Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Art of the Deal

One of the best parts of December grading is when a student's final paper teaches me a bunch of new things.  This was happily the case this week, when Drew Pamplin Brown, a doctoral student in arts education at the University of Georgia, submitted a paper about advocacy for the arts in K-12 schools in the post-NCLB era.  I am featuring it with her permission.

The arts community, I learned, has been organizing itself politically since NCLB in response to what it has experienced as the marginalization of the arts in K-12 schools.  But as a first step, arts education scholars have been gathering data about what the actual effects of test-based accountability have been on arts instruction.

For instance, a 2010 study by Robert Sabol of Purdue University found that nationwide, many art educators saw budgets for their programs decline under NCLB, with the money mainly being redirected toward “core classes” and test prep.   Sabol surveyed 3000 art teachers nationally, many of whom said that NCLB had contributed to diminishing the status of arts education.  The federal Arts in Education competitive grant program, which was funded at $40 million in 2010, is now down to $24.6 million.  This program includes professional development for arts educators, and model development and dissemination grants.

We ought to care about this a lot.  The notion that we can create innovators and scientists solely by inundating kids with low-level tests ought to be viewed as a huge threat to our competitiveness.  Scholarly pieces, like this chapter shared by Prof. Tracie Costantino and her colleagues, for instance, received an NSF grant to explore the interrelationships among engineering, the social sciences, arts, and humanities.  By engaging both art and engineering students in an interdisciplinary curriculum, they are hoping to develop creative thinkers.  This is a point that was also made in the report of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, Re-Investing in Arts Education: Winning America’s Future Through Creative Schools. Its executive summary states:  “In order to effectively compete in the global economy, business leaders are increasingly looking for employees who are creative, collaborative and innovative thinkers. A greater investment in the arts is an effective way to equip today’s students with the skills they will need to succeed in the jobs of tomorrow.” (2011, p. 1)

To affect policy, however, someone is going to have to define this publicly as a problem in the next ESEA reauthorization.  The National Art Education Association is an umbrella group of many arts and arts education groups.  Within this, there is an Arts Education Legislative Working Group which, according to Brown, “enables all of the cultural associations to work together to strategize the best approaches for advocating for arts education and positioning opportunities for furthering a collective agenda for the arts throughout federal legislation.” 

Then there is Americans for the Arts, which is attempting to compile research about state-level arts programs and is actively seeking a voice for the arts in ESEA reauthorization.  Yet another group, the National Coalitions for Core Arts Standards, is working with national writing teams in Dance, Media Arts, Music, Theater, and Visual Arts to create grade-level standards.   Unlike past standards-setting efforts in the arts, the National Core Arts Standards will not seek to define or disseminate lists of what students should know and be able to do, but instead are “measurable and attainable learning events based on artistic goals.”

Brown writes: “It is obvious that advocacy for arts and arts education has grown exponentially since the advent of NCLB in 2002 with increased partnerships and a compilation of stronger collaborative voices for the arts.”  She also reports that virtually all of these groups (and scholars like Sabol) advocate for the policy goal of having the arts be included as a “Core” subject in the next reauthorization of NCLB.  It is hoped, of course, that this will be a policy lever that can boost federal investment in the arts.  I just hope that if this community of educators succeeds in getting arts as a mandated NCLB subject it would not lead to their disciplines being narrowed to least-common-denominator compliance exercises via silly and inauthentic assessments.  The Core Arts standards sound like the better lever.

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