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A Fifty School Arts Education Demonstration Project

previously published in
New Horizons for Learning's
On The Beam, Vol.XI, No.1, Fall 1990, p. 4-5 :251

by Eric Oddleifson


There is no disagreement: American public school education is in trouble. Attempts to remedy the problems range from "back to basics" to alternative private school systems. In almost every case, budgetary constraints become the "enemy" as greater demands are placed on the schools and they appear to be "running faster just to stay in place."

While the problems persist, recent evidence suggests that supposedly nonessential items such as music, drama and art, which have been, or are being, removed to provide more budgetary resources, in fact promote the kinds of thinking, enthusiasm and discipline that are necessary requisites for children's learning.

Music education at the elementary school level appears to be a necessary ingredient for children to realize their potentials in mathematics and reading. Visual arts appear to be necessary for children to realize their potentials in science. Similarly, other arts, such as creative writing, dance or drama, appear to be necessary for development of one's abilities to fully express oneself, whether in writing or in interpersonal communications, both of which are requisite for being an effective member of a highly technological society.

While the evidence concerning the impact the arts have on student performance is compelling, the answers to why this is so are neither comprehensive nor final. There remain significant questions about whether it is the subject matter of the visual and performing arts, or the process used to teach those subjects, which leads to such an outcome. The results of a symposium in Duxbury, Massachusetts suggest that both are true. The discipline of scientific method demands further research to identify the essential subject matters, document the processes, and measure the relative contributions of each.

It is also apparent that action needs to be taken, even while further research proceeds, if we are not to miss the opportunity to apply what is already known to benefit children who need the subjects and the processes. Teaching arts every day in the core curriculum of elementary schools is the single most powerful tool presently available to educators to motivate students, enhance learning, and develop higher order thinking skills.


Improving Educational Performance

This report suggests an approach to help public elementary schools greatly improve their effectiveness at little extra cost. It is based on evidence from schools that have incorporated arts in the basic curriculum, which indicate in part that the arts are extremely cost effective. It includes a process by which parents and teachers at the individual school level can reach a consensus on how to improve the quality and usefulness of students' learning experiences. It focuses on what Ted Sizer, Dean of the Graduate School of Education at Brown University, calls "the base of the existing hierarchy, the triangle of student, teacher, and the subject they confront together."

The approach uses fifty elementary schools to demonstrate the application of what is known, while developing additional knowledge and personnel for leadership to extend the approach to more schools. The objective is to ultimately make the benefits of incorporating arts as basic curricula available to any and all public schools wishing to incorporate them. The demonstration program is the vehicle and technical and administrative service support is provided by the Center for Arts in the Basic Curriculum ( CABC) which is being specifically established for this purpose.


Why the Arts?

We define the arts as music, visual arts, drama, dance and literature/creative writing. Evidence shows that learning the arts engages the student in two modes of "doing" that are typically beyond the meaning of study as used in the traditional classroom: first, they require performance, whether painting, dancing or reciting a script--this is considerably different from answering a quiz or taking a multiple choice test; and second, they require creative action to be taken by the student--to visualize what to paint as well as paint it or to choose tempo, dynamics and phrasing while performing music.

To perform is to do something according to standards having interpersonal meaning. This is achieved through personal discipline which, once mastered through practice, allows the student to express inherent creativity by interpretation and inferential nuance. This is why the arts engage students and activate mental intelligences beyond the logical/analytical ones to which schools almost exclusively cater. The arts awaken an excitement about learning from experience and observation, which are in addition to traditional study, and are thus able to transform the learning environment of an entire school. As expressed by Peter Drucker, the creating of the desire to learn is, in the last analysis, the essence of being educated.

Recent work in the field of cognitive psychology suggests the arts as intelligences beyond the merely logical, sequential, verbal, and rational to which the schools almost exclusively teach. Howard Gardner at Harvard University suggests seven seats of intelligence, only one of which is purely logical/mathematical. Others are spatial (visual arts), bodily-kinesthetic (dance), musical, and personal intelligence involving knowledge of others found in drama and musical performance in groups. A child's discovering his capability in these other intelligences reinforces his self-worth and builds his confidence.

Technology now permits us to see how these areas of intelligence actually work together within the brain itself. The same areas of the brain function when engaged in mathematical reasoning and when a musician is performing and reading his part. New imaging technology, positron emission tomography (PET), has discovered a general symbol processing area in the frontal region of the brain--the right cerebellum, the left frontal cortex and the "gate" between the two, the anterior cingulate. It appears that arts performance stimulates the functioning of this region which in turn develops capabilities in reading, math and science.

According to Charles Drake, Founder of the Landmark schools:

During musical performance (singing, playing an instrument) certain neurological processes are developed similar to those used in mathematical reasoning. If a student has difficulty picking up the process during math class it may be easier to do in music class. Performing music makes the process easier to access.

And there is a definite, traceable relationship between spelling and music. In music, the 'decoding' process that takes place for notes--in seeing the measures--is similar to word identification in reading. There is an underlying relationship between hearing and 'processing.' There is a positive salutary raising of one's language abilities.

These are among the reasons why teaching of the arts has a powerful impact on academic achievement as traditionally defined and measured. The evidence suggests, and we believe that the arts, taught during twenty to thirty percent of each school day, will increase SAT scores significantly. Indeed, extrapolating from the experience of the FACE school in Montreal, one can project average SAT scores around 1100 if the arts are central to education--a 20 percent increase from their current levels at little or even no extra cost. The following schools provide some of the evidence:



Previous History

Current Academic Status (1990)

Elm Elementary
Milwaukee, WI

Bottom 10%

#1 out of 103 schools in the district
in eight of the last ten years.

Ashley River K-8
Charleston, SC

Start up

#2 in the county (second only to
a high school for the academically gifted);
waiting list of 1200 students.

St. Augustine (K-8)
Bronx, NY

About to fail

96% of the students' reading and
math scores are at grade level (only three
public schools in the Greater New York area
can claim this); 99% minority students.

Davidson (5-12)
Augusta, GA

Start up

#1 in the county. 520 students, fully
integrated (50% white, 50% black).
Waiting list of many hundreds.

FACE (K-11)
Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Start up

Out of 39 subjects tested recently, FACE
students achieved higher scores in two thirds
of the exams than five other high schools
combined. Additionally, FACE students
test on average 20% higher than other
Canadian students, even though the school
is non-selective. The FACE school objectives
state in part:
FACE is not an "elitist" school intending
to produce musicians, artists or dramatists.
It is a school program based on the
pedagogical premise that a program rooted
in the arts can provide for positive change
in cognitive and affective development.
Skills in reading, writing and arithmetic will
evolve and be developed naturally or in
harmony with the fine arts core program.

Eliot Elementary (K-5)
Needham, MA

Arts emphasis
started 1983

Focus is on developing critical
and creative thinking skills, with the
Arts taught both as stand alone subjects
and integrated into the curriculum. Kids
in the school are "average", the school is
racially mixed. Third grade test scores are
in 97th to 99th percentile. Fourth graders
tested first in the state in critical thinking skills.

Key School (K-5)
Indianapolis, IN

Start up

Viewed as possibly the best elementary
school in the country by the National
Education Association.

Roosevelt Middle School
(K-6) Milwaukee, WI

Switched to Arts
Focus (1984)

59% minority. Proportion of
students achieving competency in reading
increased from 30% to 80%, in math from
10% to 60%. Attendance 92%. Suspension
rate dropped from 50% to lower than 10%.

Los Angeles, CA

Switched to Arts
Focus (1984)

After three years participation in the
Getty Center's "DBAE" program the school's
test scores in reading, vocabulary, and
writing have doubled. The school now has the
e highest test scores in the district. A
dramatic increase in oral vocabulary has
also been experienced.

Additional Support and Evidence

The proceedings of the recent Governor's Conference testify to the importance of the endeavor, even if they do not provide a course of action. We believe that a course of action can be demonstrated. And, we find many other programs, supported by educators, businesses and members of the general community also give evidence of concern, care and commitment to the arts in education.

Harvard's Project Zero, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, has found that effective education attends to the whole personality and allows for personal expression; it involves production, reflection and perception. Their experience suggests combining two forms of education, the scholastic-formal model and the apprenticeship model, as found in the arts, for more effective educational results.


About the author:

Eric Oddleifson is a founding member of the Center for Arts in the Basic Curriculum (CABC), 58 Fearing Road, Hingham, MA 02043. The CABC has provided New Horizons with a collection of articles and presentations on the subject of integrating the arts in classrooms and schools. Look in the CABC Arichives for a list of available articles.

Copyright © 1996

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