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Why the Arts Matter in Education

by Carole Henry


Dancer by Mica Blake, Clarke Middle School, Clarke County School District


A number of billboards throughout Georgia are advocating the study of math and science to achieve success. The messages are part of the public awareness campaign of PRISM (Partnership for Reform in Science and Mathematics), a statewide effort — funded by the National Science Foundation and centered at the University of Georgia — to improve K-16 student achievement in math and science. Recent studies show that U.S. student math and science achievement levels rank near the bottom of those of other countries throughout the world. The billboard campaign targets parents with messages about their children’s success in the hope that they will begin to place greater importance upon the math and science courses their children take and their children’s achievement in those courses.

PRISM's goals include providing professional development to K-12 math and science teachers, developing academic concentrations in math and science in elementary and middle school teacher preparation programs, and implementing strategies to recruit science and math teachers — all aimed at raising student achievement levels. The focus on achievement is part of current national education reform efforts linking changes in teacher preparation and instructional methodology to substantive changes in K-12 student learning. For the most part today, student learning is measured through standardized testing with test results used as the primary gauge of “adequate yearly progress” as specified in the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act currently in effect.

How do the arts fit into this context? What do they have to offer our students today? Why are they important? What are the implications for arts teacher preparation here at UGA? Georgia’s school-age population continues to grow, and many school systems are adding additional schools. While middle school and high school art and music teachers are funded by the state, local systems must find the funding to support those positions at the elementary level; Georgia funds one art, music or physical education teacher for every 600 elementary students. Even so, increasingly, elementary schools, particularly those in counties with a higher property tax base, are including art and music teachers supported by local funding. In some counties, positions in drama and dance are supported by local funds. No Child Left Behind legislation, viewed as controversial in educational circles because of its linking of teacher and school success to specific degrees of annual increases in school-wide student achievement scores, includes grant opportunities to address arts education.

The Clarke County School District was awarded a $105,000 Arts in Education Professional Development Grant last year; the grant has recently been extended for a second year providing an additional $87,500 for arts education. This was one of 48 such NCLB grants to support arts education awarded in the same time period throughout the country. What is it about the arts that make them relevant in today’s educational climate?

A story from my days as a middle school art teacher might shed some light on these questions. Butch (that was his real name) was an eighth-grade student on a class field trip when I overheard him talking with a friend in the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. I was his art teacher, and he didn’t see me when he first started talking to the other student. Butch and his friend were looking at a painting by Vincent van Gogh, Houses at Auvers, on loan from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. He said very quietly, “I can’t believe I’m standing in front of a real van Gogh.” He actually had tears in his eyes.

I couldn’t help letting him know I had overheard. I asked him what made the experience so significant for him, and he explained that his third-grade teacher had taught his class about van Gogh. She evidently believed that it was important to teach her students about the visual arts and to introduce them to some of the artists and works of art valued in our culture. Five years had passed, and the moment I witnessed was the culmination of that teacher’s efforts. It wasn’t simply that Butch recognized the work, but instead found meaning in the painting that impacted him emotionally; so much so, he was willing to drop his more typical eighth-grade bravado in its presence.

The arts are linked inextricably to human emotion. Susanne Langer, a famous aesthetician, described them as “symbols of human feeling.” Recent cognitive studies have shown that feeling and thought are interconnected and that instruction that connects to our emotions is more readily learned. Eric Booth, actor, faculty member at Juilliard, and author of The Everyday Work of Art, gives lectures throughout the country attesting to this power of engagement. I was in an audience as he asked that audience, all art educators, for suggestions as to how he could go about introducing students to Shakespearean sonnets. Of course, suggestions included providing context for the sonnets (teaching about Shakespeare, etc.) and making Shakespeare relevant to the students. Booth then asked the audience to write privately about a time when we felt despondent, to describe how we felt about ourselves at that time, and then to identify what pulled us out of that feeling. He allowed time for everyone to write, and then he delivered a dramatic rendition of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29. It begins, “When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes I all alone beweep my outcast state…” The audience was mesmerized by the way in which Shakespeare had expressed similar feelings to those they had described and were much more receptive to the information Booth sought to convey. In short, they were engaged. When taught well, the arts can become powerful educational tools, engaging students and faculty alike, and creating a more exciting and personally relevant environment for learning.

The arts allow for creative and divergent thinking. They present problems of creation and interpretation that require solution, allowing students to engage in higher level thought processes such as analysis, synthesis and evaluation. They consist of intellectual content and a body of skills that can be taught. There is a great deal of interest within the arts education research community as to whether these skills transfer to other subject areas. In a recent New York Times story, it was reported that a study of New York City third graders, conducted by an external evaluation firm and designed by researchers from the Teachers College at Columbia University in conjunction with the educational staff of the Guggenheim Museum of Art, suggests that engaging in verbal description, analysis and interpretation of works of art resulted in increased literacy and critical thinking skills. The High Museum of Art in Atlanta is conducting similar programming, working with metro Atlanta school districts to offer tours for fourth-grade students designed to increase the ability of students to develop the literacy skill of inference, a skill tested on national achievement tests. Richard Siegesmund, a University of Georgia art professor, is the evaluator of this work. It is important that researchers continue to explore these areas and that this research inform the preparation of all teachers, not just arts teachers, in the schools.

I once heard a school superintendent refer to the arts as the “Fourth R,” explaining that through the arts we engage in reflection — reflection about ourselves and reflection about the world in which we live. We live in a time in which such reflection is more important than ever. The effort to improve student achievement in math and science is not counter to goals to increase opportunities for student achievement in the arts; both efforts together can create a better educated, more engaged, and more reflective student population.

Carole Henry is the Chair of Art Education in the Lamar Dodd School of Art at UGA. She is a member of the National Council for Policy Study in Art Education and was named a Distinguished Fellow for the National Art Education Association in 2006. In 2005 she received a Josiah Meigs Distinguished Teaching Professorship. Henry taught art in the public schools before joining the UGA faculty in 1988.


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