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Arts education should focus on academics

Arts educators can help develop the habits of mind necessary for students to successfully function in an increasingly arts-infused society and 21st Century economy. We need to recalibrate how we implement arts education and go beyond having students remembering lines, staging, notes, choreography or terminology, and integrate the more important mental constructs into classes to help raise student achievement.

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.


Anonymous wrote 2 years 3 days ago

Very interesting read. I

Very interesting read. I agree when you say artists are not trained to diagnose and address pathologies. However I see that performance of poetry, plays or dance, for example, can and often is inspired by the lives of the participants, and perhaps this artistic process can at times be a way to handle difficulties the student has encountered. That would be another benefit of a real, live, hands-on artistic experience, but not the only one or even the most important one. When children work in real time in collaboration with other children and adults to produce a work of art, they don't merely memorize lines. They are exercising their reading comprehension, drawing inferences, creating connections and interpretations that stir their creative imagination. Then they must come together to decide upon an interpretation and achieve an end result -- a performance -- with al the benefits of individual growth in confidence and understanding. There are related benefits in other artistic endeavors, which is why educators consider art and music important enrichment. It cannot be deliver via iPad; it can't be phoned in.

Anonymous wrote 2 years 3 days ago

Here's an example of a young

Here's an example of a young man's story telling art.
Scroll down a bit until you get to a video of a 15 y.o boy called,
NPR Snap Judgment Performance of the Year, Noah St. John

Anonymous wrote 2 years 2 days ago


I am no artist. But i love art and books and music. However, it is an escape for children to help elicit their creative side. Id hate to see it mechanized like common core standards is once again doing. It is boxing education and creativity because admins want scores up...not happy children. Lets not mechanize and categorize and assesses
art...leave it as a last place a child can see their true soul.

Bruce Taylor wrote 2 years 1 day ago

Agreed - To A Point

Yes, everything you say is true. However, there is the issue of duration and focus. What is the cumulative amount of contact time a kid has with the project you cite? Ten hours, twenty? Probably around fourteen hours or so in a typical residency (or 20 sessions, each a class period in length.) In other words, less than two 8 hour working days. Imagine you start with them 8 am on Monday morning and you are finished by Tuesday at 3pm. What do you believe are the lasting effects? How much growth in confidence and, particularly, understanding is achieved and maintained? Do you have evidence of such? Keep in mind you spend most of your time getting the thing on its feet ready for performance.

The other issue is focus. I wholeheartedly agree with you about the making inferences, creating connections, etc. But all too often these are bi-products acquired haphazardly, not by deliberate design or as the primary focus; that remains the performance. That is my seminal point with respect to the Common Core matrix. It is just the very bi-products you list that are inherent in this new framework for teaching and learning.

By the way, we should always avoid using the term "enrichment" (a.k.a. "extra"). The arts aren't - they are fundamental. On this you and I agree. I just want to be a lot more deliberate in their application.

Bruce Taylor wrote 2 years 1 day ago

You Misread Common Core

Common Core is not mechanizing education, quite the contrary. Common Core is all about verbs, not nouns. Common Core Standards are about kids being able to "do," not just know. If implemented properly, Common Core elicits creativity by definition. Look at some of what I call Common Core's "key terms:" evaluate, interpret, assess, make, analyze, integrate, collaborate, and demonstrate understanding. Each of these "action words" requires the exercise of creativity. Educators will have to deal more with what kids think more than what they know. There is far less opportunity for "drill and kill" test prep.

Bruce Taylor wrote 2 years 1 day ago

The plural of anecdote is not data

Anyone who labors in this field can cite similar anecdotes. Feel good demonstrations of inspiring moments achieved through the arts. You can probably find one of mine on You Tube entitled "Young Wonders" which was a 30 minute intermission feature on PBS's "Great Performances"series back in the 1980s.

There will always be kids like him, with or without the arts in school. That's not my concern. We are at a tipping point where the arts in schools will be seen as even more irrelevant or the educational establishment will realize that the habits of mind the arts develop can significantly contribute to overall student achievement - the kind necessary for an increasingly arts-infused society and economy.

Northside wrote 2 years 1 day ago

common core


First of all I think your article is great and common core is great. However, I teach in elementary school and I have already seen that common core is just a means to an ends (ie NWEA) ...this is true of CPS...Probably other places no. However, until CPS gets the yoke of testing off their backs, and thus off of ours, we are completely bond to test results. However, I just was in a wierd way complementing your job. I think being an ART teacher is extremely important and you know much more than I do. I just don't want to see it turned into a "skill" to be tested by some odd test. Our art teachers already of some wierd test they have to take by CPS. However, I want to see art left to the artisits not the test makers. That's all I wanted to say!!!

Bruce Taylor wrote 2 years 1 day ago

Upcoming CCSS Assessments

The big question mark is what will the upcoming PARCC assessments will look like. Not only that, but also the upcoming revision of the SAT which will also be aligned with Common Core.

If, and I say "if," the thrust of the assessments will be based upon the Common Core Cognitive Strategies then we've got a chance. Just look at some of what I call Common Core key terms cited in the strategies and anchor standards;" analyze, make, interpret, collaborate, infer, evaluation, assess, demonstrate understanding, etc. Don't artists do all these things? Can't we use the arts to teach kids how to acquire these habits of mind?

The reality is that the mandarins of education have decreed that ALL educators, regardless of domain (which includes visual art) will be held accountable for overall student achievement. I see this as a potential advantage for us. We are at a tipping point, I believe, where the arts will either be seen as even less relevant or administrators will come to realize that the arts are critical tools with which to prepare kids to become capable adults in an increasingly arts-infused society and economy.

I will be going down to Atlanta next month to conduct some professional development sessions with their arts specialists on this very issue.

Chicago dad wrote 1 year 51 weeks ago

CCSS???? Not what it claims to be

There's a lot more to the CCSS than you seem to think in spite of the fact that you understand this: "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."
There's a dark side to the CCSS that needs to be acknowledged.

Chicago dad wrote 1 year 51 weeks ago

A good article reuting the claims of CCSS pushers.
The CCSS is a key component of what you decry when you correctly reject "dysfunctional educational systems that promote data over efficacy and emphasize time spent on documentation over time spent on teaching and learning." If the CCSS were truly just about standards then it would not be so inextricably linked to testing and product development and sales. While the idea of having high standards and high expectations is great, having CCSS linked to the very things that constrain and defeat the goals you correctly point out that the education and the arts can achieve is an obvious flaw. It will make some people extremely rich though.

Bruce Taylor wrote 1 year 51 weeks ago

Pessimism vs Optimism

With educators having been beaten up so long with various high-stakes testing protocols for so long, I can certainly empathize with your dim view of the potential future implementation of CCSS. My daughter is a Teach for America teacher who has been brought to tears with the lack of correlation between standards, curriculum, and assessment.

I believe the Achilles heel of the American way of education is that we have never had an true integration of the three. Standards, by themselves, are meaningless unless you have curriculum and assessments realistically aligned with them. However, even given the fact that all states (with the exception of three) will implement CCSS and that the PARCC assessment will be structured within that same conceptual framework, each school system will be left to create their own idea of what the curricula should look like so it may end up like bowling behind a curtain.

With respectful regard for your evaluation of CCSS's potential, I do believe that what they will require of students are more in keeping with what kids truly need in order to become successful adults. The key will be in giving teachers more freedom to develop their own ways to teach students how to acquire these habits of mind, rather than looking for solutions in materials provided by Pearson or being given a script to follow, which is by the way much more difficult to impose if one is to be faithful to the principles of Common Core.

I will be going down to Atlanta next month to work with teachers there on how to go about creating their own approaches in addressing Common Core with their students. I'm hopeful that I'll be able to demonstrate that CCSS is a more useful tool than the access and delivery of content model we've been using for the past century.

Chicago dad wrote 1 year 51 weeks ago

I don't disagree entirely...

having heard decent arguments in favor of something like the CCSS, but the difficulty remains in preventing it from functioning as a back door vulnerability that allows irrational and excessive tests to be imposed on schools, as well as other "package deals" that are little more than snake oil. I think the truer Achilles heel of American education are the reasons why we don't have good integration. I look at the way Finland has moved from a place similar to where we are/were to the far better place they are now as a great and importable example, trusting educators to be the professionals they are and giving them the up front respect and support needed to put actual improvements into place. Our current problem, as I suspect you might agree, is that we have non educators driving policy whose primary understanding of the field consists of expertise in designing ways to profit from it. On an entirely different note, here's a link to an article and discussion on education that I find fascinating & I suspect you might enjoy. Thanks.

Bruce Taylor wrote 1 year 51 weeks ago

Fellow Travelers!

We're on the same wavelength. I do suspect that educational policy is driven more by political imperatives. I can only hope that those who are drafting the PARCC are thinking what's in the best interest of kids and teachers rather than for corporations developing one-size-fits-all materials which perpetuates the present industrial model.

As for Finland, it's a country of less than six million. It's far easier to reform or adjust their educational framework. They also have a national core curriculum which restores the missing link.

Bruce Taylor wrote 1 year 51 weeks ago


Opps, also - thanks for link to Wiggins' blog

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