The Case for a Broader Approach to Education


The Americans for the Arts recently released a poll finding that the vast majority of Americans agree that “the arts are part of a well-rounded education for K-12 students.”  Over half of respondents “strongly agree.”  Unfortunately, the current trend in ed reform is out of sync with this popular support for the arts in education.

The narrow focus on math and reading achievement is driving out other subjects, including the arts.  Ed reformers may offer rhetorical praise for the arts and a broader education, but most quietly believe that math and reading are of such primary importance that shifting away from the arts to attend more to math and reading might actually be a good thing.

Like most other ed reformers, I used to believe this too.  But more research is beginning to show that a broader education, including the arts, may be essential for later success in math and reading as well as the proper development of civic values and character skills, including tolerance, empathy, and self-regulation.  The narrow focus on math and reading may goose math and reading test scores in the short term but at the expense of the longer-term and broader goals of education.  Parents seem to understand how essential the arts and a broader approach to education are even if this has escaped the highly-credentialed minds of “policy experts” trying to manage schools from afar through test results.

Let me briefly provide some evidence to support the claims above.  First, we have good reason to believe that the arts are being squeezed out of the curriculum.  For example, research by Daphna Bassok, Scott Latham, and Anna Rorem has found a dramatic decline in the role of the arts in school between 1998 and 2011.  Using teacher surveys from the ECLS-K, they find that far fewer teachers in Kindergarten and 1st Grade report teaching Music, Art, Dance, and Theater on a daily or weekly basis, and far more teachers report never covering these subjects at all.  (See their Table reproduced below.)

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

What evidence do we have that this shift away from the arts to focus more narrowly on math and reading has negative consequences?  David Grissmer and his colleagues are producing a series of studies that suggest how much later success in math, reading, and science depend on early acquisition of the kind of “general knowledge” and fine-motor skills learned through art and other subjects.

In one of these studies they find: “Whereas the early math and reading tests focused mainly on procedural knowledge, the general knowledge test focused mainly on declarative knowledge (i.e., elementary knowledge or comprehension of the external world). General knowledge was the strongest predictor of later reading and science and, along with earlier math, was a strong predictor of later math. General knowledge measured at kindergarten entrance may reflect early comprehension skills that are necessary when reading changes from a more procedural task in early grades (learning to read) to incorporating more comprehension around third through fifth grades (reading to learn).” This is essentially empirical support for the type of argument E.D. Hirsch, Rob Pondiscio, and the folks at Core Knowledge have been making for years.  It’s important for students to know a lot of things about the world, including about Art, History, etc…, to progress academically.  If we narrow education to the mechanics of math and reading as captured by yearly testing, we short-change the broader knowledge that is the key to academic success later.

Less intuitively, they find that the development of fine motor and other “visuo-spatial” skills are also very strong predictors of later academic success.  These are the kinds of things students learn by playing musical instruments or making art projects — activities disappearing from the early school curriculum.  Yet these fine-motor and coordination skills seem to be an important part of brain development that improves math and reading achievement years later.

Grissmer and his colleagues summarize the implications of their findings better than I could:

Our results suggest that the focus of interventions should shift from a primary emphasis on changing the direct math and reading instructional environment to interventions that build better foundational skills of attention and fine motor skills and a better understanding of the world outside schools. The results suggest that current direct math and reading instruction is insufficient to build attention and fine motor skills. Building these skills may rely more on subjects and curricula that have been deemphasized to provide more math and reading instruction: the arts, music, dance, physical education, and free play. Each of these subjects and curricula may need to be redesigned to focus on building foundational skills in the same way that math and reading have been redesigned in recent years. Building stronger knowledge of the external world also suggests that improving early science and social studies curricula are important. Paradoxically, higher long-term achievement in math and reading may require reduced direct emphasis on math and reading and more time and stronger curricula outside math and reading.

“Building stronger knowledge of the external world” might include going on culturally enriching field trips, which have also been disappearing from schools.  In addition to the general knowledge these experiences convey, the research I’ve done with others at the University of Arkansas on the effects of field trips to art museums and to see live theater suggests that these culturally enriching experiences change student values to promote greater tolerance and empathy.

Given that short-term gain in math and reading achievement are only weakly related to later life outcomes, while a broad education that includes the arts and culturally enriching activities may be associated with long-term success, education reformers should wonder whether they are simply rediscovering what most Americans already know — “the arts are part of a well-rounded education for K-12 students.”

—Jay P. Greene

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