We’ve Had National Standards for 15 Years

With the Council of Chief State School Officers sponsoring the creation of national standards in math and English language arts, many people are raising customary objections to the very idea of national standards. Several years ago, someone quoted to me Checker Finn’s summation of the problem: “Conservatives don’t like them because they’re ‘national’; liberals don’t like them because they’re ‘standards.’”  Often people have given up on such initiatives as too complicated and difficult.  With so many constituencies asking for opposing elements and policies, organizers understandably reach a breaking point and walk away.  I’m part of the current project to develop ELA standards, and I sympathize with people trying to coordinate it.

If people don’t think they can happen and please most everyone in the field, though, they’re wrong. Many readers of Education Next might be surprised to learn that we’ve had national standards in one field for 15 years.  They are the National Standards for Arts Education, an educational document developed by the Consortium of National Arts Education Associations (with support from the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, among others).  The Consortium included American Alliance for Theater and Education, Music Educators National Conference, the National Art Education Association (the visual arts), and National Dance Association.

One thing the arts educators wanted to do was establish strong disciplinary standards for their respective fields, both to regularize arts instruction across the country and to win higher respect for the fields in the overall curriculum.  They realized that if arts education involved merely skills and practices, then it would remain an “extra,” something outside the core education of each student.  A skills-only approach would also impoverish the full experience of the arts.

The designers insisted, then, on fundamental recognition of art history in the document.  “In this document,” they wrote, “art means two things: (1) creative works and the process of producing them, and (2) the whole body of work in the art forms that make up the entire human intellectual and cultural heritage.”  They define a “good education in the arts” as including “a thorough grounding in a basic body of knowledge.”

The standards themselves reflect the aim.

Here’s one for Music Grades 9-12:

“Students classify by genre or style and by historical period or culture unfamiliar but representative aural examples of music and explain the reasoning behind their classifications”

And one for Dance 9-12:

“Students create and answer twenty-five questions about dance and dancers prior to the twentieth century”

And one for theater:

“Students research and describe appropriate historical production designs, techniques, and performances from various cultures to assist in making artistic choices for informal and formal theatre, film, television, or electronic media productions”

And one for visual art:

“Students analyze and interpret artworks for relationships among form, context, purposes, and critical models, showing understanding of the work of critics, historians, aestheticians, and artists”

They result has garnered thoroughgoing respect from arts educators ever since.  I’ve heard little grumbling about “loss of local control,” “prescribing a curriculum,” and “lack of diversity,” and other familiar complaints.  The standards have served the states well as they have used them to craft their own arts education standards.  It helped that the project secured endorsements from the beginning from Albert Shanker, Congressman Major Owens, Senator Thad Cochran, Leilani Lattin Duke of the Getty Center, Keith Geiger of the National Education Association, Konrad Matthaei of the United Negro College Fund, Joseph Polisi of The Julliard School, Gordon Ambach of the Council of Chief State School Officers, and many other distinguished figures.

The current project in national standards would do well to follow their example.

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