and Ohio—through the Education Leaders Institute. This initiative, launched in 2007, brings together policymakers, educators, advocates, and others to design arts education plans in individual states.

“The arts provide us with new ways of thinking, new ways to draw connections,” Landesman said in prepared remarks. “They are important social capital, and they help maintain our competitive edge by engendering innovation and creativity.”

Landesman added: “It is our job to support and expand the work of our public schools. But the public schools need to own arts education—it should not be outsourced to us.”

Photo Credit: Sevans/Education Week

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.