For more than twenty years researchers have been uncovering positive relationships between arts education and cognitive development in children. With benefits ranging from the enhancement of vocabulary and math skills, to the development of spatial-reasoning, arts education has come a long way from the days when it was considered to be a lot of fluff.
Given this evidence, one might expect America's schools to be alive with the sound of music. The reality, however, is quite different. Sandra Gibson of Americans for the Arts argues that "It's really hard to build support for arts and music at the local level."
She isn't kidding. In late 1997, the Department of Education issued a report card on the state of arts education programs in our public schools and -- let's just say you wouldn't want to hang this one on the fridge. On releasing the report, Education Secretary Riley announced that, "The study verifies that most American children are infrequently or never given serious instruction in music, arts, or theater. That's wrong."
What's the problem? Gary Marks of the American Association of School Superintendents says that one important reason why arts education isn't more common in public schools is due to the growing emphasis on high-stakes assessment tests. Because these tests focus on core subjects such as math and science, they've had the predictable result of pushing arts further to the margins. "When a school's standing is on the line, where do you think they're going to focus their attention?" asks Marks.
According to the Department of Education, America has flunked art. So, what's our punishment? Beyond the possibility that we aren't developing tomorrow's Mozarts and Picassos, we may also be putting ourselves at economic risk. As Richard Gurin of the National Alliance of Business put it, "Ideas are what built American business, and it is the arts that build ideas and nurture a place in the mind for them to grow. Arts education programs can help repair weaknesses in American education and better prepare workers for the twenty-first century."
Advocates like Gibson believe that making arts a priority in schools requires better teacher training. But it's also clear that schools will have to give it more weight-even if they can't measure its effectiveness using multiple choice.
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