Arts should be core to education, not an optional add-on

Boston budget threatens vital programming

I’M EXCITED TO welcome more than 5,000 fellow arts educators from the National Art Education Association to Boston this weekend. At the same time, I’m worried about the state of the arts in our city. While Boston Public School officials tout the district’s “largest ever” budget, cuts to a number of city schools are in the works and many stand-alone arts programs are in jeopardy.

I transitioned to become an arts teacher after initially working as a middle school math teacher. In my former role, I never had to advocate for making math a primary content area. I never had to explain why educators need to embed math in the school day. I was never asked to “integrate” math into another subject area because I wasn’t able to fit math into the “regular” curriculum.

When students only experience art through art integration — or worse, not at all — we deprive them of a subject that engages students in a uniquely creative and rigorous set of cognitive skills and emotional responses. Visual art class is the only dedicated space for directly teaching students how to paint, sculpt, draw, and, reciprocally, how to critique and respond to a work of art or the world around them. It is the only setting where students are consistently exposed to art-specific genres, history, philosophy, and acclaimed as well as regional artists and artistic movements.

Decades of research by Howard Gardner and others has shown that artistic development is a critical component of human development, a necessary complement to scientific learning. Arts educator and author Lisa Philips found that the skills students glean from the arts not only support students developing into artists, but contribute to students developing into leaders and creative thinkers. Numerous successful and influential business leaders have credited their innovative thinking and problem-solving skills to their childhood exposure to the arts. A 2012 study by the National Endowment for the Arts found that at-risk students who have access to the arts also tend to have better academic results, better workforce opportunities, and more civic engagement.

The impact of the transferable skills learned in visual art, however, can sometimes be misconstrued. There’s no clear evidence showing that students who receive visual art instruction perform better on standardized tests in other subjects when compared to students who do not receive art instruction. By arguing for the arts with unconfirmed information regarding its impact on other subjects, we place the arts in a precarious situation. There are enough good arguments for the arts without resorting to specious ones.

While our culture values the individual creativity of an artist, business leader, or scientist, we don’t strive to teach art in schools with the same fervor. Eighth-grade scores from the 2016 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) visual art assessment show no significant growth when compared to prior results.

If we could embed the arts into each and every child’s school day, they would have the opportunity to experience alternative criteria for measuring progress by measuring the process. The National Core Arts Standards provide a rigorous and developmentally appropriate set of process-oriented skills for students in grades K-12. The NCAS not only reinforce art as a standards-based subject, but the standards present flexible benchmarks to measure growth.

As a society, we’re craving creative thinkers and problem solvers without challenging the norm of how our students gain authentic and intensive exposure to visual art. The arts can create bridges into other subjects and enhance the learning experience, but let’s not compromise the arts by subjugating them to a secondhand subject or, in the worst-case scenario, eliminating them altogether. It’s ironic that, as we gather to celebrate the arts in education this weekend, we’re facing this shameful reality.

Liz Byron is a practicing artist and the preK–8 visual art teacher at Gardner Pilot Academy, a full inclusion Boston public school. Her new book, Art for All: Planning for Variability in the Visual Arts Classroom, examines how to design instruction in the visual arts using the inclusive principles of Universal Design for Learning.