• Emailarticle
  • Writecomment

Trends in Education

Linking the Arts and Academic

We’re all familiar with Leo—the MGM lion—who, on a collar around his neck, sports the slogan Ars gratia artis:  art for art’s sake. This cultural icon and his creed may even typify the attitude of most Americans toward the arts. People appreciate drawing and painting, music, theatre, and dance for contributing beauty and entertainment to human life. But these same people may feel that in a school curriculum, the arts are “enrichment” activities, secondary in importance to math, science, reading, and writing; furthermore, these days many schools spend the bulk of their time preparing students for standardized tests, an enterprise in which the arts typically seem inessential.
Perhaps this state of affairs explains why, when school districts start slashing budgets, art and music become the misbegotten stepchildren of the curriculum, the first line items to get the ax. 

As recently as June of this year, reporter Becky Vivea, writing about the recent budget cuts in the Chicago schools, noted that the cuts include “reductions to specialty programs, like art and music” (WBEZ website, June 14).  As Grace Rubenstein, a senior producer at Edutopia, sees it,  school officials reason, “How do we justify the time and expense of music, dance, or drawing when we have federal benchmarks to meet and little money to spend (quoted on The George Lucas Educational Foundation website)?”    
Sparse funding for the arts is ironic, particularly now, when mounting evidence suggests that studying some branch of the arts enhances academic performance in students of all ages. 

Although gathering concrete data to support this assertion is difficult, owing to the many variables involved, some facts stand out. For example, among schools in high-poverty areas of Chicago, those who in recent years participated in Chicago Arts Partnerships in Education (CAPE) substantially narrowed the gap in academic achievement between high and low income students in the city system (reported on the DoSomething.org website).  Further, the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development (the OECD) has supplied some compelling international data.  Since 1997, the OECD has been administering the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) tests every three years to fifteen-year-olds from around the world. One of the revelations is that in countries where students consistently score near the top in math and science—countries such as Finland, Hungary, Korea, and Japan—art and music education is mandatory in the schools (OECD website).   
In light of this emerging data, a number of school systems around the country have now committed themselves to melding arts instruction with academics, especially in the early and middle grades. The Tucson schools, for example, began a program called OMA (Opening Minds Through the Arts) in the year 2000. The program uses music, dance, and the visual arts to teach skills essential to academic learning. According to the George Lucas Educational Foundation website, “Independent research demonstrates that OMA has dramatically improved test scores and teacher effectiveness. Launched as a pilot program,..OMA now thrives in more than forty Tucson public elementary schools.”  A similar approach now prevails in Vienna, Virginia, where teaching artists from the Wolf Trap Institute for Early Learning Through the Arts and preschool teachers in the Fairfax County (Virginia) Public Schools are working together. With Department of Education support, they are trying to foster greater learning in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) subjects by combining them with arts instruction (blog of the Department of Education). 
How does this work? Teachers who participate in Wolf Trap’s program attend sixteen sessions with an artist-in-residence to learn about the artist’s performing art (dance, drama, or music) and how STEM concepts might be taught via that art form. Maggie Severns of the New America Foundation, commenting in 2010 on how a Wolf Trap dancer, Rachel Knudson, achieved this, noted that “Children are taught to count different movements, recognize different geometric shapes by forming them with their bodies, and make patterns by sequencing different moves in different orders.” Severns indicated that the same sort of thing happens with music:  “Those of us who were plopped in front of a piano at a young age ... might remember the mathematical challenges of learning how to read music. By counting the beats signified by all those half-notes and quarter notes, fledgling musicians work to gradually draw a melody out of what is written on the page (New America Foundation website).” 
Locally, some of Chicago’s private schools, which often have more funding and leeway than public schools, have made a similar commitment to integrating the arts and the academic. The Baker Demonstration School, an N-8 school in Evanston, is a case in point. Kimeri Swanson-Beck, Director of Teaching and Learning at Baker, explained how this might work in a recent telephone interview. During the past year, for example, the fourth and fifth grades, as part of a unit on citizenship and government, read the book The Hope Chest, by Karen Schwabach. The students themselves decided to convert the book to a musical drama, which they did with the help of the school’s drama  teacher Lizanne Wilson and the school’s music teacher Jamee Guerra.  They then staged the show, supplying the music and creating the costumes and sets themselves.  Each class dramatized one part of the book, giving multiple students the opportunity to play each role.  In another example, last year Baker second graders studied penguins, researching each type of penguin, then writing and delivering scientific reports to reveal their findings. They also made life-size models of the penguins and wrote poems about penguins.  Finally, using green screens and other technology, they impersonated (impenguinated?) the animals, making a short video about each type. Has this merger of the arts and the academic led to enhanced academic performance among Baker students?  According to Swanson-Beck, when the Baker students first encounter standardized tests in the fourth grade—the Terra Novas—some of them are a bit perplexed by the experience, though as a whole, they do score above average. When the students take the Terra Novas again in the eighth grade, they nail them; most score somewhere in the 90-99th percentile range. Swanson-Beck sums up the school’s findings in this way:  “Over time we see enormous improvement.  With our approach, students develop more stamina, more willingness to take risks, and the ability to turn failure into a learning experience. They think more flexibly about everything they study and see more options. Best of all, they like learning.”    
The Francis W. Parker School in Chicago also encourages its faculty to integrate the arts and the academic. Two music schools in the city and suburbs, the Merit School of Music and the New Music School, offer music instruction to students outside of a regular school schedule. Both schools strive to teach music in such a way that the knowledge and skills students acquire will enhance their academic performance. 
Jane Alexander, who served as chair of the National Endowment for the Arts during the 1990’s, once elegantly summed up the effect of the arts on the academic: “When we teach a child to sing or play the flute, we teach her how to listen. When we teach her to draw, we teach her to see. When we teach a child to dance, we teach him about his body and about space, and when he acts on a stage, he learns about character and motivation. When we teach a child design, we reveal the geometry of the world.”

Published: September 03, 2013
Issue: Fall 2013 Issue