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NCLB Outrages

Educators Voice Growing Concern that Schools Leaving Arts Behind

WASHINGTON -- Arts educators cheered when the arts were declared a "core" academic subject under the "No Child Left Behind" education reform measure signed into law two years ago by President Bush.

Since then, the cheers have turned to consternation as school districts around the nation have cut classroom time and funding for art and music. School officials say they need to focus attention and money on reading and math because students are tested annually on these subjects under the NCLB law.

Arts educators, joined by organizations of teachers, parents, school administrators and school boards, are fighting back. They are mounting national campaigns to preserve art classes, citing research that shows a strong correlation between schooling in the arts and academic success.

The National Art Education Association has created a "Tips For Parent Advocacy" booklet to help parents lobby for arts education in their schools, and the Arts Education Partnership has produced a guide, "No Subject Left Behind,'' designed to help state and local education leaders apply for federal arts funding.

Arts education will take center stage this week at the national conference of the Education Commission of the States, a Denver-based group of governors, legislators and state education officials. Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, the commission's incoming chairman, has chosen arts education as the theme of his tenure.

The issue also will be a focus at this week's convention of the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies and Americans for the Arts. Donna Collins, executive director of the Ohio Alliance for Arts Education, is part of a convention panel that will explore ways to ensure the continuation and improvement of arts education in American public schools.

"We all want a high-quality education for our children and we want schools to be accountable for providing that,'' Collins said. "But we can't just be focused on reading, writing and science.''

A Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll done last year found that 80 percent of Americans have at least a "fair amount" of concern that arts and other subjects will be downgraded because of the NCLB law's focus on assessing student improvement only in reading, math and, eventually, science.

The law requires annual math and reading tests from third through eighth grades. It also sets higher educational standards for high school teachers, while establishing penalties for schools that consistently fail to improve.

Under NCLB, arts education was listed as a core subject for the first time in federal law. But reports released over the past several months have documented that arts classes are getting squeezed out because the law doesn't require that students be tested for proficiency in art, music, dance or drama.

Many people also see arts classes as "academic frills," so they often are the first ones eliminated when school districts run short of money.

As a result, art, music and other arts classes may become a "lost curriculum," said Brenda Welburn, executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education. "The fact is, however, that these subjects should be considered as fundamental to a child's education as the three 'R's.'"

A recent report by the Council for Basic Education, a Washington, D.C.-based education nonprofit, found that schools are spending substantially less time on the arts -- as well as social studies, civics, geography and languages -- since NCLB became law.

The report, billed as the first to examine how NCLB is influencing instructional time in key subject areas, said such a trend is worrisome in light of research showing that active involvement in music, art and related subjects helps students do better in more traditional academic disciplines.

The report, titled "Academic Atrophy: The Condition of the Liberal Arts in America's Public Schools," found that schools with large numbers of minority students have been particularly affected by cutbacks in arts education. The authors said this was troubling in light of studies that suggest the arts can help blacks and Hispanics close the achievement gap with whites and Asians.

"Truly high expectations cannot begin and end with mathematics, science and reading," the report's authors stated. "Though we must certainly strive to close racial achievement gaps in mathematics and reading, we run the risk of substituting one form of inequity for another, ultimately denying our most vulnerable students the full liberal arts curriculum our most privileged youth receive almost as a matter of course."

One elementary principal who participated in the council study said improving his school's arts program helped give him a "hook" to engage students who otherwise were difficult to motivate. As a result, the principal said he was able to raise his school's readings scores, once among the lowest in his school district, to the highest in first, fourth and sixth grades, according to the report.

"The tendency to sacrifice time for the arts to extend time for mathematics and reading may ultimately prove counterproductive, especially for students at greatest risk of becoming disengaged from school," the report noted.

Michael Petrilli, a senior official of the U.S. Department of Education, said the NCLB law wasn't meant to undercut support for the arts.

"While accountability in the law is focused on reading and math, the two most basic subjects, there is a lot in the law that supports other academic subjects, such as the arts," he said. "The spirit of No Child Left Behind is to make sure that every child in America gets the kind of well-rounded education once reserved for children of the elite."

But Michael Blakeslee, deputy executive director of the National Association for Music Education, said there's obviously a need to convince school districts of the importance of the arts in achieving the goals of the NCLB law.

"School board members aren't evil people sitting up late at night trying to get rid of music education,'' Blakeslee said. "They are honestly trying to do the best for their constituents. We need to make sure they understand the stakes of cutting or eliminating music and other arts.''

John Broomall, executive director of the Pennsylvania Alliance for Arts Education, said arts educators must convince the public that students "don't need less of any academic area."

"There is no question that many children in schools are in deep academic trouble, and we've got to do whatever we can to help pull them out of it," he said. "But you don't start by taking things away from them."

(Karen MacPherson can be reached at kmacpherson@nationalpress.com

— Karen MacPherson


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