Arts Place in the Schools

By Bruce Buchanan

Are the arts and music essential components of an education that every child must learn in school? Or are they enrichment activities that make school more enjoyable, but fulfill a secondary role to reading, writing, and math in the educational process?

Schools and school boards have struggled with this question for decades when determining matters of funding, staffing, curriculum, and instructional time. But the advent of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and similar state-level high-stakes accountability programs have put the arts under the microscope like never before, as educators wrestle with ways to best meet these test-based standards.

On one hand, NCLB identifies the arts as a “core subject” and federal education officials stress the importance of keeping a strong, comprehensive arts program in all schools. On the other, it’s clear that high-stakes testing and accountability have had a negative impact on arts education, or at least the amount of arts instruction many students receive.

The reasoning is pretty straightforward: Schools are evaluated based on test scores in reading, writing, and math, so they focus on these subjects to be successful on the tests.

Accountability proponents point out that language arts and math are emphasized because they are the building blocks of a sound education -- without a solid grip on reading, writing, and computation, it is difficult to do well in other subjects. However, arts advocates say music and the arts should be considered a fundamental part of a well-rounded education, too, and they worry that the emphasis on accountability has marginalized an important part of a traditional education.

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