Jane Remer, Guest Blogger: What Can We Do to Make the Arts Count as Education?

Jane Remer’s Cliff Notes: What Can We Do to Make the Arts Count As

research has flaws. Some flaws are so trivial that the research can still
stand as the definitive study. Other flaws prevent a study from being definitive,
but the study still provides useful guidance in the context of other
research. Some flaws are so serious that the research provides no useful
information at all. The tricky part is not finding flaws in the research
but in deciding to what extent the flaws erode the credibility of the
research. In general, the use of Randomized Clinical Trials can add substantial
credibility to a research study. …Of course, nonrandomized
trials are an important complement to RCTs when the latter are
ethically inappropriate or logistically impossible…Failure to use randomization
or blinding, however, is not a fatal flaw. Furthermore, the
artificial nature of RCTs will often restrict their applicability to
overly simple interventions. When RCTs focus on narrow patient
groups or exclude important segments of the population, there may be
difficulty in generalizing their results. So it would be a mistake to label
the RCT as a gold standard for all research. A silver standard may be a
more appropriate label.

S.D. Simon,
Dept. of Medical Research, Children’s Mercy Hospital, Kansas City, Mo.


For years when I worked with public
elementary and secondary schools and districts around the country, my first
question to the superintendent was whether the arts were on his or her and the
district supervisors’ radar screens. The first question I asked the principals
was whether the arts were on their school report cards. Even in the most arts
friendly cities, towns and states, I generally got either a blank stare or an
evasive response. Even when a principal said, yes, of course, what I found on
the report cards had little if anything to do with teaching and learning the
arts as an academic discipline. Report card indicators for the arts included
attendance, acceptable behavior, and some kind of engagement in or contribution
to class discussion. There wasn’t a national, state or local arts standard in

When I asked arts specialists how they
graded their students, they told me they didn’t; it was not required, and
besides, they said they barely had time to teach, let alone assess, their full
schedule of classes. When I asked classroom teachers involved in artist visits
and long-term residencies how they assessed their students, the teachers said
they didn’t because they didn’t feel prepared to fairly judge student
performance in the arts. When I asked the artists, most of them told me they
didn’t know how, had no time to do it, and no one had offered to pay for the

No wonder the arts are on the periphery.

These days, with all the testing, grading,
counting and accountability measures, almost no one at any level of the
educational system is asking hard questions about the quality, depth, scope, or
fidelity to national/state/or local standards of arts teaching and learning in
the classrooms. And with very few but always notable exceptions, most schools
and their arts providers or partners spend little if any time on documenting,
researching, reflecting, assessing and evaluating the quality and depth of arts
instruction and arts learning over time.

Today, when people talk about counting the
arts, they usually mean quantifying — how much, how often, by whom, for whom,
at what cost, and the like. These are good things to know but they tell us
nothing about what is being taught and learned, the quality of instruction and
learning, the depth of inquiry, the time spent on reflection, and the methods,
if any, used to assess the process and the results. They don’t tell us when to
make mid-course corrections, where the learning gaps are, how teachers or
students are struggling (or not), and where an infusion of technical and other professional
assistance might be judicious. In other words, we don’t have the information we
need to diagnose our own knowledge and behavior as well as that of our
students. And, we don’t treat the arts like full-fledged core subjects that are
essential to student overall growth and achievement.

Those of us who believe in the potential
power of arts education and assessment are caught in a catch-22.  We know that what gets tested, gets
taught but, we don’t want to “test” the arts in a standardized way (multiple
choice, short answer) because we know there are diverse solutions to arts “problems”
in both the way they are solved and the results themselves. We have developed a
treasure trove of flexible, effective and yet rigorous alternative, mixed
method (quantitative and qualitative, formative and summative) ways to
document, research, assess and evaluate student response and behavior in and
through the arts. But we are keenly aware that no matter how sound our approach
and credible our answers, they are likely to be dismissed by the research,
academic and business community as “soft” because they do not meet the
scientific “gold standard” of randomized controlled experiments that produce results
theoretically generalizable to a larger community. Some funding sources such as
the USDOE’s model arts programs have begun to accept “quasi-experimental” designs,
but their preference remains for statistically significant hard data.

It is hard to make the case for money to
assess teaching and learning in and through the arts, no matter what methods
you choose. How do you argue persuasively for the research and evaluation of an
academic discipline that is barely noticed and rarely classified as basic? How
do you make the case for investigating ways to develop and sustain arts
learning, however you define it, when it is almost invisible in most of our nation’s
classrooms? And how do you answer the insistent questions about the value the
arts add to the cognitive, social, emotional, intellectual and physical
development of our youth when even our best research and evaluations have so
far relied on correlations, not odds on causal connections?

What is so sad for me is that we have not
been able to fulfill the three big promises the arts and education pioneers
made to us half a century ago: 1) All the nation’s schools will offer quality
sequential and comprehensive study of at least the four major art forms for all
the children in every classroom, K-Twelve. 2) In all of these schools, the arts
will be taught by certified arts specialists and classroom teachers with the
help of college and university professionals and trained visiting artists drawn
from the community’s cultural resources. 3) The arts will join the other
academics in the core curriculum as equals.

Unfortunately, we are still caught in the loop
of the Coney Island roller coaster ride of booms and busts, with the status and
fate of arts education rising and falling with the economy.

In case my answer to whether and how we
need to count the arts to make them count in the classroom is not yet clear, I
will elaborate. My argument is a version of the old saw, what gets tested gets
taught, and if we are smart, we will begin to devise the fair and challenging “tests”
ourselves before someone else starts forcing standardized or inappropriate
tests on us. We need to sift through our vast collective experience and figure
out how to carefully blend quantitative and qualitative methods that will
capture the essence of art learning. I believe we have ample, field-tested
examples of productive methods using, perhaps, a version of collaborative
practitioner research, that we can draw on to design more complex research,
assessments and evaluations that won’t break the bank. These designs probably
won’t meet the gold standard, but can meet the silver standard that Simon talks
about in the quote below the title. But this will only happen if and when we
take it upon ourselves to define what “silver” stands for and design a
collaborative, school-based approach that draws on the knowledge, experience
and participation of all partners in the arts education enterprise. My hope, of
course, is that this  communal task
will help to build a school constituency with a much deeper and more personal understanding
of the value of the arts.

Of course,  there is no guarantee, even if we were to build public and
transparent assessment into every single school-based arts program from here on
out, that anyone would take notice or care.  Arts knowledge and skills, after all, are not yet considered
high stakes essentials in the corridors of power. However, I am heartened by
Sonia Davis, a parent in the South Bronx, who is reported in last Sunday’s
Times as saying as while she interviewed potential schools for her two
daughters at a fair in Harlem:”You’ve got to have baseball, chess,
cheerleading, drama, debate, poetry and music–oh God, music – like the cello
and violin…” 


Perhaps there’s grass roots hope, after
all, one parent at a time.


What do you think?


©Jane Remer      3/2/2009  


Jane Remer.jpgJane Remer has worked nationally for over
forty years as an author, educator,
researcher, foundation director and
consultant. She was an Associate Director of the John D. Rockefeller 3rd Fund’s
Arts in Education Program and has taught at Teachers College, Columbia University
and New York University. Ms. Remer works directly in
and with the public schools and cultural organizations, spending significant
time on curriculum, instruction and collaborative action research with
administrators, teachers , students and artists. She directs the Capezio/Ballet
Makers Dance Foundation, and her publications include Changing Schools Through the Arts and Beyond Enrichment: Building
Arts Partnerships with Schools and Your Community.
She is currently writing
Beyond Survival: Reflections On The
Challenge to the  Arts As General
. A graduate of Oberlin College,
she attended Yale Law School
and earned a masters in education from Yale Graduate

2 responses to “Jane Remer, Guest Blogger: What Can We Do to Make the Arts Count as Education?”

  1. This is reminiscent of what the Structuralist school did in universities in the 1930s to legitimize literary criticism. I think we’re always going to be able to point to qualitative instrumental benefits of learning in the arts, but the ultimate value is going to reside in effects which are much less tangible. Trying to align arts learning with tangible outcomes will legitimize those outcomes, but none of the intangibles, which remain under-articulated and under-advocated. Art is a sine qua non of civil society – but how do we convince policy makers and financeers of that?

  2. I think that the premise of this post is apt. If we equip working teachers to demonstrate their value to their colleagues, supervisors, school boards and district staff, then they’ll be the foot soldiers able to affect local decision-makers.
    Imagine an arts teacher that is able to explain to parents or principals what learning has occurred in her class by talking to them as they watch a video posted online. That’s one example.
    In this way, a teacher with good instruction and assessment practice, would be able to act as the local politician for arts education, improving decision-maker behavior by showing them the value of the arts on a regular basis.