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NCLB Outrages

Arts education on endangered list across country

By Tim Grant

The flood that crippled Carnegie last year after Hurricane Ivan continues to affect how the Carlynton school board keeps its annual budget above water.

With several storefronts on Main Street still closed and displaced families still struggling to recover, school board members voted to cut in half the art teaching staff for this fall.

"I know there are directors, myself included, who would like to see the art positions reinstated," said David G. Roussos, Carlynton school board president.

Roussos and other board members felt bad about cutting the visual art program. Still, Roussos said, there was never any talk about eliminating math, science or English teachers, or any other teachers.

What happened at Carlynton clearly illustrates why arts education is on the endangered species list at schools across the nation.

As school administrators turn greater attention to the subjects that states are required to test under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, mathematics and reading are the main entree, while art and music are the delicious but fattening dessert they can do without.

Study after study has shown the importance of the arts in the education of children. Supporters say art and music unleashes the powers of creativity and helps children make sense of the world around them.

"My feeling is if it comes to cutting an art class or a math class, No Child Left Behind doesn't give us the opportunity to make a decision that's best for the district," said Roussos, a Pittsburgh lawyer. "It's going to force us to cut the art class."

No Child Left Behind, or NCLB, as it's known, is a landmark education reform law signed by President Bush three years ago. It's supposed to improve America's schools by holding them accountable for the achievement of all students.

No Child Left Behind relies heavily on standardized tests in math and reading to measure whether schools are making adequate yearly progress, both for students as a whole and for subgroups, such as minority and special education students. In Pennsylvania, the measure is the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment.

Schools that don't show adequate yearly progress face dire consequences, including replacing the staff and, in severe cases, possibly surrendering a school to state control.

"Because the focus is on the test scores as the final measure, school districts have a tendency to focus on the scores rather than all the other elements that make up the education of a child," said Peter Domencic, a board member in the Avonworth School District who also teaches special education in Butler School District.

"If we start de-emphasizing music and art and those things that give life to education," he said, "then we are losing touch with the true purpose of education, which is to allow children to find the gifts that they have."

The law identifies arts education -- dance, music, theater and visual arts -- as a "core academic subject" along with reading, math and science.

But because the law doesn't require testing or any penalties for not studying the arts, it's more vulnerable to cuts.

Arts education cannot be totally eliminated from the curriculum, by state and federal law. But schools have wide discretion to decide how much is offered, and the quality of arts programs.

The greater arts community in Pittsburgh is heading the local movement to keep arts education alive in public schools.

"The way they are being taught reading, writing and math in order to score highly on a standardized test, in my view, is not creating leaders for the world we're walking into," said Lisa Hoitsma, executive director of Gateway to the Arts.

Gateway and other outreach programs, such as the Arts Education Collaborative, help connect working artists with schools so that more students are exposed to the arts and might learn to appreciate ballet, opera, theater and the symphony.

Pittsburgh Public Schools offer one high school, one middle school and two elementary schools with a strong focus on the arts.

"Interestingly, they score among the highest on standardized tests," said Cornelia Davis, who coordinates the arts and humanities curriculum for Pittsburgh Public Schools.

When it comes to arts education in the city, those four arts academies are the shining stars. Most students who attend the other 82 public schools in Pittsburgh are not spending as much time studying the arts as they used to.

"There has been a reduction in the number of class periods per week that we are able to offer arts-related courses," Davis said. "This has come about more pointedly in the last three years. Principals are being driven by test scores. . . .

"It used to be, in elementary and middle school, students had art and music three days a week. Now, in some schools, we're lucky to have art or music one day a week."

High school students are more likely to take art and music classes daily as electives; but there is less opportunity to take those classes if a student must take remedial courses in reading and math.

Davis said no arts teachers in the district had been laid off. But not all positions are being replaced when an art or music teacher quits or retires. Some arts teaching slots are being turned into part-time positions at many school districts to cut costs.

When three art teachers retired from the Carlynton School District last school year, rather than raise taxes, board members decided to replace those jobs with one full-time art teacher and a part-time art teacher.

Statewide, there are 3,329 art teachers and 4,373 music teachers in kindergarten through 12th grade, more than there were 10 years ago. State officials cannot say how many of those art and music teachers are now part time instead of full time.

Stalwart supporters of the accountability movement, such as Matt Gandal, say there's no hard data to show students are not getting a well-rounded education because of the emphasis on math and reading tests.

"I haven't seen any concrete empirical evidence that the arts are getting cut across the board in favor of subjects that are getting tested," said Gandal, executive vice president of Achieve, a Washington D.C.-based group led by governors and corporate executives that promotes rigorous standards and assessment.

"All anyone has is anecdotal evidence," Gandal said. "To me, it's about finding a way to improve student achievement in those core disciplines. That's what will ultimately make the difference between success and failure when they go into the real world."

While art education was never part of the essential "3 Rs," it has always had a place in most children's school experience.

Schools historically have offered various assortments of music, drama, painting and crafts as a regular part of the curriculum. Specialists in music and visual arts were hired to teach the courses, and occasional field trips to museums, galleries and symphonies were common.

If the downward trend in arts education is going to be reversed, art and music teachers have to become leaders at their schools, said Sarah Tambucci, executive director of the Arts Education Collaborative.

"Some schools are even eliminating classrooms for arts education," Tambucci said. "If arts teachers are respected and speaking passionately and articulately about why art is important, that won't happen."

Tambucci recently led a seminar for Allegheny County arts teachers. The whole idea was to train them to be arts advocates. They learned to speak up and quickly defend their positions with explanations backed up with research and statistics.

They also created action plans for integrating arts education with other school subjects.

Some ideas from the teachers who attended included hanging student artwork in school hallways along with a list of the math and English skills that were used or learned by the student artists, or showing the spring concert audience a short video of the first time students tried playing a song they eventually mastered.

Karla Swoger-Gearhart, who teaches art in the Riverview School District that covers Oakmont and Verona, wants to create an interactive Web site for teachers that will incorporate more in-depth art history into art classes.

"Our teachers ...aren't doing enough contextual, compare and contrast, and analytical comparisons within the different genres," she said.

Tambucci thinks the only way for the arts to regain popularity in public schools is for arts teachers to make their specialities central to what goes on in schools.

"This is important," she said. "If they can't go back and articulate why art is important and carry that message, we're dead in the water. Our kids, for generations, won't have this opportunity."


— Tim Grant
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette


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