Williamson Shriver Architects

The Thrasher Group

McKinley Architects & Engineers

March 11, 2011 - Volume 31 Issue 17

By Lou Karas

Every day, people tell me how important art has been in their lives. They remember an art teacher who opened their eyes to different genres, a music teacher who helped them to see the rhythm in mathematics or a drama teacher who helped them become better public speakers. All of them are recounting educational experiences they had in school. Will the children in today's schools have the same memories? Will they talk about how art class led them to architecture or how ballet led them to be a physical therapist? The answer, in many cases, is maybe...probably, probably chance. None of these answers is acceptable. Though the arts are recognized as a core academic subject in federal legislation, the level of arts education in our schools is often inadequate.

It is my belief that the arts make a real difference in the lives of students who have arts education opportunities and must be valued in the education of all students from Kindergarten through 12th grade. Students who have the opportunity to study the arts build skills that are imperative to their successes in every other course they study and in their futures as adults. We need to pay attention to the studies that link arts education to creativity, critical thinking and problem-solving. We need to get beyond stressing the basics and push for the creative. We need to teach children to see creative possibilities and reach beyond the obvious to the imaginative.

A 2007 study by the National Center on Education and the Economy said the future “depends on a deep vein of creativity that is constantly renewing itself and on a myriad of people who can imagine how people can use things that have never been available before . . . This is a world in which a very high level of preparation in reading, writing, speaking, mathematics, science, literature, history, and the arts will be an indispensable foundation for everything that comes after for most members of the workforce.”

We have a lot of evidence that learning in, through and about the arts is beneficial. Studies show that students who participate in the arts earn better grades, perform better on standardized tests and have higher graduation rates than their peers. Arts activities promote growth in positive social skills including self-confidence, self-control, conflict resolution, empathy and social tolerance. Research evidence demonstrates these benefits apply to all students, not just the gifted and talented. Arts education and arts learning help to level the playing field. Critical thinking, problem-solving, and teamwork are also skills considered key for success in our global economy and are all skills that can be learned through the arts.

Many educators and community leaders are troubled by the shift away from the nurturing of creativity in public education.  There is growing concern that students no longer engage in learning that calls on creativity and imaginative problem solving and keeps alive the desire to explore.  While important, the federally-directed focus on math, reading and science as the primary testing targets under AYP requirements, has diminished coursework in areas that in the past encouraged students to think and work creatively.

Employers are likewise concerned that students are no longer engaged in the higher-order thinking and problem-solving strategies that will enable them to compete in the 21st century global economy. Students must learn rigorous content but they must also learn how to apply that content to address problems and challenges that are not presently conceived.  Many of the jobs for which students will need to be prepared do not yet exist, while the jobs that rely on content learning alone are being outsourced to other countries. 

While examples of positive attitudes exist, there are practices that work against providing exceptional arts education to our children and practices which also impede the long-term goal of having our students become creative, well-rounded and productive adults.  I know that challenges of curriculum requirements, budgets and staffing are present in every school in our 55 counties.  But I believe that creative approaches to arts in education are available and must be developed in all schools so our children will succeed in the future.

The very best way to enable students to experience creativity in the classroom is to teach the universal language of visual arts, music, dance and drama.  We have known for many years that each person brings to his or her learning experience a unique way of making sense of the world.  Each learner takes in and processes new experiences, new skills and new knowledge differently, and each of us has a natural preferencefor learning in differing ways.

We need schools where great memories are made and great students are taking their learning to new levels of creativity and excellence. We need this in West Virginia because we want our children to know that using their creativity and imagination is important to innovation and success in our global economy.

There is much work to be done to ensure that a commitment to arts education and arts learning reaches every school, every classroom and every student in the state.  It is not about making excuses but finding solutions. This goal is an ambitious one that requires a shared commitment at all levels and actively involves the entire community.  All of us can play a critical role in changing existing conditions. We can be change agents in our schools and our communities. I have every confidence that someday, a quality arts education will be a fundamental piece of every West Virginia student’s public education.

Lou Karas is executive director of the Appalachian Education Initiative. Since its inception in 2001, AEI has been dedicated to ensuring that quality arts education should be a central part of the education of every public school student in West Virginia. AEI is the West Virginia affiliate of the Kennedy Center Alliance for Arts Education Network.