ECS Wants to Put Arts Back on States’ High-Priority List

By Joetta L. Sack — April 12, 2005 3 min read
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The Education Commission of the States is urging state legislatures to take a more active role in ensuring that an arts education is provided to K-12 students.

The Denver-based group met in Little Rock, Ark., last week to promote the effort and emphasize the role arts can play in student achievement and meeting the goals of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The law identifies arts education as a “core academic subject,” and research shows that such integration can help students develop better organizational and problem-solving skills.

ECS President Piedad F. Robertson said that arts in education would be a “major, major thrust” under the group’s current chairman, Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas.

“We want to find out, how can schools reinforce the arts following the mandate from No Child Left Behind?” Ms. Robertson said.


An education in the arts helps teach students to think creatively and find solutions to difficult problems, which are valuable skills to take to the workplace and have in life, Gov. Huckabee, a Republican, told attendees at the ECS’ national conference last July.

The No Child Left Behind Act gives arts education—defined in national standards as dance, music, theater, and visual arts—equal billing with reading, math, science, and other basic subjects. But because the law does not require testing or consequences related to arts education, some educators say that schools have eliminated arts classes in favor of courses that teach tested subjects.

Federal Concern

Susan K. Sclafani, the U.S. Department of Education’s assistant secretary for vocational and adult education, said last week that the department was concerned that schools were cutting out arts-related classes to focus on reading and math. The law requires annual testing in those subjects for students in grades 3-8.

Ms. Sclafani, who was slated to speak during last week’s ECS meeting, added that the department is planning to survey teachers and administrators by next year about the availability of arts classes in their schools.

The arts, she said, keep students engaged in learning at all grade levels and help prevent dropouts in high school. After the Education Department heard that some schools were dropping arts classes to focus on other subjects, then-Secretary of Education Rod Paige sent a letter to superintendents last summer asking them to continue arts programs.

“We must remind educators that arts are part of the core curriculum, and are expected to be taught to all students at every level,” Ms. Sclafani said. “That’s exactly why the secretary wrote his letter—he wanted to make clear that people understood that’s counterproductive.”

As an example, she praised Arizona for putting arts requirements into its curriculum framework.

Gov. Huckabee, who began playing the guitar at the age of 11, says he has a passion for arts education. As a new governor in 1996, he even formed a rock band with several other state employees.

That passion will be tested as he pushes arts in an already-crowded school day.

Treated as ‘Privilege’?

Some researchers are skeptical that schools will be able to find time to teach an arts curriculum, given that the No Child Left Behind law emphasizes reading and mathematics skills and does not mandate testing in the arts.

The National Association of State Boards of Education researched the issue in 2003, and found much anecdotal evidence of a decline in courses offered in the arts, particularly in schools with high percentages of needy students. Those schools were more likely to be identified as low-performing and to spend more time focused on reading and math instruction, said Brenda L. Welburn, the executive director of the Alexandria, Va.-based group.

“Ultimately, we’re looking at something that’s becoming a privilege and not a right for kids,” she said. “Our stand is that it has to be a right.”

Further, she said,NASBE was unable to find a grant to conduct a data-driven study on how frequently arts and foreign-language curricula are offered in schools, because most financial contributions toward arts education tend to go to individual programs.

Nevertheless, she said, arts education continues to be a top concern for NASBE.

“Our members felt the pendulum toward standards and accountability had swung so far, we were losing arts and foreign languages,” Ms. Welburn said.


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