I took five years of Latin at Boston Latin School. I was a music major at Harvard with a focus on the history of Renaissance music. I chose to pursue a career in state testing. I offer these experiences as evidence that I am uniquely qualified to address questions such as “What is the value of doing this?” or “How will doing this help me do that?”
Specifically, at the start of this new year, I turn my attention to a perennial question,
“Does participation in the arts improve student performance in academic areas?”
In this case, however, I reject this line of questioning outright; stating flatly that it is based on a false premise. The premise that the inclusion of the arts in the PK-12 curriculum is dependent upon their ability to support reading and mathematics – or at a minimum not to get in the way.
You can stop reading here if you like.
Reading, Mathematics and The Arts in the PK-12 Curriculum
If you chose to read on, let’s get one thing straight from the top. Reading and Mathematics are the focus of state assessment and accountability because of their role as building blocks – a means to an end. The role of reading is conveyed in the adage, we learn to read so that we can read to learn. Mathematics may be the queen of all sciences, but in the PK-12 curriculum it functions as a worker bee. We teach mathematics so that students can access certain physical sciences, social sciences, and critical life skills (see Bailey & Wogan, 2022 on Financial Literacy).
Further, as Peter McWalters suggested at the 2009 RILS conference, our focus on reading and mathematics as “disciplines” is a good starting point, particularly for the organizational convenience of adults. Reading and mathematics, however, “can be mastered only in some application of the discipline in combination with the humanities or sciences or technologies, etc.”
The folks developing the “reading” side of the Common Core standards seemed to understand this with the development of standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and technical subjects which integrated knowledge, skills, and practices. One of the greatest failures of U.S. public education, however, has been getting students beyond skill acquisition to the application of mathematics. But that is a topic and blog post for another day.
The arts and the subject areas they comprise (i.e., music, visual arts, dance, theater, media arts), in contrast, are an end in themselves. We include the arts in the U.S. PK-12 curriculum because we, as a society, value the arts.
That is not to say that there are no ancillary benefits to participation in the arts that carry over into and support other disciplines. Nobel laureate physicist and lifelong musician Saul Perlmutter describes the “delayed gratification inherent in practicing an instrument” along with “the chamber music ideal of collaborative, shared listening and contributing” that are part of “the pleasure of group music-making,” noting that his “favorite science group experiences share some of that same feeling.”
Playing in a band I learned quickly that it takes everything coming together just right to make music instead of noise. Whether I was seated at the first clarinet stand playing the melody or with a better group playing third clarinet filling out chords, I knew that the final product depended on everyone. Everyone included the happy-go-lucky tuba players oompah-ing a bass line and the mellowed musicians in the back of the room tasked with keeping a steady beat. That knowledge served me well through the years as I looked across the table at project and staff meetings.
Convince me that the skills I learned playing in an orchestra didn’t carry over to arranging an agenda and conducting a TAC meeting, knowing when to call for more from the state section, when to quiet the contractor, or just the right moment to bring in the trumpeting technical advisor.
Mens sana in corpore sano
The arts are not alone, of course, in providing life lessons in teamwork and collaboration. I’m confident that a well-executed fast break in basketball or hockey, a game-winning drive in football, and whatever the equivalent might be in soccer, can produce the same pure elation that I felt that Saturday night in Montreal when it all came together on one glorious sustained chord during a Harvard Wind Ensemble performance at McGill University.
We know that a healthy mind in a healthy body supports, and may even be a prerequisite for, efficient student learning, but better performance in reading and mathematics is not the reason we devote school resources and precious instructional time to students’ mental and physical fitness. Students’ social-emotional development, physical fitness, and the establishment of sound mental and physical habits are ends in themselves. Like the arts, they are included in the U.S. PK-12 curriculum because we, as a society, value them.
A Well-Rounded Citizenry Being Necessary to the Security of a Free State
Although the role of subjects like the arts and physical education and the importance of social-emotional learning in public education continue to be questioned, that question was answered definitively and elegantly more then 30 years ago. In the oft-cited decision in Rose v Council for Better Education, the Kentucky Supreme Court provided not only the definition of an “adequate” education, but perhaps the best and most complete description of the purpose of public education, stating
[A]n efficient system of education must have as its goal to provide each and every child with at least the seven following capacities: (i) sufficient oral and written communication skills to enable students to function in a complex and rapidly changing civilization; (ii) sufficient knowledge of economic, social, and political systems to enable the student to make informed choices; (iii) sufficient understanding of governmental processes to enable the student to understand the issues that affect his or her community, state, and nation; (iv) sufficient self-knowledge and knowledge of his or her mental and physical wellness; (v) sufficient grounding in the arts’ to enable each student to appreciate his or her cultural and historical heritage; (vi) sufficient training or preparation for advanced training in either academic or vocational fields so as to enable each child to choose and pursue life work intelligently; and (vii) sufficient levels of academic or vocational skills to enable public school students to compete favorably with their counterparts in surrounding states, in academics or in the job market.
Even if you adopt a cynical view of the historical (or current) purpose of public education in the United States, balk at the notion creating too tight a link between education and industry, or are one of those bitter Obama-era reformers clinging to college-and-career readiness, you should be able to acknowledge that the purpose of public schools has always extended beyond reading, mathematics, or more generally, academics —and it should continue to do so.
By not wasting time debating questions that have no business being asked in 2023 perhaps we will be able to devote more time to constructive debate about issues such as what capacities we value as a society, ponder how to maximize both the greater good and the self-actualization of individual students, and figure out what it will take to provide each and every student the adequate and exceptional public education they deserve.
Let’s resolve to do that as we begin this new year.