Curriculum Reporter's Notebook

State Policymakers Hear Strong Case for Arts Education

By David J. Hoff — July 26, 2005 4 min read
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The No Child Left Behind Act has focused educators on improving student achievement reading and mathematics. But one state group is reminding them: Don’t forget that teaching the arts is a vital part of any curriculum and may even be helpful in improving test scores in the three R’s.

The Education Commission of the States’ annual conference here last month included a variety of plenary sessions in which the group’s leaders and other speakers advocated ways for policymakers to integrate the performing and other arts into efforts to improve learning.

The state legislators, commissioners of education, and other policymakers heard from Piedad F. Robertson, who became the group’s president in February, about the importance of using creativity to lead schools and other organizations. They also learned about the opera-in-schools program in Washington and Los Angeles led by the renowned tenor Placido Domingo.

At a social event at the Red Rock concert venue, the rhythm-and-blues band of Gov. Mike Huckabee entertained those who attended the July 13-14 conference, held in the ECS’ headquarters city of Denver.

The Arkansas Republican chose “Arts in Education” as his focus for his two-year stint as chairman, which ends in 2006.

“There is not a student in America that would not benefit from an arts education,” Mr. Huckabee said during the conference. “We’re trying to point out that arts are not extracurricular. They’re essential.”

Many observers said that schools are overlooking the arts because they face pressure from the 3½-year-old No Child Left Behind Act to improve reading and math achievement. But Mr. Huckabee reminded attendees that the federal law lists arts as part of the core curriculum.

And a Bush administration official said he hopes that policymakers heed the ECS’ message.

“Yes, we do believe we must start with reading and math,” deputy secretary at the U.S. Department of Education Raymond J. Simon said in his July 13 luncheon speech, where he also announced that the department would publish states’ graduation rates, using a common measure. (“Efforts Seek Better Data on Graduates,” this issue.)

But, Mr. Simon added, “we believe that forcing a choice between … reading and the arts is a false choice.”

As part of the arts education theme, Mr. Huckabee presented the chairman’s award to Mr. Domingo. As the general director of the Washington National Opera and the Los Angeles Opera, the world-famous singer leads a program through which public school students have the chance to attend operas and participate in them.

State policymakers also learned more about an effort by one arm of the federal government to create new curricula and actively work to improve teachers’ ability to teach about the arts.

The National Endowment of the Arts will soon publish curricula on William Shakespeare as well as on the history of jazz, said David Steiner, the endowment’s director of arts education.

The grantmaking agency also has created summer institutes in which teachers learn about the arts.

“What we’re trying to is bring teachers together with world-class scholars to study one or two great pieces of art,” Mr. Steiner said during one of the conference’s several breakout sessions.

The arts endowment has budgeted $480,000 to finance seminars at 12 sites.

While the projects are helpful in expanding and improving arts education, they are only small steps toward ensuring that all students have the opportunity for what Mr. Steiner called a “sequential arts education.”

“We have a huge challenge in front of us,” he said.

While the ECS’ focus of the past year has been on art education, the conference agenda included a variety of topics spanning the policy world. One well-attended session focused on improving high schools, which was also the theme of a national summit led by the governors in February. (“High Schools in Limelight for Summit,” Feb. 23, 2005)

“Right now, we’re in the ‘what’s wrong?’ stage, not the ‘what are we going to do about it?’ stage,” Jo Lynne DeMary, Virginia’s state superintendent of education, told a crowd that overflowed into the hallway.

And the task of improving high schools will not be easy, another panelist said.

“It’s going to be very difficult work, because it requires a complete culture change,” said Gerry House, the president of the Institute for Student Achievement, a Lake Success, N.Y.-based group overseeing improvement projects in 24 districts. Ms. House is a former superintendent of schools in Memphis, Tenn.

But there are enough successful efforts to emulate, said Jean Rutherford, the director of educational initiatives for the National Center for Educational Accountability, based in Austin, Texas.

Those model schools are effective at defining exactly what students ought to know about a subject, and tracking whether they learn it, Ms. Rutherford said. When students’ achievement fails to measure up to the standard, she said, teachers analyze data to figure why not, and then change how they teach.

“We’re starting hear stories about places that are doing this, and that to me is the most encouraging thing,” said Ms. Rutherford.

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