Preventing Dust: A Call to Action for Arts Educators

by Andrew Anzel

in Advocacy,Education

Post image for Preventing Dust: A Call to Action for Arts Educators

Putting the words ‘arts’ and ‘standards’ in the same sentence is about as dirty as a beat up ‘94 pickup after mudding through the backwoods, or so I’m told. The notion is not unwarranted. The thought of students slaving over high-stakes, standardized art history exams or dance recitals with expected Rockette accuracy, while amusing, would be the current extension of the recent Common Core State Standards (CCSS) rollout. While no one, except, perhaps, Louis C.K in his nightmares, sees this happening in the future, the thought that the arts could be subject to the same testing and policy implementation that is happening in current education reform is scary.

It’s also, in part, what gave arts education its current recognition.

In 1994, the National Committee for Standards in the Arts developed a new set of voluntary arts standards entitled the National Standards for Arts Education. In TCG’s Special Report on Education 2012: Arts Education at the Core , Leslie Johnson, the Director of Education and Community Partnerships at Center Theatre Group, reflected on the old standards, saying that “the arts had arrived….Surely, we reasoned, these Standards would finally give the Arts equal footing to such curricular power-players as English and Math, and help us convincingly demonstrate the impact of theatre education.”

And so they did, for a while.

For advocates, the new standards were used as a tool to talk with policy makers about the overall scope of arts education. Theatre education, for example, was no longer a vague idea, but a thought-out, nationally recognized practice. Cultural institutions used them to talk with funders, school administrators and parents to get in-school residencies and field trips to see professional quality shows and galleries.

I would like to point out my use of the past tense. Over time, educators realized the shortcomings of these standards. “The Standards missed defining much of the creative process, real-world application and intrinsic value of good arts education,” noted Johnson. In response, states and cities started to develop their own standards. New York City, for example, has great arts standards in the form of the Blueprint for the Arts (a huge improvement from the state-wide standards, of which there are four, vague statements per discipline). This also means there are 2,091,275 New York State students outside of New York City who are being (potentially) assessed by only the 1994 national standards or the four, vague, state-wide standards.

In fact, according to the National Center for Education Statistics during the 2009-10 school year only 86% of public school districts who offered music classes had structured music education curriculum; 84% visual arts; 49% dance; and 46% theatre. You read that correctly, only 46% of school districts that had theatre programs had a structured theatre education curriculum. As for cultural institutions, the use of standards is hard to tell. According to TCG’s upcoming  2013 Special Report on Education, from the 101 theatres that have education programs and filled out the education survey, 87 (86%) have student assessment models which range from assessing “impact on students’ acting, storytelling, oral communication, and writing skills addressed in national and state language and theatre arts standards through [a]…narrative writing rubric, speaking, listening and comprehension assessment, acting rubric…[and] theatre vocabulary survey” to “post-program surveys” (names and judgments withheld). I believe this is a good time to remind the reader that all opinions reflected in this article are mine and do not necessarily reflect the beliefs of TCG.

(I would also like to point out that, by no means, do I believe arts programs have to align with predetermined standards to be successful. In fact, one of the best parts about arts education is that it’s a time for creative expression and fun, not soul sucking standardized test prep. In this respect, standards are more of a jumping off point for new educators to create their own curriculum and a support structure for already existing curriculum to challenge expectations and weigh them against the national average.)

But wait, there is a light at the end of the tunnel!

On June 4th, 2014 the National Coalition for Core Arts Standards (a coalition of educators, artists, arts administrators and policy makers) released their National Core Arts Standards (NCAS), a new set of voluntary arts standards which “guide arts curriculum, instruction, and assessment” and “emphasize the process-oriented nature of the arts.” The standards provide anchor standards in four buckets: Creating, Performing/Presenting/Producing, Responding and Connecting, as well as grade-band specifics and sample assessments. In theory, the standards seem to address the shortcomings of the 1994 standards, but only time will tell–that is, if we put in the work.

You see, the NCAS aren’t a 2014 Brunello di Montalcino. Time alone will not vet these standards, test them in classrooms and residencies, share out strengths and weaknesses to the field and use them to advocate for more dedicated arts instruction space, time and funding. That is what arts educators are for. The problem is no one wants to drive a dirty pickup.

When reflecting on whether Center Theatre Group was going to use CCSS (her article predates the NCAS launch which, for all intents and purposes, is the voluntary arts CCSS equivalent) in their student assessment model, Johnson said “CCSS may prove to be another new way to understand and articulate the impact of our work, but unlike the first time around with the Standards, I do not feel compelled to immediately use them as our work’s only compass point wherever the CCSS winds are blowing. This time, I think we will wait for the dust to settle”

She has a point; we need to learn from what happened in ‘94. Before we radically redesign our assessment strategies to align with these new standards, let’s pilot them, avoiding the CCSS approach of drastically redesigning everything in the blink of an eye and then assessing students without proper teacher and administrator preparation (but that’s a story for another TCG Circle article).

But we still need to use them.

If we wait for the dust to settle than we are left out of the conversation, a problem which seems to be the STEM of most arts education woes.

These new standards are not the be-all and end-all, but they provide a platform for regions with fewer arts education programs to develop their own. They provide support to already existing standards. They provide the long awaited legitimacy for arts education, maybe.

We are at a critical moment in arts education history. Armed with our expertise and new standards, let’s actively participate in the conversation of what happens next. The standards are here; ready your dusters.


Anzel_HeadshotAndrew Anzel is a New York City based theatre artist and educator. He currently studies Educational Theatre and Child and Adolescent Mental Health at New York University. He also serves as the Production Manager for Trusty Sidekick Theater Company, a company which creates bold new work for young people and their families. During the summer of 2014 he served as TCG’s Research, Policy and Collective Action intern, where he most notably acted as an active collaborator on the remodeling of the 2013 Special Report on Education, due out in September.