Arts education should focus on academics

January 9, 2013

Bruce Taylor
Bruce Taylor

In the ongoing fermentation that represents CPS’ efforts at transformation, one ingredient ardently stirred into the mix is the role of the arts in public education.  As a catalyst for discussion and debate, I’d like to offer some thoughts and observations informed by 30-plus years of dealing with this issue.

In the 1970s, when I began my journey in this field, the emphasis and funding stream was focused on the seemingly self-evident good of exposing students to works from a variety of art forms. Thus, we cycled millions of kids through our respective theaters, opera houses, museums and concert halls along with providing countless assembly programs, residencies and touring productions in their schools to reveal the essences of each individual art form. Vestiges of this “exposure” model are still in evidence, reflected in the education programs of many major arts providers.

Spurred by the publication of “A Nation at Risk” in 1983, the educational establishment embarked upon reinventing the wheel every 10 years or so: Goals 2000 in the 1990s, No Child Left Behind in 2002, and now Common Core Standards in 2012.  The arts in education community followed suit, especially in view of the fact that the hundreds of millions of dollars expended on exposure did not seem to slow down the overall decline of the arts in schools.

(Parenthetically, none of the dire predictions of “A Nation at Risk” have come to pass, not one of the Goals 2000 has been achieved and the No Child Left Behind framework has crumpled under the burdens of its own proscriptive edicts.)

However, all this turmoil gave birth to the “teaching artist” who would become the primary interface between arts providers and classrooms. Neither completely an educator nor wholly a practicing artist, this type of arts education has increasingly become a separate employment category for those idealists intent on changing the world through the arts. Their desire to make a difference is shared with the majority of educators who labor mightily in dysfunctional educational systems that promote data over efficacy and emphasize time spent on documentation over time spent on teaching and learning.

Artists can’t solve social ills

But I have become aware of an ethos held by many in Chicago’s arts education community that may, in the long term, be counterproductive to our advocacy.  This is the widely embraced view of “social rectification” through the arts: A belief that the arts can “fix” what’s wrong with kids or that the arts will better our society in general if arts programs are promoted as agents for social justice.  A laudatory example of this effort is the “Now is the Time” initiative undertaken by numerous Chicago theatre companies to combat youth and gang violence.

I would like to offer an analogy in reference to these well-meaning efforts. For five years I was a volunteer emergency medical technician.  As part of my 350 + hours of training, I was taught what to do if a child suffered a potentially lethal asthma attack or an incidence of anaphylactic shock.  There is nothing in my experience as an artist, or in any other artist’s background, that would equip us to know how to deal with either of those two events. 

However, many of my peers seem to believe that their training, experience and study as artists has equipped them to deal with children’s emotional or psychological trauma—which is, I submit, a much more complex challenge than an asthma attack. The debilitating effects of such trauma on children are at the root of efforts that address issues such as bullying, teen pregnancy, drugs, and a host of other deleterious conditions. But I believe it is naïve to assume that we, as artists, are adequately equipped to significantly diagnose and address the root causes of such pathologies without specific, rigorous training in the various forms of art therapy.

My fear is that we are positioning the arts at the bookends of our society – with access either for the disadvantaged or the affluent.  We will either underwrite the arts to ameliorate the negative outcomes experienced by at-risk children, or we will support the arts to provide the opportunity for those who can afford it to experience great works as a luxury product.  Both approaches leave out the vast middle ground of those who perceive arts education as only for “Glee” wannabes (i.e., kids who want to be artists) or as remediation for the less capable. 

But what most people really want is for kids to become self-supporting, and they realize that the path to this goal leads through a good education.  This aspiration offers us a much more fortuitous approach and justification.

Help students develop academic ‘habits of mind’

The educational status quo is undergoing a major paradigm shift through the adoption of Common Core State Standards and its attendant dictates. At the heart of this new framework for teaching and learning is less reliance on access to and delivery of content and more focus on what to do with it; even a cursory overview of what I would call Common Core key terms reflects this. Instruction will be focused on having students analyze, evaluate, assess, integrate, reason abstractly, collaborate, demonstrate, make use of structure and develop.  These and many other similar concepts will profoundly affect how teachers educate students. 

These terms are also indicative of what artists do. We can help develop the habits of mind necessary for students to successfully function in an increasingly arts-infused society and 21st Century economy.  To cite but one example of this evolution: the Internet, which is a visual and aural—that is, artistic—medium.

This means that we as arts educators, in and outside of school time, need to recalibrate how we implement arts education and go beyond having students remembering lines, staging, notes, choreography or terminology.  It means to integrate the more important mental constructs into classes and programs by design, thereby reinforcing students’ application of them in other academic areas and increase overall student achievement.

To effectively traverse the changing education landscape, we must reevaluate how we deliver arts education by taking a hard look at what we do and why we do it.  All too often, I witness “confirmation bias” in our field and incidences in which colleagues take up residence in an echo chamber of group-think without questioning the basis on which we make our assumptions. 

We will accomplish little if we only align our energies with social remediation without significantly deepening students’ academic capacities ……. and we can. 

After all, if you don’t think arts educators should be held accountable for overall student achievement, why should they be working in a school?  Our artistic ability is contained in the one percent of our DNA that distinguishes us from our nearest primate relative – the chimpanzee.  In many profound ways, it is this quality that makes us, us.

More than ever, we have the chance to be seen as able to contribute something much more valuable than “enrichment” – an appellation that is, in reality, only a euphemism for “non-essential.”

Also by Taylor: Arts education essential for city's future

Bruce Taylor is a consultant and the author of "The Arts Equation" published by Watson-Guptil. He has served as a cultural envoy for the U.S. State Department and as the director of education for Washington National Opera.