SOMEBODY new is winning popularity contests in California public schools. Whenever his picture appears, youngsters erupt in explosions of oohs and aahs. Michael Jackson? Michael J. Fox? No - Vincent Van Gogh. Third-grade students at the Anza Elementary School in Los Angeles were recently identifying the geometric shapes contemporary artist Lyonel Feininger used in his painting ``German Train.'' Hands whipping the air like palm trees in a hurricane, the children strained forward to respond. After pointing out a square in the reproduction, Stacey skipped back to her seat beaming with pure joy. Jon, a new arrival from Finland who barely speaks English, surprised everyone by saying, ``I see a triangle.'' Blushing with pride, he touched the hard-to-detect shape.
When the teacher, Ms. Alta Jamile, displayed a bluish print with yellow swirls, the students gasped: ``Starry, Starry Night! Vincent Van Gogh!'' The recess bell rang. Oblivious, the eight-year-olds sat riveted to their seats, spellbound by the picture.
These students are participating in discipline-based art education (DBAE), a trend that took root in 21 Los Angeles school districts, encompassing 16,000 students, six years ago. DBAE is a national movement to reform education through expanding the role of art education in elementary and secondary schools.
Recently more than 800 advocates of art and education met in Los Angeles at a national conference sponsored by the Getty Center to discuss the future role of visual arts instruction in the school curriculum (see sidebar).
Despite the scarcity of financial resources and the back-to-basics push currently in vogue, ``the arts are essential,'' John Brademas, New York University president, told the gathering. ``I want art educators to be in the vanguard of school reform,'' Graham Down, executive director of the Council for Basic Education, told the assembled teachers, artists, school and museum administrators.
The concept of DBAE, if fully implemented, would indeed represent a revolutionary change in curriculum. But the ideas contained in DBAE have been floating around the field for nearly 25 years, ever since art educators, bemoaning the marginal niche to which the arts are relegated in school curricula, began calling for a more rigorous, comprehensive approach to teaching art in schools. Now, departments of education in 25 states have recommended instituting a form of DBAE. At least 18 states are already using it.
DBAE places the study of art at the core of curriculum, alongside reading, writing, and arithmetic. But this new attention to art doesn't mean sloshing more tempera paint on paper. It involves study of four disciplines: production (the traditional studio approach, which schools have emphasized almost exclusively in the past), criticism, art history, and aesthetics.
Before DBAE, students typically spent less than 1 percent of their time studying art.
The Getty Center for Education in the Arts, an arm of the California-based Getty Trust, was created in 1982. After studying the American art scene, it made improving the status and quality of visual arts instruction in the nation's schools a priority.
``The arts can and must have a more significant place in the education of children,'' says Leilani Duke, director of the Getty Center. Putting its considerable financial assets where its mouth was, the Getty Center funded the pilot programs in Los Angeles.
In the Norwalk section of Los Angeles, Walnut Elementary School draws its student body from a poor, heavily Hispanic population. Principal Chris Forehan, who believes fervently in the mission of DBAE, tells of the birthday party for Picasso that was celebrated in his school's cafeteria.
As students ate blue and pink cake (signifying the artist's blue and rose periods), a student's mother entered, asking, ``Whose birthday is it?'' ``Picasso's,'' the children chorused. The mother scanned their faces and, oblivious to the cultural deprivation her question revealed, asked: ``Which one of you is Picasso?''
``I think that basically summarizes the environment the kids come from,'' Mr. Forehan says. Yet, because these kids are turned on to art in school, they not only soak up culture themselves, they teach their parents.
A second-grader dragged his parents to the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, ``which is like going on a trip to Europe for them,'' says Forehan. There he proudly acted as docent, expounding on the technical, sensory, expressive, and formal properties of Van Gogh's work.
The pint-size art prodigies astonish visitors with their knowledge. One Spanish-speaking kindergarten child pointed to his painting on an easel and said in English, ``Look, this is just like a Kandinsky.'' Another student nabbed Forehan in the hall to proclaim, ``Your necktie looks very much like Rousseau's `Virgin Forest.'''
This program, says teacher Nancy Sandoval, ``opens up the world for them. It shows then they can be successful in art. They can do something they didn't think they could do - all of them.''
Staff at the Anza School claim more than boosted self-esteem as a DBAE benefit. After three years' participation in the program, the school's test scores in reading, vocabulary, and writing have doubled. ``We have the highest test scores in the district,'' says prinicipal Warren Carver. ``We really equate that with this program and what it's done for us in other areas.''
``The measurable thing you see immediately,'' Mr. Carver adds, ``is the dramatic increase in oral vocabulary.'' A teacher recounts how one of her lowest achievers saw a Seurat print and exclaimed, ``Pointillism! My very favorite style!''
Typically, according to school staff, students with learning disabilities and those who speak English as a second language sit silently in class. But in their art studies, because there are no wrong answers, such children vie to talk about paintings. ``The program stimulates the top, bottom, and middle of the school population,'' says Carver, ``all at once.''
BUT, despite this golden age glimpse of future generations of art lovers, there are skeptics - even within the field. Patricia Mitchell, principal of the Fillmore Arts Center in Washington, D.C., an arts magnet elementary school, acknowledges that the program is ``a powerful tool for personal development,'' but feels it should be termed ``aesthetic education instead of art education. It's geared to make students critics, not artists.''
William Dickinson, president of the Network of Performing and Visual Arts Schools, considers the program ``an improvement over the present vacuum of art training after the elementary level in most public schools,'' but he, too, feels DBAE emphasizes the academic side of art education at the expense of hands-on studio training. ``[John] Dewey was right,'' says Mr. Dickinson. ``We learn by doing.''
Some art educators are concerned that the general classroom teacher, who does the bulk of DBAE instruction, lacks the necessary expertise of the art specialist. Creating renaissance students requires renaissance teachers.
Teachers of DBAE feel their students are distinctly renaissance in their love of art.
One cited a seven-year-old girl, an alumna of DBAE in kindergarten and first grade, on her first visit to a museum gallery. With the discriminating eye of an appraiser, she ticked off names of all the paintings and artists in sight. When an amazed bystander said to her, ``You know a lot about art,'' she looked at him as if he were daft to expect otherwise. ``I certainly do,'' she said.