The Best Argument Arts Educators Are Not Making

by Robert Pondiscio
April 13th, 2010

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 achievementespecially 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.”


  1. And on any given day art/dance/theatre/music teachers are also teaching
    math, health/pe, civics, history, foreign language, social studies, physics, marketing, psychology, etc. Creating art, or a musical performance, or a drama/musical, or dance program can and often does require all of these.

    Comment by gina harrison — April 13, 2010 @ 11:37 am

  2. Robert – you are right on with this one. I do wish that an arts education required no justification at all. I believe its merits ought to be as self-evident as the merits of other studies. Duncan’s comments hint at that idea, but I’m not sure he’d ever find himself in the same position having to make the case for math. So, if the argument must be made, then you’re right that an effective argument should note that a good arts education provides excellent support for literacy.

    Comment by David B. Cohen — April 13, 2010 @ 11:38 am

  3. This subject, of course, is the issue about which I feel the most passion–and have the most expertise. And while I agree with all your arguments (and Dan’s, as well), I should point out that music, art and drama education have been steadily moving away from conceptual content and knowledge and directly toward showmanship and competition. To stay alive–and “relevant.”

    You can’t preserve a strong arts program, the thinking goes, unless you’re won lots of trophies and contests, and are sending lots of students to Julliard or RI School of Design. Many HS choral programs have become “Glee” and lots of instrumental music programs spend hundreds of thousands of fund-raiser dollars on matching marching band equipment.

    The idea that *all* students should be well-grounded in understanding and appreciation (a very old-fashioned word) of principles of good design, the value of drama in interpreting social issues or literature, or even have core music production or movement skills (can they sing? can they dance?) has gone by the wayside, in favor of…shows.

    There is considerable research that shows that learning to read music improves reading skills–as in fluency, decoding, the necessity of reading at a fixed rate, etc. But I don’t think that’s where you’re going with this, right?

    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — April 13, 2010 @ 11:51 am

  4. I’m out of my depth on music, Nancy, but it seems to me there is much potential for picking up incidental knowledge, vocabulary and idiomatic language in performing. Not all knowledge needs to be accumulated in detailed classroom study. The phrase “break a leg,” to cite one example, would befuddle nonperformers, but it’s a common, counterintuitive phrase.

    We tend to worship at the altar of in-depth study for very good reasons, but language competence also comes from knowledge that is picked up incidentally and not necessarily detailed. Broad experience, like broad education, builds broad language competence.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — April 13, 2010 @ 12:15 pm

  5. My kids range from mid-30s to mid-20s and their MS-HS years crossed four counties and three states. In none of the schools was history of art/architecture or music appreciation offered. All classes in art and music were performance. Back in the dinosaur era, my regular classroom teachers (1-8) included both, and would have been insulted at the suggestion that they were not “qualified” to do so. That was long before there were excellent DVD series (Sr. Wendy Hx of Art, for ex). Records, film strips, books and pictures did a pretty decent job. There was always a bulletin board display and related books for each. In HS, we all took music appreciation.

    Why is this no longer an option? I have talked with art and music teachers and none have shown any interest. Not all of us have talent or significant interest in performing, but this is one area (unlike math!)where I feel that “learning about” is an important part of cultural literacy, especially since “learning about” includes reading.

    Comment by momof4 — April 13, 2010 @ 1:18 pm

  6. Also, is there a data link for the Secretary’s three correlations? Or is it like the original 8th-grade-algebra, where art/music are proxy variables for identifying the top students? In my kids’ schools, that was usually the population involved in both areas.

    Comment by momof4 — April 13, 2010 @ 1:20 pm

  7. There is a big difference between information and knowledge. Knowledge does presuppose understanding – a knowing. You really can not know music by simply passing through it just as you can not know architecture by simply walking through a city. Maths is served well in music by the understanding of patterns – even fibonacci patterns are fairly common. Great architectural structures underpin much music. Physics is served by the overtone series;why can you not simply pile perfect 5ths on top of each other without going out of tune? Answer that question in the science lab and your choirs, flautists and string players will listen to the sounds they produce much more carefully. Understand music and you understand how the whole world works ….. maybe that’s why the budget gets cut – the government would rather keep us stupid.

    Comment by Christa McCartney — April 13, 2010 @ 2:33 pm

  8. I wouldn’t recommend throwing over all arts programs and going to arms-length “appreciation” models. Kids do need to perform, and probably learn the most, both skills and content, from actually performing–it’s the ultimate “applied project-based learning” after all (small, sardonic smile).

    BUT. The idea of a comprehensive, “elements of music/art/dance” program, which weaves the tools, cultural aspects, traditions, vocabulary, history, theory, and knowledge of giants in the field into what kids should “know and be able to do” is long gone. As momof4 notes, “appreciation” courses are a vanished luxury. In order to keep a program, you have to attract kids with flash and competitions–the “American Idol” version of curriculum and instruction.

    Most arts teachers have gone in that direction rather than lose their more traditional programs.

    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — April 13, 2010 @ 9:11 pm

  9. My kids got a good grounding in art and music appreciation during their years (6-8 and 4-8) in a Core Knowledge program, to the point where they asked to leave the Smithsoniam American History museum so that we could go to an art museum instead ( ashock to their history major/poli sci major parents). I don’t have a problem with adding performance-based programs on top of an appreciation program (I’ve really enjoyed the HS programs Gina Harrison in comment 1 helps put on) but ALL kids do need that grounding, and K-8 is the right time to do it. Once they’ve been exposed to great music and great art, kids may be more interested in being involved in the performance/hands-on side.

    Comment by Mia Munn — April 14, 2010 @ 10:09 am

  10. I did not mean to suggest discontinuing performance-type art or music classes; I’d like to see appreciation and history included as an option. In order to meet the 1-semester fine arts requirement, photography was the only other option and many kids would have liked to take art history or music appreciation. For kids with serious extracurriculars, there wasn’t enough practice time to develop real skill and they did not have the interest.

    I agree with Mia that those areas should be incorporated into the k-8 curriculum. In fact, I think I remember hearing that as an argument for social studies, as opposed to history and geography, when it was first proposed. Instead, what we got was no fine arts/culture (except for multiculti), no geography and less history.

    Comment by momof4 — April 14, 2010 @ 10:32 am

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