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Steal This Blog: 5 Ramblings on Arts and the Common Core Standards

Richard Kessler

1. For those looking for the obligatory introductory substantiations for the arts in education, search Google and insert your own here: ___________. At the same time, you might want to search on research by Ellen Winner.

2. For those who need to read that the arts are a core subject, you just did.

3. For those frustrated about the state of the arts in K–12, persevere.

Here are my five ramblings. Don’t be confused by the three above. Congratulations, you’ve just passed your first math test for today!

1. Don’t bet too much on the promise of Common Core-aligned new arts standards.

A lot of people I know are amped up about the prospect of new arts standards inspired by the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for English Language Arts (ELA) and math. The idea is that the new arts standards, if positioned to reinforce CCSS, will benefit from the monumental machine behind CCSS. Unfortunately, the volume on this amp does not go to eleven.

Yes, we do need new arts standards desperately, particularly considering how stale most of the state arts standards have become. New standards done right will go a long way to align standards with current practice, recognizing the changed world of the arts, rather than establishing standards based upon a wish, like certified arts teachers in every classroom (or school). The arts have changed in so very many ways since the bulk of the arts standards were last written, so let’s make sure the new standards reflect the 21st century. (Hint: think hybrids.)

That being said, the Common Core State Standards are in ELA and math, while veering into some other domains (history/social studies) like shoots from a tree. The CCSS in ELA and math have been cemented into a newly poured foundation of the educational industrial complex and are wired through the White House, state departments of education, the philanthropic sector, school districts, higher education, corporations, and teacher and administrator unions, while being on the tip of the tongues of millions of educators around the nation.

Having Common Core aligned or influenced arts standards are not likely to advance access to quality arts education on their own, since the train that’s been carrying CCSS since they were in draft form and required as part of the first round of Race to the Top grants left the station quite some time ago and didn’t have room for the arts.

What is more, the higher standards that CCSS will bring, combined with assessment regimes that will take up lots of time and space, may very make it even more difficult for the arts. If you want to hear something go to 11, listen for what happens when higher standards create the perception that we are even further behind in key educational measurements than we had thought.

2. The Common Core State Standards are a sort of lock waiting for a key held partly by the arts.

The most gifted educators I know, like Kyle Haver at the New York City Department of Education, talk about the arts holding a key to realizing the deepest aspirations of the Common Core State Standards. They speak about finding embedded meaning in the language of the ELA and math standards that point to ways of thinking and habits of mind and practice that are inherent in the arts. They recognize the arts as a key to what CCSS is all about on the deepest and most aspirational levels. I remember David Coleman showing me an early draft of the ELA standards and pointing to a few places where he had inserted references to art. I continue to think about a presentation by Scott Baldridge about the art of math, tearing way the cloak of numeracy skills acquisition to reveal the narrative and art of math.

But, get ready folks, the key to unlocking the real potential for CCSS is ultimately through an arts integration approach. (I feel your pain!). For all those who think arts integration doesn’t work, try again. For all those who think it demeans the arts, try again. For all those who think that the arts in on their own are going to transfer to what students need to know and be able to do in the Common Core State Standards, try again.

3. We need an Investing in Innovation Fund (i3) for the arts into the Common Core State Standards.

We need another go round, one that offers lots of cash, pushes the envelope towards new thinking about the arts and CCSS, and brings together the most gifted people in curriculum, instruction, and assessment, starting with those from ELA and math, cutting-edge artists that don’t ordinarily engage in this sort of work, progressive arts educators, and others who are interested in what we haven’t figured out yet. We need a monumental tussle with arts integration, no matter what you think of the U.S. Department of Education’s Arts in Education-Model Development and Dissemination Grants Program.

Think Manhattan Project for Arts Education.

There are bridges that have not yet been fully built, nor imagined, between the arts and ELA and math, not to mention college and career readiness that we must recommit to exploring and developing. Just because you once heard about a crappy music-into-math lesson doesn’t mean that we should batten down the hatches defending the purity of the arts.

Maybe the next project spearheaded from the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities will be something bigger, bolder, and tied to policy making and real dollars (public funding) as we have seen in Race to The Top.

4. Let’s get real about what the arts are and what they are not.

We like to proclaim that creativity and the imagination are the arts. From within the arts field one might think that we own creativity. While we’ve been busy proclaiming, there are a whole host of other domains that have become dominant in this space. You might want to read Richard Florida a little more closely. The creative economy is not dominated by the arts. Technology, design, and others who “create” are first and foremost in Florida’s vision.

Guess what? A lot of the arts are not really “creative.” Let’s take the example of music. Music instruction has for a long time been dominated by interpretive performance skills, with composition and improvisation trailing way behind. Take a look at the training of orchestral musicians, historically, and you will see something that is more than a bit hard to describe as being “creative.”

If you think this is screed, its not that I seek to insult, but rather point out that we might want to reconsider some of our rhetoric, and be more open to exploring and developing the new, in an age that is increasingly defined by the new. If we really want to link to CCSS, it will take that sort of commitment.

If we really want to be about creativity and innovation, we need to make sure its our values, instructional design, and openness to new collaborations.

5. We need to do a better job of getting the arts to the table as major efforts like CCSS or Race to the Top are developed.

By the time the arts field cooked up the STEM to STEAM idea, STEM grants were already out the door. While I know these things shouldn’t be viewed exclusively as a race (Race to the Top notwithstanding), and the long view is important, we need to be quite a bit more cagey about how we find ways to get the arts inserted into major league programs so we are not trying to squeeze arts education into already baked programs like the Common Core State Standards.

That’s precisely why I am concluding with a plug for the new Arts Education Funders Coalition from Grantmakers in the Arts.

Janet Brown and the GIA board have this particular goal in mind, and direct leadership from funders, with a coalition not afraid to aggressively promote arts education friendly policies will hopefully ensure that there’s a place for the arts in major education legislation and funding, ultimately leading to the arts being threaded through the cultures of all schools in ways that lift all boats, regardless of zip code and not dependent on the kindness of strangers.

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