Arts Education Must Exist Beyond Evaluation, Measurement, and Standards

Posted by Robert Schultz, Dec 11, 2012 4 comments

Rob Schultz

I’ll be the first to admit it. I’m only passingly familiar with many of the theories and practices of arts education. Teaching visual art classes is in my distant, hazy professional background, but my career since then has been in managing community arts education programs and the capable, expert staff who deliver them.

It’s certainly been interesting reading and discussing various approaches to comprehensive arts education over the years, how best practices are defined at any one particular time, and how new approaches redefine what we thought we already knew.

I can appreciate how valuable these theories and practices are and what results they achieve in students of varying ethnic, age, and socioeconomic diversity. Of course, there’s also been an ever-increasing focus on standardization and evaluation, in large part I suppose because of the need to meet “proof of effectiveness” requirements demanded by grantors and others in the business of providing financial support to the arts education field.

All of us were pleased when, in 1994, the National Arts Standards were adopted and our field proudly saw that the arts had been recognized and earned a place at the public education table. More recently, the Common Core State Standards arrived on the national scene, and so now we grapple with ways to make their integration and implementation a reality.

A colleague on the Arts Education Council of Americans for the Arts, Talia Gibas, recently wrote an excellent essay on the value of “shared delivery,” whereby a child is taught through three processes: a generalist classroom teacher who integrates the arts on a daily basis; an arts specialist who “hones in on skills and content specific to their art form;” and a professional teaching artist who deepens engagement.

Comprehensive approaches like these are vital. It’s important stuff. And it continues to evolve and adapt to societal changes that present us with generations of students different from those that came before.

But I’m here to put in a good word for assuring some arts education existing simply for the sake of enjoying what our students are doing, and just letting them do it. Without demands. Without complications. To allow expression to happen without worrying about whether or not it’s planned, measured, defined, linked, collaborative, progressive, sustainable, integrated, modeled, informed, competent, or transformational.

I recently had the good fortune to sit in the audience of a semester-ending recital at my arts center in Arizona. The students were of all ages and stripes, bound together only by their choice to sign up for private voice and music lessons with a master teacher. They ranged from an impossibly cute 8-year-old girl learning to play the flute, to a nervous but determined 12-year-old singing “White Christmas” with everything she had, to a trio of adults playing their own mellow, blues-rock compositions on acoustic guitars.

But their performances in front of 50 or so parents, grandparents, and friends were of the purest form, driven by their innate need to reach down into their souls and share themselves through their voice, their fingers, and their movements. This art wasn’t measured, tested, or evaluated. It was beautiful. May it always continue...

4 responses for Arts Education Must Exist Beyond Evaluation, Measurement, and Standards


December 11, 2012 at 6:46 pm

We face sort of a Catch-22. On the one hand, we should trumpet the fact that the arts can provide kids with fun/joyful/engaging experiences. Such experiences can be a vital counter-weight to the rigid and joyless experiences too many kids have in much of their schooling. In fact, many educators long to see their kids escape the "drill and kill" regiment we see in too many schools. On the other hand, we need to deliver more than "fun" if we want to influence public systems to invest more of our scarce school funding in the arts. We need to offer rigor and evidence of value and impact. The key is to bridge both imperatives. Indeed, the best arts programs should be fun and joyful, while still structured enough to deliver meaningul and measurable outcomes over time. Perhaps the best outcome would be a finding that "more kids care about school and show up when you offer the arts."

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Deb V. says
December 12, 2012 at 12:24 pm

I think this recent article from Douglas McLennan is relevant. Even arts experiences for adults that are supposed to be "fun" have to be forced into defining themselves as "excellent." In our arts education work in Oregon we've been talking a lot about letting communities (schools, social service agencies, arts organizations) define what outcomes are valuable to them, rather than defining them from a state or national level. It's a complicated conversation, but I think the more that value can be defined by a community, the more effective the outcomes are going to be for that community. So much work has gone into standardization that things are getting lost in the translation from one community to the next. All the fun is gone.

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December 18, 2012 at 11:27 am

I think we can satisfy both (all?) sides at once by measuring engagement. That looks, of course, different in each person - one might be highly focused, with a relatively straight-lined process ... another might appear highly unfocused, with a seemingly disjointed process. But if they are both engaged and therefore learning and growing (and I think this is the important point), who's to say which is better?

When we directed our arts mentoring non profit, many of our students appeared to be unfocused until the teacher (and they) began to understand how they were learning and could give structure to apparent randomness. And so many of them had results that were more artistically and emotionally satisfying!

We created an evaluation software ( to satisfy the two camps that rarely come together - those who demand data and those who are going for the joy first and foremost. We happen to be a combination of the two in that we agree wholeheartedly with the Duke's famous words "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing" but also enjoy the architecture that can give it all structure.

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January 06, 2013 at 5:58 pm

Excellent post!! The notion of arts educators grappling with ever-changing National Standards and testing procedures, in an effort to measure and justify the need for art (both in and out of the classroom),are familiar challenges to many educators. As an Art Therapist, the struggles are quite similar. Services are based on "medical necessity" and clinicians are forced to justify treatment for insurance agencies and 3rd-party payers. The two fields collide in many ways and yet there is limited collaboration of ideas between Arts Educators and Expressive Arts Therapists. Writing curricula and defining treatment plan interventions are almost exact processes. It would behoove these two fields of study to band together in achieving and rediscovering the necessity of the arts. . . personally and culturally.

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