Art, music haven’t vanished

Music and art haven’t disappeared from schools, despite the pressures of test-based accountability and fears of curriculum narrowing, according to a federal report by the National Center for Education Statistics. Music and visual arts instruction is widely available and has changed little over the past decade, the report concluded.

Music and visual-arts instruction are more widely available at high-poverty elementary schools, but less available at high-poverty secondary schools, notes Ed Week.

“When I look at the big picture, … I see a good-news, bad-news story,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in prepared remarks for the report’s release . . .

“The good news is that the last decade has not generally produced a dramatic narrowing of the curriculum in the arts,” he said. “But there is considerable bad news in today’s report, too—and especially for disadvantaged students.”

“Generally, what we really found is there is no consistent trend of decline in arts education in public schools,” said Jared Coopersmith, a project officer at the NCES.

“At-risk” students involved in the arts – in or out of school – do better in school, go farther in college and are more civics minded, according to a National Endowment for the Arts report.  “Access to the arts” included “coursework in music, dance, theater, or the visual arts; out-of-school arts lessons; or membership, participation, and leadership in arts organizations and activities, such as band or theater.”

However, the report didn’t answer the chicken/egg question:  Do the arts create achievers or attract them?

What is arts education?

Just recently, In August 2009, Secretary Duncan made a rather vague plug for the arts, in which he stated that “the arts can help students become tenacious, team-oriented problem solvers who are confident and able to think creatively.”

If that was all the arts could do, I would shrug my shoulders. What about teaching students to sing in three-part harmony, or perform a Shakespeare monologue? What about the student who works for hours on the light and shadows in her painting?

The arts certainly have side benefits. They may draw out the abilities of a student who has not performed well in other subjects. They teach discipline and persistence. Students come to know the joy of taking part in something beautiful, of mastering difficult material and seeing it come together. And through this they may also be reading, building vocabulary, working with abstract concepts, learning about measure, rhythm, proportion, and time, and much more. The arts draw a school community together; there are few events as exciting as the opening night of a play, when the auditorium is packed with proud parents and siblings.

Beyond that, the arts prepare students to participate in cultural life, as performers, audience, or both. Without arts education, many children will know only the culture of the Internet, the iPod, and TV—rich resources in their own right, but limiting if you don’t know what to look for. Without the support of young people, many local cultural institutions will close. We will be left with whatever culture we can find on our individual screens.

So we need arts education, but what is it? What constitutes a strong arts program in schools? We can devote a certain number of hours to the arts, but what should happen during those hours?

Arts education consists of several overlapping categories.

First, there is knowledge of the arts: the study of music theory and art history; the reading and analysis of plays, and so forth. This sort of study can exist on its own, or it can be part of arts, history, and literature classes. Either way, it can enhance students’ understanding not only of the arts, but also of history, literature, and science.

Second, there is experience of the arts: watching a play, listening to music, looking at a painting, watching a photographer in the darkroom, and so on. Experience may also consist of making art: making a clay sculpture, playing a simple instrument, taking part in a class performance, or learning a simple dance.

Third, there is the discipline of the arts: the practice of working on something and seeing it take shape and improve. This could take the form of learning to play an instrument or to sing with phrasing; developing a role in a play; practicing the drawing of specific objects; or perfecting a dance step. Most serious work on plays or music takes place after school and requires substantial independent work as well.

Fourth, there is artistic creation, for instance: composing a piece of music, writing a play, or choreographing a dance. While this is difficult to do well or teach well, children should be given a chance to try.

Which of these categories cannot be left out? Which should take priority? What does a good arts program look like?

Many of us, myself included, look for schools that have excellent plays and concerts—that is, where students are at a high level of proficiency in the arts. But such a school may depend on students’ outside preparation. It may draw students who have had instruction elsewhere—in private lessons, music schools, church choirs, outside theater programs, and summer camps. The students performing in the plays may be a small percentage of the entire student body—a talented and privileged few. That in no way detracts from the school’s accomplishments in the arts, but it is not the same as an arts curriculum.

Readers, what makes an excellent arts curriculum, in your view? If you were looking for a school with a strong arts program–where you might study, teach, or enroll your child–what would you be looking for?

And here’s a harder question: Suppose students had one period of music and one period of art per week (one period=45 minutes). Under those circumstances, what sort of arts instruction would benefit the students the most?

Diana Senechal