EDUCATION in the arts is the neglected stepchild of the effort to reform American schools.
Since they are often viewed as "frills," public-school arts programs constantly live under the threat of the budget ax. Yet signs of renewed support for music, art, and theater instruction are emerging. Largely in response to a concerted campaign by artists and arts educators, politicians are growing more vocal in their support of the arts.
"It's my hope that the year 1993 will be hailed as the beginning of a cultural renaissance in this nation because of the new focus on the arts and on the central role of arts education," says Rep. Bob Clement (D) of Tennessee, who proudly points out that he represents Nashville - "the country-music capital of America."
Shortly after taking office, Education Secretary Richard Riley put out a statement heralding the place of arts education. "As we work to improve the quality of education for all children, the arts must be recognized as a vital part of our effort," he said.
When the six national education goals were drafted in 1989, arts educators were outraged that there was no mention of the importance of the arts in schools. Goal No. 3 lists five academic subjects in which students should be performing at a high level by the year 2000. Arts education is not included.
"Attempts were made to make amends for that as pressure was put on appropriate agencies and national leadership," says John Mahlmann, executive director of the Music Educators National Conference, a professional organization that is part of the campaign for arts education.
In a nod toward arts advocates, the arts are being included in the current push for voluntary national standards. During the past year, arts educators have banded together to draft curriculum standards outlining what students should be learning in the arts nationwide. The standards are expected to be ready next year.
Stacey Wilner, a music teacher in Tennessee, expects the standards to increase the quality of arts education. "It will lend credence to what we are doing," she says.
But drafting national standards for arts instruction isn't proving easy. Some experts warn that standards cannot and should not be applied to the arts. Standards hard to set
"The fit between standards and learning in the arts is only partial," says Elliot Eisner, a professor of education and art at Stanford University in Stanford, Calif. "They can be applied for some aspects of learning in the arts, but, I would argue, not for the ones that are most important and most central."
Professor Eisner cautions against going too far with standards in the arts and "saddling teachers with scores of standards likely to fragment their teaching and take the heart out of art."
Although he sees some progress being made in arts education, Eisner says "we shouldn't by any means become complacent. We've got a long way to go."
He identifies several things that need to be done to make the arts "more than marginal in American schools."
For example, university requirements need to be changed so that the arts are an expected part of the general academic curriculum for college-bound students. "That sets a value that influences what programs are provided in high schools, and also in middle schools and elementary schools for that matter," Eisner says.
Currently, 42 states require schools to teach the arts and 30 states require students to take art courses. Yet these requirements are often so vague that students can fulfill them by taking a foreign language. In 1987, most high school graduates had taken one and a half classes in the arts, according to the National Center on Education Statistics.
A 1989 study by the National Arts Education Research Center at the University of Illinois shows that the amount of classroom time devoted to the arts has declined since 1962.
Last year, a nationwide survey by the National Association of Elementary School Principals found that half of the principals had made cuts in music and arts programs at their schools.
The campaign for preserving arts education in public schools has shifted in recent years. Many advocates now argue that instruction in the arts cultivates creativity, discipline, and teamwork - skills that today's students must have to succeed after school.
"The true essence of learning is being creative," Ms. Wilner says. "Without that, we're just giving them information to spit back out at us. Until we teach students how to be creative on their own, we really haven't done our job as educators." Motivating students
Many arts educators contend that cutting art courses increases dropout rates and lowers student motivation. "There are many different ways of learning or different means of intelligence, and the arts is where some students excel," Wilner says. "For some students, the arts are the only thing that keeps them in school. It's the only reason they graduate."
Some studies even suggest that arts instruction improves student performance in other subjects. For example, research by the College Entrance Examination Board indicates that students who study music achieve higher SAT scores, on average.
Yet some experts discount such theories and few arts advocates hang their arguments on this notion.
"I think transfer of learning is probably more limited than we would like to believe," Eisner says. "I wouldn't, in any case, want to build my church of justification on the basis of what art activities do for helping kids learn how to spell or compute."
"The primary reason that you have music in schools is not to improve SAT scores and math," agrees Mr. Mahlmann. He views the arts as "legitimate curricular areas in and of themselves."
President Clinton is renewing hope among arts educators. "I feel somewhat optimistic," Wilner says. "The current administration appears to be more supportive."
The Clinton team hasn't announced any new initiatives in arts education. But in a recent interview deputy education secretary Madeleine Kunin emphasized Clinton's support for arts education. "What you're seeing in this administration," she says, "is a real enthusiasm for the arts. We applaud the inclusion of the arts in the curriculum and see it as a very important component. The arts should be part of the school-reform agenda."
Ms. Kunin says the federal government can help "legitimize the role of arts in education."
"The most effective thing we can do is provide models of low-cost arts education initiatives that work," she says.
Yet there are no such plans on the table yet. And Kunin does not expect the level of federal funding for education to increase.
"The primary responsibility of education is at the state and local level rather than at the federal level," points out Congressman Clement. "The battleground, in my opinion, will be in the school districts around the country."