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Through a Prism: The Bending of K-12 Arts and Education

As much as people are disappointed with the way arts education is situated within the USDOE’s Blueprint for ESEA reauthorization, most people I know inside and outside the arts are pleased with the proposal to rethink AYP . For those who don’t get what I am talking about, click here for a quick and lively catch-up.

I was looking at a Wall Street Journal editorial yesterday, about the Administration’s new ESEA Blueprint. Now, fair enough, it is WSJ after all, and that editorial board would prefer that all schools were charter schools and that universal vouchers were available for every single student. Nevertheless, what they said was instructive:

We’re glad to see the Administration would maintain annual math and
reading tests in grades 3 through 8, and that school districts would
continue to disaggregate results by race and other factors to prevent
schools from hiding achievement gaps. But the proposal would also allow
for less rigorous and more subjective assessments–such as how “creative
a child is–to measure student progress, which could easily become an
accountability loophole.

“Creativity” is one of the pillars of the arts education rationale. While many would view the broadening of assessment to go beyond flat measurements in reading and math as a positive thing, well, what the WSJ tells us is that there’s another side of those not quite convinced. A lot of people tell me, all the time, that no one doubts the importance of arts education, it’s just a question of time, or money, or knowledge. But looking through a prism, there’s a bit of a bend to all this. Not the least of which involves problems with terms like creativity and critical thinking being
somewhat vague and difficult to measure.

Creativity is much bandied about, and now we’ve got not only 21st century skills to add on, but those hoping to connect arts to “college and career readiness.” Here, the question of exactly how the arts fit into college and career readiness is a big, big question that will not be answered by a simple statement to the importance of the creative sector and some not quite established linkage between that sector and arts education.

On Saturday I had another prismatic moment when I briefly heard former Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings speaking about NCLB on NPR:

Ms. SPELLINGS: Well, the important thing to know about testing is that
it’s worthless if they’re not valid and reliable and comparable-type
measures. So long as those criteria are accommodated, I’m a big
proponent of the notion of what gets measured, gets done, and I think
rounding out assessment systems with other subjects makes sense.

Fair enough. There’s not a lot to argue with here. What gets tested gets taught–that’s a more precise rendering that moves from Spelling’s rather axiomatic presentation to a a simple statement of fact. The philosophers out there may choose to label it a truism.

While there appears to be more effort being placed than ever before on developing the next generation of K-12 assessments, which would hopefully pave the way for an arts assessment that would in turn help place the arts into the realm of real core subject (what gets tested gets taught), I wouldn’t place any bets on it just yet.

First, we have the issue of a standardized test. Knowing what we know about the problems with standardized tests, would we really want one for the arts? And, yes, of course, we are really talking about more than an arts bubble test.

Okay then, even if we could establish the kind of performance-based assessments with valid and comparable-type measurements across for national, state, or district use, for all four key arts disciplines, as well as forms of arts integration (why make it easy!), it is quite a lift to establish the other key parts of the equation, meaning a set of standards and curricula that set the context for what is being tested across large numbers of students.

What we’re talking about here is much more than what you find in the high school exit exams for the arts, which while being a good step forward, don’t by a long shot create the structures necessary for what Spellings is talking about.

In entries to follow, I will take up the various efforts underway to advance assessment, but also take a good look a the Common Core Standards program through the National Governors Association and the Chief Council of State School Officers.

Of course, we could always just wait for America to become more enlightened about education policy…

an ArtsJournal blog