The importance of providing quality art education for all students

11/27/2011  |  F. ROBERT SABOL, Ph.D. President, National Art Education Association
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Art is one of the universal languages all human beings understand and use to communicate. We use art to understand who we are, our places in the world, and the meaning of our lives. We use art to express ourselves and to speak to others across time and place. Human beings have an essential drive to create and understand visual imagery. This drive is one of the basic traits that make us human. The power of the visual arts to enrich human experience and society is recognized and celebrated throughout the world.

Art and the visual arts are part of the historical record of every culture and historical period known to human beings. It may be said that all we know about some past civilizations is found entirely in the record of art and artifacts their people left behind. The visual arts have been used to capture and express a wide array of values, beliefs, and ideas embraced by people from around the world and from every period of history. The visual arts have been used to educate, persuade, commemorate, and problem solve. In fact daily we are dependent upon the visual arts to make sense of the world in which we live.

We continuously are inundated with innumerable visual images and messages on television, computers, digital communications devices, and in the printed media. Neuroscience has shown that a significant portion of the human brain is devoted to understanding visual stimulation and to decoding visual messages we receive through our sense of vision. We do this by using all of our higher order thinking skills, memory, and education. In our contemporary society, the visual arts and dependence upon visual imagery is essential in communicating and understanding information we need to live our lives. In order to fully understand visual imagery and its meaning, it is essential that all people receive an arts infused education. Such an education enables people to become informed citizens, critical thinkers, creative problem solvers and productive members of society.

At a time of economic challenge for our country, many school districts have been forced to make difficult decisions that have decreased or eliminated visual arts education from our schools. Despite a growing body of evidence suggesting that students who have had instruction in the visual arts perform higher on standardized tests and other measures of educational performance than those who have not had such instruction, art education programs continue to be overlooked for the contributions they make in producing the highest quality of education we seek for all of our children. 

One of the hallmarks of quality visual arts education is its focus on creativity. Students in art classrooms at all instructional levels are routinely called upon to use their creativity to solve problems and to express their ideas. Art teachers are steeped in the knowledge and skills that foster creativity and they use the visual arts curriculum to enable their students to explore their own creative powers. Nurturing and developing students’ creative capacities are vitally important for advancement in the workforce and for maintaining America’s leadership role in the world.

The National Art Education Association (NAEA), over its 65 year history, has championed the cause of visual arts education. As the professional association for art educators, it has worked actively to ensure that quality visual arts education is provided in every school and for every student. Indeed the mission of the NAEA is to: “...advance visual arts education to fulfill human potential and promote global understanding.” This mission is supported by a vision for art education in which there is equity and access for students of all ages to art education programming in order to benefit from comprehensive, balanced, and sequential learning in the visual arts, which is led and taught by qualified teachers who are certified in art education. In order to achieve this mission, the NAEA has contributed to a number of recent national initiatives that promise to enhance visual arts education in all schools.

After the Partnership for 21st Century Skills identified its list of skills and competencies for curricula in schools, the NAEA and the other professional associations for music, dance, and theatre collaborated to craft the 21st Century Skills Arts Map. This map includes examples of how the 21st century skills are taught and utilized in arts education classrooms. Art educators utilize these skills in a full range of learning experiences and skill development at all instructional levels.

With the emergence of Common Core Standards movement, it became clear that revision of current national arts standards was necessary. Comprehensive rigorous curriculum standards are essential for insuring that students receive well-balanced and meaningful education in the arts.

The NAEA, in collaboration with professional arts education associations and other stake holding arts organizations, developed the National Consortium for Core Arts Standards (NCCAS). The NCCAS is in the process of reviewing the national standards for each of the fine arts disciplines. The next generation of national standards will detail rigorous curriculum content for comprehensive education in each of the fine arts disciplines. The new standards will reflect the contemporary and future needs of arts education programming in schools. Under the guidance of the NCCAS, new national arts education standards will be released in the near future.

The NAEA realizes its responsibility for providing current research about the field of art education. One of the goals of the NAEA is to conduct research and generate knowledge that enriches and expands visual arts education. An example of how the NAEA has achieved this goal is found in a recently released study, “No Child Left Behind: A Study of Its Impact on Art Education” (Sabol, 2010). The full report is available on the NAEA website (arteducators.org). This exhaustive study, that included findings from over 3,200 art educators, examined the impact the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), commonly known as No Child Left Behind, has had on art education programming in public schools from pre-K through 14, in the areas of staffing, funding, curriculum, instruction, assessment, workloads, and scheduling.

Findings from this study have been examined by educational leaders and national decision makers in their efforts to understand the areas of need and change that will be necessary under the coming reauthorization of the ESEA. The President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, in its recent publication, “Reinvesting in the Arts: Winning America’s Future through Creative Schools,” (www.pcah.gov) cited the study as it put forward its plan for enhancing arts education programs in the United States. These and other studies supported by the NAEA and the National Art Education Foundation have been instrumental in providing evidence to support decision  making relative to art education programming in local communities and states.  

From these brief examples of how the NAEA has proactively pursued its mission, it is clear that supporters of arts education are being guided by the best interests of the students in our schools and our nation. Art educators are acutely aware of the roles they play in providing a comprehensive education for all students and they are committed to working to insure that the creative and artistic needs of all students are maintained as part of the core of learning in all schools and in all communities.

A comprehensive balanced education must include education in the arts and it must be understood that the future of the United States is dependent, to a significant degree, upon the knowledge, skills and experiences an education in the arts provides. 

Robert Sabol, Ph. D., is a Professor of Visual and Performing Arts and Chair of the Department of Art and Design at Purdue University. Dr. Sabol also is the President of the National Art Education Association. He has published numerous articles, book chapters, and books about art education policy, assessment, multiculturalism, curriculum, and gifted education and he has received grants from the USDOE, the National Endowment for the Arts, and other foundations in support of his research. He has received a number of awards in recognition of his teaching and research. For more information, visit www.arteducators.org.
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