In a speech last week at the Arts Education Partnership National Forum, Education Secretary Arne Duncan took up the cause of arts education and argued forcefully against curriculum narrowing. Even in the face of budget cuts facing school districts, Duncan said, “now is the time to rethink and strengthen arts education.”
“And I ask you to help build the national case for the importance of a well-rounded curriculum–not just in the arts but in the humanities writ large. The question of what constitutes an educated person has been taken up by the great thinkers in every society. Yet few of those leading lights have concluded that a well-educated person need only learn math, science, and read in their native tongue.”
It’s always heartening to hear high-powered support for a well-rounded curriculum. But I wonder if the Secretary–and arts educators, too – aren’t overlooking the most potent weapon in their arsenal for why the arts matter in our performance and data-driven age. Arts education has a crucial and underappreciated role to play in boosting reading achievement—especially among our most disadvantaged students who tend to have less out-of-school exposure to the arts than their more privileged peers.
As Dan Willingham, E.D. Hirsch and others never tire of pointing out, “teaching content is teaching reading.” There is a mountain of evidence that the ability to comprehend is largely a function of a student’s prior knowledge across all content disciplines. Schools that narrow curriculum, forsaking the arts to devote more time to reading instruction are making a critical, self-defeating mistake. As Willingham put it in his Washington Post blog last week, “Until we start paying more attention to content, expect flat reading scores.”
The Secretary could be enormously helpful by talking about this in speeches like the one he made last week. And arts educators would do well to familiarize themselves with what the research says to rebut those who think arts education is “nice to have” but nonessential. The arts, like science, history, geography and other content disciplines, are a critical part of the background knowledge kids need to accumulate to become good readers and writers. The Secretary hinted at this point in his remarks last week, but never hit it head on, listing three reasons why arts education matters:
“The arts significantly boost student achievement, reduce discipline problems, and increase the odds that students will go on to graduate from college. Second, arts education is essential to stimulating the creativity and innovation that will prove critical to young Americans competing in a global economy. And last, but not least, the arts are valuable for their own sake, and they empower students to create and appreciate aesthetic works.
The Secretary gets that arts education is important, and that’s great. But there’s an even stronger, more practical case to be made than the one he made last week: Arts education is critical to reading achievement. Teaching content is teaching reading. Reducing art and music will hurt, not help, test scores.
If I were an art or music teacher I would make sure my administrators understood my importance clearly. “I’m not just an art teacher,” I would argue. “I’m also a reading teacher.”