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Reclaiming a place for the arts in Kentucky education


Last week the Kentucky Department of Education, in collaboration with the Owensboro Independent and Daviess County school districts and arts education groups from across the state hosted the first-ever Arts Education Summit in Owensboro.  The event included professional development for visual and performing arts teachers but also served as a rally calling for more attention to the arts in Kentucky's schools.

Car trouble prevented me from attending at the last minute, but Kentucky Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt gave a good speech supporting the goals of the Summit and I sent my regrets - and my encouragement - to Kentucky Music Education Association Executive Director Dr. John Stroube. 

As I expressed to John, I believe our schools have probably never had a sufficient focus on the arts as a central and essential component of a well-rounded curriculum.  But in recent years, especially at the elementary level, instructional time devoted to reading and math has grown exponentially, not just at the expense of the arts but also other key subjects like social studies and science.  Anecdotally, I hear many education colleagues telling me that their schools are cutting social studies and science instruction down to one or two days per week next school year, or in some cases down to only one quarter of the year.  If that's the case, I can't imagine that the arts are faring much better.

It's very easy to blame educational accountability systems that place so much emphasis on tested subjects like reading and math for this problem.  And the system probably does play a role.  But in my experience, many educators have themselves encouraged the development of a testing culture that emphasizes test preparation (which is indeed time-consuming) over the real mastery of knowledge and skill (wherein testing is an afterthought and a natural byproduct of the learning process). 

We've got to stop thinking about curricular areas as discrete and separate realms of knowledge.  As my recent reading about classical education has revealed to me, a wide and rich exposure to content knowledge provides the foundation for good reading comprehension and the transferability of information across a wide variety of contexts.  Learning the arts (and social studies and science) actually strengthens the learning of reading and math.

A good resource on this topic is the Visual and Performing Arts Education In Kentucky white paper, written and distributed by Kentucky's arts education groups.  Among the points highlighted in the white paper that really resonated for me:

  • "Arts" and "humanities" are not the same thing.  Kentucky's current curriculum framework force fits these two areas together, inadvertently undermining both the visual/performing arts and the true humanities, which are extremely diverse and include everything from social studies to literature and philosophy.
  • Knowledge of art, music, and theater are essential components of a well-rounded curriculum, but are not a substitute for real training in art performance and skill development.  These differences should be more clearly and intentionally delineated and separately emphasized in the curriculum.
  • The current system of program reviews for Kentucky's non-tested subject areas (including "arts and humanities") is flawed.  This self-assessment process, which is mandated under current state law, is complex and highly prone to inflation.  A KDE audit of program reviews last year found that schools had over-rated themselves two-thirds of the time.  The Commissioner has appointed a task force to make recommendations for improving the program reviews, and I look forward to reviewing their suggestions.

I am always cautious to emphasize to educators, parents, and the public in general that policy and curricular changes are never going to be sufficient to guarantee that the instructional program in any given school is effective.   So much depends on the vision, commitment, and quality of work of the teachers, parents, and community supporters at the local level.   But we can do many things with policy that help local communities do a better job, and improving the richness of the curriculum, especially at the elementary level, has become a real priority for me, both in my work with preparing future education leaders and my role as a member of the state board of education.

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[Image covered under Creative Commons Zero]

Usual disclaimer: All opinions expressed on this blog are mine alone and do not reflect the views of Western Kentucky University or the Kentucky Board of Education.


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