Friday, June 14, 2013

Why The Arts Matter and Why We Still Have to Prove It

I was recently reminded that if something isn't part of the standardized tests and government mandated batteries of assessment and evaluation in public education, it will be treated as secondary.  Specifically, I was told the arts are not as important because we are not assessed on them.  This devaluing of the arts has been going on for years.  "The arts are a luxury. " "They're not one of the '3 R's'" (a phrase so fraught with irony I'd better just ignore it).  "They're not on the test."  "They don't build job skills (lie)."  "They should not or cannot be graded."  Therefore, they don't matter.  They are what gets cut when budget cuts hit.

Even efforts to counteract this trend tend to focus on showing how the arts boost "academics."  The arts become a tool for teaching math, reading and writing.  So, let's start there.  How do you make academics accessible to a wide range of learners?  How do you engage struggling learners in math, reading and writing?  How do we prepare students for the jobs found in the visually-oriented digital age?  With the arts.  How do we teach persistence and creative problem-solving and the kind of intense focus and discipline that will support achievement?  With the arts.  How do we develop teamwork and explore diverse cultures and render content accessible to kids from poverty and kids from a  variety of cultural backgrounds?  With the arts.

If we want to close the infamous achievement gap, we need to stop doing more of the same.  We need to look at ways to access multiple learning styles.  We need to recognize that the kind of enrichment experiences that provide background knowledge for kids from higher socioeconomic backgrounds are far less available to kids from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, and that a wide range of enrichment experiences and background knowledge is part of the foundation upon which academic learning builds.  The words kids read in texts and the math concepts kids learn in class do not exist in a vacuum. 

But let's go beyond this level of argument for a minute.  When we talk about the "achievement gap" we define it by dominant culture standards.  We define it by scores on a one-dimensional, highly limited, standardized test created by people from the dominant culture and driven by the standards, values and thinking of the dominant culture.  So, we need to admit that we are allowing the dominant culture to frame the discussion and values.  We are seeking to give students the tools and skills to succeed in the dominant culture.  That's just reality.

However.  Those of us who are a bit more subversive in our thinking believe that more can and should be taught.  I believe that learning what it means to be a human being matters.  I believe that learning how to think and explore your world matters.  I believe that great innovation and change and discovery, the hallmarks of human progress throughout time, do not come from the standardized test mentality.

More than that, I believe that the arts are just as important as any other area of the curriculum.  Every time and place in the whole of human experience is reflected in artistic expression.  Every human culture throughout history and throughout the world has engaged in artistic expression - music, dance, visual arts, storytelling.  Human beings have created art since their earliest existence, and under the most appallingly inhumane conditions (concentration camps for example).  The creative urge is a fundamental urge.  It is not a luxury.  It is part and parcel of our identity as a unique species.  As such, it should be valued equally with other parts of the curriculum.  Just because we are not assessed on emotional development and character, does that mean those things should be devalued as well?  No.  When we become a world that prioritizes intellectual achievement above all, we lose something fundamental to who we are.  To paraphrase, what does it profit a child if he or she gains the whole of the test but loses their very soul?

Kids in Title I schools suffer this excision of the arts more than any other group.  The pressure of No Child Left Behind and other standardized test-driven "accountability" movements weighs most heavily on schools serving low-income, high-needs students.  This pressure has forced more and more teachers and administrators to treat the arts as expendable extras.  We even treat science and social studies that way.  All else must take a backseat to reading, writing, math.  It shouldn't.

Look at the world we live in.  Look at the magnificent range of ways that human beings make their living and find their way in the world.  How on earth can we say it is right to narrow our educational vision and devalue something that engages kinesthetic learners, visual learners, auditory learners, problem-solvers, and more?  Why are we still having to prove the value of the arts?  Why are we still making these artificial distinctions from one subject area to another?  The best learning takes place when we build neural connections between different areas of the brain, a magnificently complex and non-linear process, not when we compartmentalize and segregate.

Something has to change.