A Milestone For Arts Ed

If you've lost track of what's been happening in arts eduction, now is a good time to start paying attention again.

Things have changed since the 1980s and early '90s when tight budgets and the back-to-the-basics movement caused what one advocate calls the "wholesale slaughter" of the arts in schools. Today budgets are still tight, and supporters still rally against words like "frill" and "luxury." But they are operating in an environment increasingly more receptive to what the arts have to offer.

Earlier this year, for example, Georgia Gov. Zell Miller insisted newborns in his state receive classical music CDs or tapes after learning that such music can have an effect on IQs. And reflecting trends in hiring, New York City brought on about 500 new art and music teachers during the last school year, with 400 more promised for the fall.

But the pivotal event for arts ed will come in October. That's when the Department of Education will release results from the first national test in two decades assessing student knowledge of the arts.

This "report card" will show more than just how well some 6,600 eighth-graders can sing and act. It will also indicate something all Americans should be interested in: whether kids are being taught the skills -beyond math and reading - they need to function in society. Things like creativity, analytical thinking, and the ability to work in groups. Skills that employers say they are looking for. And, to play the global card, those that children in Germany and Japan develop through consistent arts education.

Of course, the assessment will also show how future graphic designers and musicians are shaping up - can students create, perform, and respond to works in music, dance, theater, and the visual arts? The test is part of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is mandated by Congress. Students will be evaluated again in 2007, and it will be interesting to see what headway has been made by then.

For despite the advocacy and success stories in recent years, there's still a long way to go before all schoolchildren - urban and suburban - have access to the arts. That's something this section will look at in coming weeks.

Perhaps the assessment results will help even out the playing field. Parents, teachers, and arts organizations will have more information to improve programs or make them a priority. Those groups are in the best position to effect change, after all, as arts education is a community affair. Everyone plays a role.

* Kim Campbell (campbellk@csps.com) is the assistant Learning editor. Amelia Newcomb is on vacation.

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