Art and education

TWO years ago this month the current round of public debate over education began: The National Commission on Excellence in Education released its nationwide study, ``A Nation at Risk,'' which sharply criticized American public education. Since then several other studies have added their recommendations, parents and educators have debated reforms, and states have provided major funding to aid change. But some important curriculum areas have been largely ignored: One is art.

It shouldn't be ignored.

A good art program throughout the school years is an important learning tool. It helps students see differences and similarities and come up with creative ways of doing things. It aids them to see nuances and complexities of issues, and not to oversimplify them. Unlike math and computer science -- both extremely important for other reasons -- art has no clear right or wrong, thus encouraging young children to experiment with creative approaches. Art encourages students, too, to express emotions.

Now a new report aims to nudge America's schools toward more and better art programs. It is by the Getty Center for the Education in the Arts. Little demand exists among parents or educators to improve art education: Most had inadequate art teaching themselves and do not realize how beneficial a good program can be.

It ought to consist in part of a creative, hands-on program such as drawing, painting, and crafts. But it should be broader, as the Getty report notes: From kindergarten onward it should include art criticism and art history; in early grades, of course, both must be simplified. All students should be taught that art is everything and everywhere.

Only one-half of America's school districts now have any art program at all. Where it does exist, most art curricula actually offer only studio work, taught too often just at a craft level, especially in the early grades. Usually it's taught only one hour a week, with much of this eaten up by time needed to set up studio projects and clean up after them. Often it's an extracurricular activity. Students receive the wrong message -- that art is not important, it's only play time.

The Getty report concludes that, given a good curriculum, art can be well taught in elementary grades by the classroom teacher as well as the specialist. Perhaps -- although a strong case can be made for specialty teaching. The better the teacher's training, the better the student's learning.

Whoever does the teaching, it is important for the students to be helped to learn visually and creatively. Art can make the difference. ----30----

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