Common perception among arts educators in the United States is that the arts are “edged out” of the curriculum because schools value them less than math and reading. Schools value the arts less than math and reading because math and reading are on state tests; in turn, math and reading are on the state tests because schools are required to show growth in these areas under the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). If only those federal policies around arts education were different, we often say, things would be better.
But what might a different national policy look like, and to what extent could it change the degree to which arts education is implemented – and implemented well – in public schools?
One way to get a sense of our options is to take a look at how other countries handle this issue. Such an investigation is particularly timely right now, as most states in the US have adopted the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) – the biggest step we have ever taken toward a “national” system of curriculum and assessments. While the Common Core has generated its own share of debates (head over to Americans for the Arts’s recent Common Core blog salon for a great cross-section of perspectives from arts educators), it nevertheless represents a defining moment in education policy in the United States. A big selling point of the standards is that they are internationally benchmarked. This will provide, in theory, a better sense of how our students are doing in relation to peers in other countries, so that we don’t keep getting sideswiped by the United States’s “poor performance” on the dreaded Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). (Whenever you hear policy makers lament that we are xxth in math or reading, PISA scores are usually what they are referring to.) Other counties even point to the Common Core as evidence that we are finally willing to learn from strides made elsewhere.
So how do arts education policies look in other countries?
This article covers Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Germany and South Africa. Specifically:
- What policies and standards are in place at the national level regarding the arts in schools?
- What dedicated funding streams are available (again, at the national level) for arts education during the school day?
- What are the roles of federal versus state/municipal governments in implementing/monitoring education?
The first two questions relate to concerns I hear voiced most often about the national arts education landscape in the United States – i.e. that the policies set by The Government (in the broadest sense) aren’t conducive to flourishing arts practice in public schools, or that we don’t dedicate enough money to arts education. The third question is necessary for context-setting –how The Government makes decisions about education depends on whether education is a national or a local responsibility.
Limiting my scope to the national level means a lot is left out, particularly regarding funding. If a country doesn’t have a lot of national funding directed toward arts education, that does not mean that its state and local governments aren’t choosing to invest in it. On the flip side, a country may have strong national policies that are haphazardly enforced at the state and local levels.
Though by no means an exhaustive overview of arts education practice in each country, this article aims to provide a bird’s-eye view of national policies that affect which students get which disciplines during the school day, and how. Let’s begin with a quick refresher on national arts education policy in our own country.
The United States
If you’ve paid even scant attention to public education debates in the last decade, you’ve heard of No Child Left Behind, our much decried cornerstone of national education policy since 2001. No Child Left Behind is an updated and renamed version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), originally passed in the 1960s. Per our Constitution, education is a state responsibility – each state is responsible for setting standards in each academic discipline, implementing its own assessment systems, and providing the bulk of education funding. Our federal department of education oversees the ESEA and provides funding for certain provisions of that law (e.g. Title I, which aims to “improve the educational achievement of the disadvantaged”).
Jennifer Kessler’s 2011 Createquity post on ESEA provides a great summary of its history and relevance to the arts. The ESEA was up for reauthorization when Jennifer wrote her article and is still awaiting reauthorization now. The Obama administration has floated a number of ideas for how it would like to change ESEA, but since education did not factor prominently into the 2012 election cycle, the chances of reauthorization happening anytime soon, with or without substantive adjustments, are slim to none.
In the decade-plus since the 2001 version of ESEA/No Child Left Behind was passed, it has been nearly universally blasted by arts education advocates – mainly due to its negative impact on schedule, workload and funding for programs related to the arts. However, No Child Left Behind did include the arts in its definition of “core academic subjects,” as follows: “The term `core academic subjects’ means English, reading or language arts, mathematics, science, foreign languages, civics and government, economics, arts, history, and geography.”
Using the single word “arts” leaves a lot up to interpretation. However, the arts’ inclusion as a core subject is important for a couple of reasons:
- It places the arts, as a matter of policy, on equal footing with other subject areas
- It allows any federal funding designated for “core academic subjects” – including Title I, Title II, and economic stimulus funds – to be used for arts education
The latter point has faced obstacles: despite Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s 2009 letter clarifying that the arts are eligible for general purpose federal funds, some states have pushed back. California’s State Superintendent, for example, maintains that schools cannot use Title I funds for programs whose “primary objective” is arts education, but can apply them toward arts-related strategies that have been demonstrated to raise achievement in English and math. As the issue of federal-versus-state control of our education system is both heated and politically fraught (especially in the era of Common Core), Secretary Duncan is unlikely to take anyone to task over this.
Besides general purpose federal funds for education, national funding streams for arts education include the National Endowment for the Arts’s arts education grants and the Department of Education’s Arts Education Model Development and Dissemination (AEMDD) Grants Program. While the NEA’s commitment to arts education appears steady, AEMDD grants are slated to be collapsed with other subject areas under Secretary Duncan’s proposed revisions to ESEA, in favor of creating a new, larger pool of competitive funds to “strengthen the teaching and learning of arts, foreign languages, history and civics, financial literacy, environmental education and other subjects.”
Again, because the effort to reauthorize ESEA is currently dead in the water, don’t expect this or any related proposal to gain momentum in the immediate future. Few people seem to like our major national education law, but even fewer seem to agree on how best to fix it. Until they do, it will sputter along on autopilot as the Obama administration absolves states of meeting its more stringent requirements in exchange for agreeing to equally controversial reforms such as linking teacher evaluation systems with student test scores.
Add the sorta-kinda-national-but-not-really-Common Core movement into this mix and the future of national arts education policies in the United States form a big, bold question mark – but one with a great deal of potential to shift our landscape.
For a glimpse of what we may have in store if the Common Core movement gains enough traction to anchor a “national” curriculum, look no further than Australia, which adopted a standardized curriculum andassessment system in 2008. Australia and the United States have a great deal in common: Australian K-12 education primarily has been the responsibility of state and territorial governments, and according to Robyn Ewing’s excellent overview of the history of arts education in that country, British and North American traditions heavily influence Australian arts education policy. While the arts have been designated one of “eight key learning areas” across the country for more than a decade, visual art and music tend to be taught the most, while drama is lumped in with English/language arts and dance with physical education (sound familiar?).
That’s poised to change, however, with Australia’s Curriculum, Assessment, and Reporting Authority (ACARA), newly responsible for developing and implementing curriculum across the entire country. That curriculum includes the arts as five distinct disciplines: visual art, music, dance, theater and media arts.
That’s right, five disciplines. Our national policy defines the arts as “arts,” and Australia’s gets into specifics. The full curriculum won’t be finalized until February 2014, though you can take a look at draft versions here. In the meantime, our own College Board’s 2011 overview of international arts education standards found Australia’s curriculum “exemplary in the breadth of its scope, the considerable attention to defining its own language, and the lengths it goes to in recognizing the differences in abilities and learning opportunities at the different age/grade levels.” This sample chart gives you the idea (click through for better resolution):
ACARA states each school should determine how to teach the arts, and how much time to devote to each discipline. Its general guidelines (see page 4 of this document), outline a minimum of 100-120 hours of the arts per year through primary school, increasing to 160 hours in secondary school as students gravitate toward a specialty.
As great as these guidelines may sound, not all segments of Australia’s arts education community are excited about them. ACARA’s goal for students to study all five arts disciplines throughout elementary school has met some backlash in arts education circles, particularly those focused on visual art and music. Because some territorial governments invested heavily in those two disciplines already, they balk at the idea of “watering down” existing programs to make time for theater and dance. (This rad YouTube blog offers a performing arts student’s perspective on the issue.)
The irony of such squabbling is that the arts were originally entirely left out of the national curriculum, and were included as a result of heavy lobbying by a “united front” of all disciplines. As Ewing states,
One of the most significant things about the advocacy for inclusion of the arts education in this iteration of the Australian curriculum was a united stand by the various arts disciplines, which contrasted to the previous fragmented arguments for individual allocations for separate arts disciplines. At the time of writing this review paper there is some re-emergence of that old fragmentation, with the assertion that some arts disciplines are more important than others.
Fragmentation in arts education communities deepens when resources are scant, and dedicated national funding streams for arts education in Australia are few and far between. The Australia Council for the Arts supports research on the effectiveness of partnerships between schools and the “professional arts sector,” and funds an Artists in Residence Program managed primarily by each state and territory’s arts council and education department. Arts funding in general has taken a squeeze recently. On October 15, Young People and the Arts, Australia’s national service organization representing arts education providers, lost its funding from the Australia Council for the Arts and announced staffing and operations would cease for at least the short term. Arts funding at the university level is getting trimmed as well.
Nonetheless, the country’s commitment to the arts as integral to Australia’s curriculum is impressive – and may provide us lessons for what to expect when (if?) we ever elaborate on that vague “arts” reference in ESEA.
As in Australia, Brazil’s national education policies are undergoing big changes. Unlike Australia’s those changes don’t explicitly have a lot to do with the arts, but they dohave a lot to do with money and the affirmation of access to arts and culture as a basic human right.
In 2000 Brazil ranked dead last among more than forty countries that participated in the PISA. Since then it’s committed to overhauling its education system, and the effort appears to be having an impact on the country’s performance on international tests. The backbone of that overhaul is a recently approved National Plan for Education (PNE) that will structure education policy for the next decade. The plan emphasizes committing resources to education, eradicating illiteracy, and increasing access to elementary and lower secondary school. (To give you a sense of where things stand right now, according to this recent article, students in some rural areas of the country spend little more than 3 hours a day in school, oftentimes without teachers present.)
One of the PNE’s many goals is to expand “mandatory” basic education, currently required of students aged 7-14, to include ages 4-17 by 2016. Doing that requires building schools, raising teacher salaries, professionalizing the teaching industry and finding a whole lot of money. A major sticking point (and victory) of the PNE is that it raises Brazil’s spending on education to a whopping 10% of GDP – nearly twice the rate of our spending.
Where do the arts fall into all of this? While the national government defined the arts as compulsory in 1972, it provides few guidelines for which disciplines to include at which grade levels, or who should teach them. (According to this overview of arts education practice, few arts specialists are in primary classrooms.) The PNE, framed as a “guarantee” of financial and material resources to support the country’s educational infrastructure, doesn’t get into specifics about what should happen in the classroom. It does, however, indicate that all students have a right to the arts and culture. Here is one of the strategies it lists regarding the arts (with apologies for the clunky Google translation):
Promote the list of schools with institutions and culture movements, [to] ensure the regular supply of cultural activities for the free enjoyment of students inside and outside of school spaces, ensuring that even schools become centers of cultural creation and dissemination.
Universal access to arts and culture is listed alongside access to clean water and sanitation as goals of the PNE. This vision aligns with Brazil’s 2010 National Culture Plan and established around the principles of “culture as a right of citizenship,” “culture as symbolic expression,” and “culture as potential for economic development.” With the assistance of the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Culture is also developing a National Policy for Integrating Education and Culture focused on training teachers, establishing partnerships between cultural organizations and schools and creating an asset map of schools in relation to cultural spaces. The Ministry of Education, meanwhile, has a Mais Educação (More Education) program funding schools to work with cultural groups.
Brazil will be a country to watch over the next decade. Brazilian educators Augusto Boal and Paolo Freire, who used the arts to galvanize political expression in the 1960s and 70s, strongly influenced arts education in the United States. As Brazil’s education infrastructure expands and stabilizes its translation of cultural rights into education policy may well influence us again.
Most countries in this survey, including our own, place a heavy emphasis on test scores and are leaning toward standardizing their education systems. Our friendly neighbor to the north is a glaring exception. “National” education policy does not exist in Canada; it does not have a national ministry or department of education, and policies from primary grades through high school are set, implemented, funded and monitored exclusively at the provincial level.
Thanks to this, getting a comprehensive overview of arts education across Canada is a little tricky. Canada’s national universities don’t have any admission requirements related to arts education, and only five of ten provinces require some arts credits to graduate high school. According to the Canadian Commission for UNESCO, the arts are considered core subjects in “many” provinces, but all arts disciplines tend to be grouped under one program.
This doesn’t mean that arts education policies don’t exist, of course – just that they vary greatly from province to province. By extension, the quality and content of curricula vary as well. Compare, for example, Ontario and Alberta. Ontario requires full day kindergarten programs and English-language schools to provide “the arts” across all grades, though how much art is needed to fulfill that requirement is unclear. The only specific mandate is that students taken one arts credit to graduate high school. Ontario does, however, have a fairly robust arts curriculum that covers dance, drama, music and visual art in grades 1-8. As the College Board notes, “Unusual among the countries studied [in its international comparison of standards], [Ontario’s] curriculum provides … specific examples of possible demonstrations of standardized skills and knowledge [and]… teacher ‘prompts’ in the form of questions.”
By contrast, Alberta defines “fine arts” as an element of its core curriculum through grade 6, but its standards (in visual art, music and theater) date back to the 1980s. They are up for revision and in 2009 Alberta’s Ministry of Education identified certain issues for consideration in its Arts Education Curriculum Consultation Report:
- the ramifications of renaming “fine arts education” as “arts education” (interestingly, most educators opposed to the change, fearing the “integrity of disciplines” would erode)
- a near-universal commitment to include dance in any revision
- a recognition that while flawed, the existing standards allow for creativity and flexibility that might wither if policies became more concrete
The timeline for updating the curriculum and standards is up in the air; while a draft framework was released in 2009, according to the Ministry of Education’s Web site, “revision of Fine Arts programs has been slowed to ensure alignment with current changes underway in education… the implementation of an inclusive education system, and other ministry initiatives.”
While the two provinces contrast in their arts curricula and requirements, their dedicated funding streams – or lack of them – are similar. According to Statistics Canada, provincial governments allocated less than 5% of their arts and cultural budgets to arts education. Neither province’s Ministry of Education appears to have specific allocations for arts education, though their individual Arts Councils include funding for artist-in-residence programs (an overview of Ontario’s is here and Alberta’s here).
National arts and culture funders, meanwhile, seem to hold arts education at arm’s length even though Canadian citizens value government investment in the arts. Canada’s Department of Heritage supports programs to increase audience engagement and train arts workers, but does not seem to support arts in schools directly. The Canada Council for the Arts lumps arts education with audience engagement and states that while “there are challenges to equitable and sustained arts education and access for youth and children… the Canada Council is not directly implicated in the development of arts education curriculum.”
In place of formal government infrastructure for arts education, Canada has a number of initiatives supporting K-12 arts learning across the country. The most prominent is ArtsSmarts, a pan-Canadian nonprofit that attempts to reduce disparities between “have” and “have not” provinces by partnering with like-minded organizations and provincial ministries to advance creative process and artistic inquiry in classrooms. It is also plays an active role in national research and dialogue on arts education through conferences like its recent Knowledge Exchange. A very young nonprofit called the Canadian Network for Arts and Learning also hopes to establish a national presence, with an emphasis on research about arts’ impact on learning.
So if our department of education were abruptly disbanded – not a completely farfetched idea, depending on which way political winds are blowing – would arts education efforts suffer a major setback? Not necessarily: despite its decentralized system, Canada performs well on international education metrics and isn’t leaping onto the testing bandwagon that so often “crowds out” arts learning. At the same time, efforts like that of ArtsSmarts make clear that regional governments feel they need broad-scale support, collaboration and exchange to enhance their arts education efforts.
With its rising economic prominence and “remarkable” performance on the PISA, China spurs the majority of our fretting over how to prepare students for a global marketplace. It is also occasionally held up as an example for the need to promote arts education in the United States; Chinese students may kick our butts on standardized tests, some argue, but they aren’t taught to be as creative and flexible as ours.
Such anxiety and pride are both justified. China is an enormous and rapidly modernizing country that has made huge strides in educating swaths of its population in a relatively short period of time. It is also aware of the advantages of our higher education system and its liberal arts ethos.
For the past few decades China’s education policies have focused on reducing disparities between its rural and urban populations. It declared nine years of education compulsory for all children in 1986 and has since put much energy toward ensuring that basic mandate is fulfilled. Despite significant progress, according to UNESCO’s overview of current policies in the country, “by the end of 2007, there were still 42 counties in the west of China which had not fulfilled the ‘two basics,’ e.g. universalizing the nine-year compulsory education and eliminating illiteracy among young people and adults.”
Concurrent with the nine-year mandate, China overhauled its higher education infrastructure from a “free” system to one in which students compete for government scholarships through a notoriously difficult national exam called the gaokao. The gaokao is central to education in China and according to one student is “responsible for killing ninety percent of the creativity” in the country. The exam’s approach has an inverse effect on the amount of arts learning students receive: the closer the exam, the less the arts are emphasized.
China’s elementary curriculum was revised in 2001 with a number of goals, including to “highlight the requirements on the innovative spirit and practical abilities of students, attach more attention to cultivation of their initiatives, encourage their creative thinking… and foster their curiosity and aspiration to knowledge.” Accordingly, visual art and music appear in the curriculum, with standards that seem to place a heavy emphasis on cultivating early interest and enjoyment of the arts, which are linked to character, integrity, spirit of patriotism, and optimism. (Caveat: a thorough translation of the standards is difficult to find, though the College Board provides a rough overview here.)
According to UNESCO, music and fine art are required for two hours a week in elementary school, down to one hour a week in junior secondary school. The first two grades of senior secondary school (e.g. high school) offer one hour a week of “art appreciation.” Based on my conversations with several students from China, those courses are more in line with what we think of as “art history” than in-depth studio courses; not a lot of emphasis is placed on students creating works of art themselves. Those students also stressed that most classes are taught as lectures, with teachers taking very few questions. Not surprisingly, then, dance and drama have very little presence in schools, though after-school programs are available to students in urban areas.
To most Western observers the country’s emphasis on rote memorization is a problem the country will need to tackle eventually, especially as the country considers reforming its higher education institutions to resemble our liberal arts universities. (In fact, some universities are explicitly designed around a liberal arts agenda.) The arts may play a more central role in China’s schools if and when significant university reforms move ahead.
We’ve touched on what might happen to arts education if we didn’t have a national body overseeing schools and student learning. What might happen if we had a bigger one – or, even better, several of them?
Judging by the German model, we’d have more money – or at least an easier time tracking it. While most countries have few government offices concerned with arts education, Germany’s Federal Ministry of Education & Research has an entire division devoted to it. Per this fantastic 2010 issue of UNESCO Today, the Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth has one too. Not to be outdone, the Federal Commissioner for Culture and Media oversees an annual award program of €60,000 (roughly $80,000) to “acknowledge the importance of exemplary cultural education projects.”
Just as in the United States, Australia and Canada, education in Germany is considered a state responsibility. The country moved, however, toward more nationalization in response to its poor performance on (what else?) the 2000 PISA. Among other reforms, national standards and curriculum frameworks for primary grades were adopted in 2003. As far as I can gather, the arts were not included in that effort.
Nevertheless, by all external appearances Germany is doing such a bang-up job of providing support systems for arts education that untangling them is a daunting proposition. Luckily, two intrepid academics, Susanne Keuchel and Dominic Larue, beat me to it with a graphic titled “Arts education as a cross-sectional task in German federalism”:
Thanks to Keuchel and Larue’s analysis (and a 2008 parliamentary mandate to track this spending), Germany is the only country for which I could ballpark discrete national investment in arts education. Between 2001 and 2007, the Ministries of Education and Family Affairs doled out €9.5-10.5 million ($12.6-$14 million) annually for the arts. Taking current federally-funded initiatives into consideration, one can assume those numbers increased in the last 5 years. The current initiatives include researching Jeden Kind ein Instrument, a pilot program in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia that provides instruments to students ages 6-10, and the recently announced “Educational Alliances to Reduce Educational Deprivation,” which has the Ministry of Education supporting after-school cultural education programs to the tune of €30 million ($40 million) a year.
In short, national support for arts education is abundant and complex. With so many arts-friendly policies in place, do all students in Germany get more arts education during the school day than we might expect in the United States?
The surprising answer is no. How much arts education a student receives depends on how he or she is tracked. All students receive the same basic education (grundschule) from roughly age six through nine. After those first four years, students are divided into one of three programs:
- Haptschule, designed for students perceived as having lower academic skills. The program lasts approximately five years and culminates in a vocational certificate.
- Realschule, designed for students perceived as having some academic skills. This program lasts six years, and prepares students for middle-management positions.
- Gymnasium, for students perceived as the most academically adept and “suited” for university. Gymnasium lasts through what we would consider high school, but is more challenging than the typical high school in the United States.
Visual art and music are included in all tracks, but the recommended allotments of time vary:
- Grundschule: 85 hours per year
- Hautpschule: 56 hours per year in grades 5-6, zero beyond that
- Realschule: 141 hours in grade 5, 113 in grade 6, 56 in 7-9, zero in grade 10
- Gymnasium: 113 hours year in grades 5-7, 56 in grades 8-10, zero in 11-12 (though electives are available)
We can’t glean much from these numbers (are the content and structure of art offerings the same in all tracks?), but a few things stand out. All students are not expected to learn or have access to the same things, but arts education seems to be universally valued. To quote Keuchel and Larue again,
“If ten years ago in Germany the need and the importance of arts education were still stressed, today the accents have shifted: one does not ask any more whether arts education is good, but checks upon the quality of arts educational projects in particular cases.”
Even the Germans don’t think they have everything figured out – three years ago, the Enquête Commission of Culture in Germany issued a series of recommendations (summarized here starting page 22) to advance arts education. Those recommendations include:
- adding the arts to the Arbitur (the college entrance exam issued to Gymnasium students), probably to address concerns that the arts are “squeezed out” as students prepare for the Big Test
- developing national standards for cultural education
- funding more competitions and awards for cultural education
- developing partnership networks between schools and arts organizations
Germany’s model implies that a country can make a sustained, direct investment in arts education with admirable results. It also implies that the age-old tension between quality and equity does not necessarily go away with increased resources.
As the United States reacts against No Child Left Behind’s narrowed curriculum with the Common Core, South Africa reacts against a flexible system with a return to “the 3 Rs.” Spurred by an “education crisis” and “national disgrace,” the country is in the middle of a massive reform that retains the arts as core in its curriculum while adopting the most large-scale, standardized system profiled here.
South Africa spends more money on education (more than 5% of GDP) than any other country on the continent, and by most accounts is getting a poor return on its investment. With the end of the apartheid regime in 1994, education was made compulsory for all students through grade 9, though the legacies of apartheid and language barriers (South Africa has 11 official tongues) have hampered the country’s quest to provide equal access to education for all its young people.
The first education reform in newly democratic South Africa was “Outcomes Based Education” (OBE). Intended to support a holistic approach to learning that allowed students to demonstrate understanding in a variety of ways, OBE provided few guidelines to teachers. Since many teachers were poorly trained under apartheid, they were ill equipped to deliver instruction through an open-ended system. OBE was scrapped in 2010, with little complaint:
“In theory, at least, OBE turn[ed] the educational process away from a rigid top-down system to one that … let[s] students demonstrate they “know and are able to do” things derived from their growing understanding and mastery of material. Too often, however… OBE became a treadmill for teachers to create their own student study materials, evaluate a stream of student projects and deal with the administrative tasks and documentation that absorbed hours, even in the poorest schools.”
OBE was replaced by “Schooling 2025,” which outlines a much more rigid and uniform curriculum – driven at the national level and consistent across the entire country — with specific breakdowns of how much time teachers should be spending on each topic, and little choice in what should be taught when, or how. (For an example of how it addresses the arts, see this National Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement.) Based on conversation with Yvette Hardie, a theater educator, producer and director in South Africa involved with the curriculum process, textbooks are similarly prescriptive, designed to “teach teachers how to teach” rather than supplement instruction.
Schooling 2025 standardizes assessments and workbooks, and “collapses” certain curriculum areas to ease the burden on teachers. Hence, in grades K-6, the arts are included in a broader subject called “life skills.” Life skills “aims to develop learners through three different, but interrelated study areas, that is, personal and social well-being, physical education and creative arts.” The creative arts include four arts disciplines to be “studied in two parallel and complementary streams – visual arts and performing arts (dance, drama, and music).” As a subject area, “life skills” is typically taught by oneinstructor who, similar to the generalist elementary teacher in the United States, does not have a great deal of arts training.
K-3 students receive six hours of life skills per week, with the arts allocated two of those hours. In grades 4-6, allocations are reduced to 4 and 1.5 hours, respectively. Students receive two hours a week of discrete “creative arts” in grades 7-9, and pick from arts electives in grades 10-12. Schools choose which elective disciplines to offer based on the availability of qualified staff and the “abilities, talents and preferences” of their students. Distinct Curriculum and Assessment Policy Documents have been developed for each discrete arts discipline at those upper three grades.
Only grades 4 and 10 are using the new curriculum so far, though policy documents are complete for all grades. It is too early to tell what the impact of Schooling 2025 on the arts will be. On the one hand, including arts in the standardized curriculum may ensure all students get a basic level of instruction. On the other, the system, designed to scaffold the most poorly trained teachers, is so prescriptive it may prove stifling in the long term.
Amidst this maze of education reforms, priorities, policies and national/state structures, a few themes leap out as relevant to our national dialogue around arts education.
First and foremost, assessments matter. As much as we bemoan the “drill and kill” culture associated with large-scale, standardized testing, all countries (except Canada) are motivated by test scores, whether issued via the PISA or internal metrics. We are also not the only country to see the arts de-emphasized in favor of what is on a test. We do seem to be unique in:
- When that de-emphasis takes place. China’s gaokao and Germany’s Arbitur are at the end of high school, whereas testing under NCLB focuses on elementary grades. In China and Germany arts learning requirements diminish as students prepare for the test; in the United States, more high schools than elementary schools report teaching art subjects.
- The scale of testing (the Arbitur is given only to students graduating Gymnasium, which is approximately one-quarter of the student population; the gaokao is technically optional).
As the Common Core is implemented in the United States, the content and structure of its corresponding assessments will impact how much attention is paid to the arts. States participating in the Common Core choose to participate in one of two testing “consortia” – Smarter Balanced or Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC). Both had planned on assessments that would include complex performance-based tasks alongside multiple choice questions – which seemed to provide an opening for more arts integration. Smarter Balanced’s recent decision to scale down the number of performance tasks is disheartening, but the truth is that we know very little about what the “testing” climate in the United States will look like in the next few years.
Secondly, including the arts as “core” is important, and defining them as “arts” has weaknesses AND strengths. To many of us, the victory of “arts as core” under ESEA was muted by a sense that the definition should be more specific. Vagueness has its drawbacks: I’ve had numerous people – including museum educators – express surprise that my work in “arts education” includes theater. Seeking validation of each specific art form through our definition of “arts” is understandable. Australia, as the only country to name five arts disciplines in its curriculum, recognizes this. The country should be lauded for its goal to provide all students instruction in five art forms, but the discipline in-fighting leading up to and resulting from Australia’s policy changes is instructive. Even if we extend school days across our country, we have to acknowledge the trade-off between breadth and depth of experience. Requiring students to participate in many arts disciplines within the school environment prevents them from gaining a lot of experience in any one.
Similarly, a strong national arts education “mandate” can be a double-edged sword. Enacting pan-Canadian arts education policy is difficult, if not impossible, without a central body overseeing education. Nonetheless, Canada isn’t clamoring for a department of education (maybe because despite its de-centralized system, its PISA scores are pretty high). Australia’s ambitious national requirements around the arts in schools, meanwhile, leave some states grousing the new curriculum doesn’t honor or acknowledge quality work that has already taken place.
Germany occupies an interesting middle ground between these two, in that the federal government issues few distinct arts education policies, but does invest a great deal in support of arts education. (Brazil will be interesting to watch for a similar, non-arts-specific reason – its current education plan provides few specifics for how things should happen in a classroom, but a whole lot of resources to give that “how” breathing room.) Beyond providing financial resources, Germany’s national ministries lend visibility to the intersections of arts and education, and assert that the arts play a central role in the country’s identity despite the fact that all students are not provided them equally.
More arts-education friendly policies in the United States might not mandate that all children learn x, y and z. They may instead continue to affirm “arts” as core, while supporting assessments that accurately capture student gains without overburdening schools. With the Common Core on the horizon, we have a lot to learn about whether something resembling a national curriculum is even viable. As we do, the models above, for all of their strengths and challenges, provide hints of where we may wind up.
(The author would like to thank the following individuals who assisted in the research of this piece by answering questions, sharing resources and expertise, and/or providing connections to people who could: Octavio Camargo, Agnieszka Chalas, Yvette Hardie, Volker Langbehn, Kate Li, Jessica Litwin, Christopher Madden, Jennifer Marsh, Tom McKenzie, Ian David Moss, Scott Ruescher, Jason van Eyk, Shannon Wilkins and Yang Yan.)