In School: Giving Arts An Audience

A little girl with soft brown eyes and curly hair is in trouble at school. Her reading skills are poor, classmates tease her, and her parents can't help. The situation looks bleak - until someone gives her a clarinet. Practicing her instrument teaches her discipline and self-confidence, and soon she's auditioning brilliantly at the country's most prestigious music academy.

So goes the plot from "Beyond Silence," a German film recently released in the United States. The movie highlights a long-held truth in many European and Asian countries, and one now gaining strength in the US: Arts education reaches kids in ways that math, science, and language instruction cannot.

"Society is catching up to what many parents have known all along," says Richard Bell, national executive director of Young Audiences, a nonprofit, arts-in-education provider in New York. "Kids who are interested in the arts do better in school."

After years of struggling to survive budget cuts, arts education is now enjoying a renaissance. Politicians and educators are racing to swaddle infants in Mozart and lure at-risk kids to the opera. Yet for all the talk and wide-ranging experimentation now going on the question lingers: Have the arts today established a solid place in US schools?

Not yet, say many advocates, but widespread reform could be close at hand.

The 1970s, '80s, and early '90s were bleak times for arts education. Shrinking budgets, increasing curricular demands, and a focus on "basics" conspired to squeeze the arts out.

But today, fresh research about the beneficial effects of the arts on learning skills, new theories about how we learn, and dark assessments of how US schools lag behind their global counterparts have created a sense of urgency about teaching the arts. The arts are now credited with fostering creativity, curiosity, deeper spiritual and emotional dimensions. They also, proponents argue, develop team skills, problem-solving abilities, and spatial reasoning.

Yet, says John Mahlmann, executive director of the Music Educators National Conference, "there's still a real disconnect between talk and practice. Talk is cheap, and there's an awful lot of talk."

Certainly, arts advocates are encouraged by recent developments. Hiring of art and music teachers is on the rise. In K-12 public schools throughout the US, the ratio of students per music teacher has fallen to 469 to 1 from 523 to 1 in just the past five years, according to MENC. Arts and music are being restored in both Los Angeles and New York, after years of neglect. New York had jettisoned arts instruction after 1975, and Los Angeles had one specialty arts teacher per 4,700 students.

In addition, the inclusion of the arts in the federal Goals 2000: Educate America Act, and their incorporation into the national education standards as core subjects are being cheered as major gains. (The standards are voluntary, but many states use them as guides.)

But, say many involved in the schools, daunting challenges lie ahead:

Reaching agreement as to what "arts education" means. "We need to develop some kind of common vocabulary," says Stephanie Perrin, head of school at the private Walnut Hill School for the Arts in Natick, Mass. "Often arts education means using arts to teach other subjects, and there's a lot of research that shows that this enhances learning. But that's different from discipline-based arts education."

"Discipline-based" arts education, an approach developed at Ohio State University in the 1960s, has been championed by the Getty Education Institute for the Arts in Los Angeles, and is the basis of the guidelines. It involves sequential instruction in dance, music, theater, and the visual arts, and must include not just art-making, but also art criticism, art history, and aesthetics.

It's a tall order for most school systems. But some advocates worry that without rigorous standards, instruction will become a meaningless mishmash.

One approach fast becoming popular is to weave the arts into other disciplines; for instance, using opera to study history, or tracing the trajectory of a dancer's body to enhance a physics lesson. It's intended to enliven learning, and it also fits neatly into the trend toward a more interdisciplinary curriculum.

At the Elm Creative Arts School in Milwaukee, Wis., a public magnet school for the arts, for example, children studying the American Revolution sing period songs, study paintings, stage a battle, and write a bill of rights.

There's nothing wrong with that kind of learning, says MENC's Dr. Mahlmann. But it's not the same thing as "a curriculum based on high standards taught by qualified individuals."

* Finding the right teachers. "Our biggest challenge right now is to train teachers," says Vicki Rosenberg, senior program officer for the Getty Institute in Los Angeles. "What you've got now is a lot of demand and not much supply."

But the quality of teaching is also at issue. Many worry that the training of arts teachers lags woefully behind, focusing too narrowly on technique. Teaching a child the proper fingering on the flute, or the correct way to hold a paint brush, say some experts, is not the same as ensuring that kids glimpse the genius of Mozart or feel the emotions conveyed by Van Gogh's brush strokes.

* Dealing with regional differences. "We have 50 separate systems of education and in some cases, control is very local," says Doug Herbert, director of arts education for the National Endowment for the Arts. Children who change schools are unlikely to receive any sequential, comprehensive instruction.

* Focusing on test scores. "You have to be careful about how you're selling the arts to local school boards," says Mr. Herbert. Too much emphasis on boosting scores in subjects like math through exposure to Bach will create a flimsy platform, he worries, and will leave the arts vulnerable to the ups and downs of test scores.

Still, others insist that this time, the arts are here to stay. Partnerships being formed between schools or school systems and private arts organizations are responsible for a host of innovative projects (see story, left). While the number of schools involved is limited, some predict the learning garnered there will trickle down into classrooms everywhere. "We're not there yet, but maybe in five years," Ms. Rosenberg says. "Curriculum is a very large ship," Herbert says. "It takes time to change its course."


National Endowment for the Arts

(202) 682-5570

Music Educators National Conference

(703) 860-4000

The Getty Education Institute for the Arts

(310) 440-7315

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