If you are a parent, a teacher, a student, or were ever a student here in the Adirondacks, I’d like you to engage in a little visioning exercise with me. Find a comfortable, quiet place to sit, maybe with a soothing beverage, do a little deep breathing and relaxation, close your eyes and let peace descend upon you.
When you’re good and ready, think about your own experiences with the arts in school. Whatever the nature and level of your involvement, from painting to music to drama, to even just doodling on your pad during calculus, remember what it was about the arts that mattered to you, how they felt and what memories will most strongly stay with you.
Try to distill your thoughts and feelings about the arts to the essential things that were most important in your schooling life: how they changed you as a person, how they contributed to your growth, the beautiful ways in which they made your education richer and more wonderful, how they were liberating and creative, how they touched other things you were learning, how they resonated deeply with your humanity. In short, think about the essential meaning and power of the arts in your education. Then come back here.
Got a vision? Is it lovely and affirming? Good. Now try this paragraph on for size, from the geniuses who are responsible for “learning expectations for students in grades preK-12 in the disciplines of dance, media arts, music, theatre, and visual arts” – in other words, who are responsible for the role that the arts play in the education of young people who have visions just like yours:
In this study, each of the eleven arts anchor standards were compared to each of the Common Core’s anchor standards for English Language Arts, as well as the Standards for Mathematical Practice, with the goal of highlighting any similarities in the types of habits, skills, and abilities that were described in each. This approach generated a total of 440 alignment decisions; the decisions and their rationale can all be found in the tables beginning on page 14 (from the 2014 report The Arts and the Common Core: a Comparison of the National Core Arts Standards and the Common Core State Standards, Phase II, by the College Board for the National Coalition on Arts Standards).
How did that paragraph feel to you? Did it have the slightest tonal or contextual relevance to the vision you brought forth in your head? Or was it jarring gobbledygook? You can accuse me of trying to make a point by taking some verbiage out of context, but trust me, if you read it in context it wouldn’t help. Bonus points if you can tell me what an “alignment decision” is and who the hell should possibly care. It’s hard to imagine that the people who wrote that paragraph ever tried writing a ditty or drawing their pet gerbil in purple with that little water-color tray we all had when we were kids.
Let’s try another tack: imagine that 8th grader Camila and few of her classmates write some poems to share with their English class. Do you think it is helpful if the teacher pulls out a rubric and evaluates their output to make sure they:
- Generated and conceptualized artistic ideas and work?
- Organized and developed artistic ideas and work?
- Refined and completed artistic ideas and work?
- Analyzed, interpreted and selected artistic work for presentation?
- Developed and refined artistic techniques and work for presentation?
- Conveyed meaning through the presentation of artistic work?
- Perceived and analyzed artistic work?
- Interpreted intent and meaning in artistic work?
- Applied criteria to evaluate artistic work?
- Synthesized and related knowledge and personal experiences to make art?
- Related artistic ideas and works with societal, cultural, and historical context to deepen understanding?
Let the trumpets sound, ladies and gentlemen! These are the National Core Arts Anchor Standards! Aren’t they fabulous? Note that there are eleven of them, not ten or twelve. Ten would have been too few, twelve too many. Remember, these are real experts crafting this stuff.
Remember too that these “anchor” standards have to be designed to produce measurable outcomes, the holy grail of modern education theory (if such a dignified scientific word applies). I certainly hope that Camila’s teacher measures whether Camila correctly “interpreted intent and meaning” in the other kids’ poems. That’s certainly measurable using standard outcomes! And god forbid Camila failed to properly “apply criteria to evaluate artistic work”! I’m sure she did if she had access to the master list of correct criteria; there must be one of those.
Or maybe there’s an alternative, one which is blissfully unmeasurable: suppose the teacher, who is a writer and lover of English herself, reads the poems and then talks with the students about them? How about they have a discussion and read more poems, maybe from other correctly measured and interpreted bards, who were nothing if not followers of standards – Dylan Thomas, Emily Dickenson, e.e. cummings. I’m a musician. I’m so glad Beethoven played nice with standard, measurable compositional outcomes.
You get my point. But if the arts mean to you anything near what they meant to me, then you understand that this is serious business. Indeed, I mean to be outraged, not flippant.
This headlong rush to standardize and measure is anathema to learning – nothing less. As a college mathematics teacher I have lived and acted upon the belief every day that we should hold our students to a higher standard. But not these standards, not like this. Not with playbooks and jargon and rafts of standardized tests that measure little of value except teaching to tests and stress-response. The very idea that measuring students’ progress in mathematics requires an enumerated set of standards and certain tests scores is offensively stupid to the extreme. I can tell you how each and every one of my students is doing in their mathematics learning with far more authenticity than any assessment will ever tell. Any decent teacher can. We should stop devaluing, blaming and belittling teachers, shackling them to emperor-has-no-clothes measurement instruments and accountability reports. We should exalt them and set them free – and with that, their students too.
If all this is true of teaching mathematics or language arts, imagine how true it is for something like dance or sculpture.
This flood of nonsense around codified, formulaic standards has been going on for a while in education, courtesy of lots of applied thinking in education schools that are heavily influenced by what big business thinks is good preparation for the working world. But it has hit its zenith with Common Core, a tragically misguided policy if ever I’ve seen one. Now lots of educators, even the deans of arts education, are rushing to align, whatever that means.
My experience in the Adirondacks is that arts education here is alive and well, for the most part. Teachers and parents seem to be interested in the kind of creative, authentic arts experiences that I was lucky enough to have in my childhood. Administrators seem to support that approach, and largely refrain from burying their arts teachers in requirements and prescriptions. My wife Amy is a music teacher in the Park and her experiences so far bear out what I have learned at other schools.
I suspect that this healthy resistance to the standards trend is due in part to two things: the independent, rural, vibe in the Park that resists regulations and pro forma trends; and our beautiful environment which develops in all of us a deep love for the natural world. The arts are a high expression of nature, both human and wild. On the other hand, the kind of approach exemplified by Common Core is anything but natural.
Still, teachers, parents, students: be on your guard. Fending off these kinds of policies takes vigilance and active resistance, lest they insinuate themselves in our arts education, as self-aggrandizing policies like these are wont to do. The arts are a vital part of education and growth. Here, in this beautiful, natural environment, they find fertile ground. And so, suitably inspired by our surroundings, let us celebrate creativity and inspiration, even as we expect rigor and discipline and the work ethic that the arts require.
I think now of the great painter Harold Weston, whose collection of essays and personal reminiscences is titled Freedom in the Wilds: An Artist in the Adirondacks.
Photo: The Figureheads, a Hip Hop Education group, perform at Frank Allis Elementary School.