Educational Leaders, Arts Standards, and the Common Core: Lessons from Recent Research
In a recent survey conducted by the College Board of nearly 1000 K-12 principals and superintendents, more than 75% of respondents said that nationally, arts education should be given a greater priority level than it currently holds in American schools. They also indicated that they believe that the primary benefits of arts education are that they strengthen students’ creative thinking abilities, bolster cognitive development, contribute to a well-rounded educational experience and enhance students’ emotional well-being. However, when asked what factors could most effectively work in favor of keeping arts programs in schools, school leaders responded the arts curricula need to clearly address state educational standards (in the arts as well as in other subjects), college admission requirements, and the Common Core standards. These two sets of answers at first seem unrelated, or at least as if they reflect completely different sets of priorities, but they are both true: the arts do provide significant and wide-ranging benefits including those cited by the administrators surveyed; recent research credits arts participation with bolstering creative thinking skills, increasing graduation rates, and improving students’ overall engagement with school. On the other hand, arts educators also know that the security and continuity of their programs often relies on their ability to draw connections between the activities of their classrooms and the content and skills emphasized in non-arts subjects. These kinds of connections don’t need to feel forced or artificial: arts experiences do authentically engage students in habits of problem solving, presenting their own original ideas, and analyzing and interpreting the ideas of others – all skills central to the Common Core, and to studies across the curriculum.
The framers and writers of the National Core Arts Standards understood the need for clarity in these links, so the standards can be used both as tools for curriculum design and as tools for program advocacy, functioning both to highlight the unique benefits of arts education and to reinforce connections to the Common Core standards and to other subject areas. As the standards development process began, College Board researchers completed a two-part project identifying links between teaching and learning in the arts and the goals of the Common Core. First, researchers looked for explicit references to the arts within the Common Core standards. In a second phase of research, the language of the framework of the Core Arts Standards was compared to that of the Common Core Anchor Standards and introductory material, to search for similarities in the types of habits and skills that were being emphasized, even if not in an arts context.
Results show a number of arts references already present in the Common Core: twelve reading standards recommend having students investigate the same text in different media – for example, comparing a written play to a performance, film, or work of art based on it. Seventeen reading standards refer to analyzing and interpreting images. The standards for speaking and listening mention the use of digital media and creation of “visual displays of data,” creating room for visual and media arts integration. It’s true that many of these links are surface-level connections – in many cases, the standards about interpreting images are referring to illustrations that may accompany a text, and students “visual displays of data” are primarily meant as an aid to enhance written or verbal presentations – but they provide a basic link that arts educators can connect to and build upon.
Findings related to the framework for the Core Arts Standards were even more exciting: the Common Core ELA anchor standards frequently described all four of the Creative Practices – imagining, investigating, constructing, and reflecting – that are embedded in the arts standards. The habits of investigation and reflection were especially strongly aligned with the standards for reading, and the creative practice of construction related closely to the Common Core standards for writing. Furthermore, all eight of the Standards for Mathematical Practice described these same practices, often multiple times within a single standard. The first Standard for Mathematical Practice, for example, notes that students will plan solution pathways (imagining), try special cases and simpler forms of a problem in order to gain insight into its solution (investigating), explain correspondences between equations, and draw diagrams of important features and relationships (constructing), and will explain to themselves the meaning of a problem, and monitor and evaluate their progress and change course if necessary when solving it (reflecting).
It’s especially encouraging to note that while the Common Core standards do contain a certain number of arts references, when we dig deeper into the process-oriented language of the arts, ELA, and math – describing the habits and though processes authentic to each of these disciplines – the cognitive skills being described are remarkably similar, and the connections between them deeper and richer.