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Common Core Standards: Let Arts Educators Lead the Way

Jeanne Hoel

Though I’m typically standards-adverse (yet dutiful), I’m looking forward to the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS), specifically to their potential to de-isolate subject areas, including art.

I feel the CCSS reflect the work progressive educators have been doing for years and frame that work elegantly. I believe art educators can be important change agents and looked to as experts in this time of transition to CCSS, but it will require specialized pedagogical and leadership training. In a time of constricting budgets, especially for professional development, I am doubtful if this can happen.

Arts and Standards

In my tenure as a program manager at MOCA, I’ve witnessed several phases of what I’ll call Standards Service. About ten years ago, the pendulum swung hard for museums to make their programs more standards-based or at the very least standards-conversant.

It was important to do so in order to help teachers advocate for art education by showing how their work met Visual and Performing Art Standards (VAPA), as well as those of English, Social Studies, and Science. But often I felt I was paying lip service to a bureaucratic requirement rather than furthering valid educational objectives. Because we were working with wonderfully transgressive contemporary art at MOCA, we were inherently doing big, thinking-based, cross-disciplinary work—something the current standards don’t easily accommodate.

I feel differently about the CCSS. At their core lie thinking skills and habits of mind that transcend subject area boundaries and ideally equip students to negotiate growing waves of data and complex decision-making requirements they will face as citizens of global cultures and economies.

Possibilities for Arts and Common Core

Looking specifically at the English Language Arts (ELA) of CCSS, there are elegant and immediate connections to be made. As a means of navigating the new ELA standards, I’ve found it useful to focus first on the Anchor Standards for Reading, Writing, Speaking & Listening, and Language, which are consistent across all grade levels.

The Anchor Standards for Reading and Writing are also intended to be applied to History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Studies. They constitute broad literacy strokes designed to be used in conjunction with more specific CCSS grade-level standards.

Each ELA Anchor Standard emphasizes core skills and habits that include reading texts closely, analyzing meaning and structure, supporting claims with evidence, collaborating, communicating effectively, and many others that could be characterized as skills of critical thinking.

Key to building bridges between CCSS and the arts is a critical interpretation of “texts.” While the term may first connote written language, it’s important to look more broadly at the term to include images, installations, and performances—the stuff of our material culture. As we read text and form a thesis statement around it, we do the same when we decipher visual images and posit possible meanings.

Specifically, I have been looking at the new standards through the lens of Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS), a constructivist teaching method we use at MOCA in the context of teacher trainings, student tours, and newly developed curriculum resources.

VTS is driven by open-ended yet highly structured questions designed to develop key language, evidence-based thinking, and meaning-making skills as students grapple to make sense of diverse visual art images, both individually and collectively.

Critical thinking capacity-development fostered by the arts is something progressive art educators have known and practiced for years. Progressive education theory posits that student-centered learning, driven by learners’ developmental readiness and subsequent meaning-making skills, is the only way that people truly learn (absorb, understand, and apply).


While logical and empirically proven, progressive approaches to education have not reached the vast majority of art classrooms in America. There is still a great deal of visual art education driven by mastering the color wheel and other Elements of Art. While important in the middle of the 20th century as abstract expressionism took hold of the contemporary imagination, they only partially reflect the currents of visual culture production in 21st century.

I think I understand why art education is steeped in the past: because contemporary art often blurs boundaries between media and subjects, and actively evades rules and standards, it’s very hard to teach. Post-modern art is difficult to assess with traditional measures and sometimes seems to favor chaos over order (trickster-like), which can feel particularly threatening in the context of growing class sizes.

And yet contemporary art production and ideas, going beyond easily-defined parameters of traditional formal elements and into politics, cultural hybridity, and questions about the very nature of art, could be embraced as a truly interdisciplinary phenomenon through which learners practice the act of critical meaning-making addressed in the CCSS.

For this reason, art educators could be leading the charge into the 21st century educational landscape. But more often than not, they aren’t because art education standards and pedagogy, still rooted in the last century, haven’t kept pace with change.

We need massive professional development that not only helps redirect art education pedagogy to include an emphasis on critical thinking and language skills inherent to a contemporary discipline, but helps art educators realize the pivotal role they could play in helping schools make the cross-disciplinary connections they must make in the context of the new CCSS.

In our network of remaining art teachers, I feel we have massive, unrealized intellectual capital to help implement and drive the new Common Core State Standards toward a place of rigor, rich meaning, and utility to students. Yet, as budgets dry, concentrated professional development for art teachers dwindles.

So my question is, in the absence of specialized training, how can art educators place themselves at the center of school and district reforms driven by the new Common Core State Standards?

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