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Nick Rabkin

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The Three Horsemen of Arts Education

Posted: 12/15/11 12:20 PM ET

There's never been a golden age of arts education in American schools. Back in 1930, less than a quarter of 18-year olds had taken classes or lessons in any art form. There was much progress after that, but by the early 1980s more than a third still had none. And for the last thirty years, arts education for American children has declined sharply again. By 2008, fewer than half of 18-year olds had any arts classes or lessons, about the level of the 1960s. Most of the decline has been concentrated in schools that serve low-income black and Latino students. Many of their schools have become veritable arts deserts. Why have the arts been so marginalized in education? There are three big reasons. We might think of them as the three horsemen of arts education, just one short of an arts education Armageddon.

1. School reform: A Nation at Risk, the 1983 report that launched wave after wave of school reform, argued that our schools had lost focus and lowered their standards. Manically mixing metaphors, the report saw a "rising tide of mediocrity" in schools that substituted "appetizers and desserts" for "entrees," endangering our nation like an "unfriendly foreign power's act of war." Ignoring the arts, it implied that learning the arts was a distraction from real education. It set a strategic template for school reform that still dominates educational policy.

But why did A Nation at Risk and reform efforts since dismiss the arts? The main reason is a widely and deeply held misconception about the nature of the arts and the nature of learning -- a belief that the arts are emotional and expressive, and not cognitive and academic. This belief, in turn, is grounded in the classical concept of the mind -- that conscious, rational thought is fundamentally different and of a higher order than feelings, emotions, and sensations. Modern cognitive and neuroscience has shown that this model of the mind is fundamentally wrong, and that thinking, feeling, and our senses are all functions of one integrated nervous system.* Humans can't think in the absence of emotion and sensation, and most thought is fundamentally unconscious. This emergent model of the mind suggests that art -- which lives in the connections between thought, feeling, and sensation and connects the unconscious to conscious awareness -- is profoundly cognitive. Nonetheless, our ideas about learning and the ways we have structured education are rooted in the old model.

2. Fiscal crisis: By the late 1970s the transformation of the American economy that has lately been so destructive to our national prosperity -- the awful decline of manufacturing, the export of jobs from the US, and the explosion of debt -- was already damaging the financial stability of school systems around the nation. New York City had a fiscal meltdown in 1975, the school system was a major victim, and arts education was first on the chopping block. Chicago laid off all its elementary art and music teachers in 1978, during a fiscal crisis. The pattern was repeated again and again across the country through the 1980s.

3. Tax rebellion: The "Reagan Revolution" was based, in large measure, on a deep resentment of government, often fueled by a misguided belief that the only beneficiaries of government programs were corrupt politicians and the undeserving poor -- usually folks with darker complexions. Proposition 13 was passed in California in 1978. It restricted the capacity of local jurisdictions to raise taxes to pay for public services, including education. California schools continue to suffer, and the tax rebellion has become a sustained principle of American politics. Conservatives promote a "starve the beast" (beast=government here) strategy today, and public education (teachers, in particular) is a prominent target. Despite de jure designation as a "core" subject, the arts are surely not that in practice.

If school reform were meeting its objectives -- closing the achievement gap, improving US students' standing on international tests, raising standards, and preparing all students for higher education and work in the 21st century -- the case for making arts education a strategic element of public education might quickly be closed. But a new report from the Consortium for Chicago School Research showed that more than two decades of determined efforts to 'reform' Chicago schools has had very limited results. It showed that many test score improvements were actually the effect of easier tests, not higher student achievement. The racial achievement gap actually widened across the district. Similar findings deflated test score results in NYC last year. Large-scale cheating on standardized tests has been uncovered in Philadelphia, Washington, DC, and Atlanta. Analysis of international tests shows that the US has fallen farther behind more nations in more subjects. This pattern demonstrates that school reform is not succeeding on its own terms.

Despite the paucity of resources for arts education, arts education programs in some Chicago schools and elsewhere across the nation are have having significant effects on the quality of learning in those schools. There is growing evidence that the arts can actually help deliver the goods that have eluded conventional school reform. The three horsemen may have blinded education policy makers and many administrators to that evidence, but now some champions of conventional school reform have started to assimilate the hard facts. Chester Finn, one of its architects in the Reagan administration, wrote not long ago that prevailing school reform strategies "are clearly outliving their usefulness." Diane Ravitch, an early advocate of No Child Left Behind, now argues that No Child "has made testing and accountability our national education strategy," lowered "vague and soporific standards," turned testing into a fearful truncheon, substituted rhetoric for research and faith in the private market for commitment to a fundamental democratic institution.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan, still closely linked to prevailing reform strategies, recently wrote, "Education in the arts is more important than ever. In the global economy, creativity is essential. Today's workers need more than just skills and knowledge ... The best way to foster that creativity is through arts education."

If more education policymakers, business and political leaders begin to recognize the poor returns that school reform has brought, we may, even in this time of deep economic strain, see a new openness to the arts in our schools, and the three horsemen of arts education may be reined in.

* Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio famously called this Descartes Error, in his book by that name. Also check out Metaphors We Live By and Philosophy in the Flesh by cognitive linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson.