What is Art Education For? An Assessment Checklist

Posted by Arnold Aprill, Feb 19, 2014 3 comments

Arnold Aprill Arnold Aprill

ArtEdArt education in schools exists, to the extent that it exists at all, within the contexts of wider school cultures. School cultures are currently in the thrall of high stakes—undifferentiated, system-wide models of measurement and accountability. How does art education function in such an environment? Not so well.

Because models for assessing arts learning are underdeveloped, the arts come to represent for many students a safe haven from relentless testing. At the same time, the arts are broadly discounted by policy makers as not being serious enough disciplines worthy of time, attention, or funding, because they are untested.

How might we find our way through the labyrinth of this double-bind? One approach is to look at the metaphors that undergird approaches to assessment at the policy level.

Bush Era “No Child Left Behind”: Known colloquially as “NCLB”, and sometimes as “Nickleby” (I’m thinking of the cruel Uncle Ralph Nickleby, not the sweet and brave hero in Dickens’ novel Nicholas Nickleby). NCLB in a nutshell is schools and individual teachers that do not demonstrate Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) on standardized test scores risk losing their funding or their jobs. The problem that I have always had with NCLB is implicit in the name itself. The policy is not named something like EPIC (Enhancing the Powers in Children). The policy is named “No Child Left Behind” – conjuring up an image of abandoned loser children and of winner children schlepped along to the potatoesgoalposts of achievement. This is not a metaphor representing child agency, child capacity, child initiative, or child power. Learning in this model is not something that children do, but rather is something done to them. The core metaphor here is a “potato race”–a game in which competitors (teachers) carry inert potatoes (lumpy and lumpen children) precariously balanced on spoons as they rush back and forth across a finish line, dropping some potatoes and depositing others in a heap to win.


Obama Era “Race to the Top”, or R2T: A contest between states and local districts for big bucks, with points given for evidence of such things as intervening in low achieving schools, demonstrating significant progress in raising achievement and in closing gaps, developing charter schools, privatization of public services, and computerization. The metaphor for R2T is as the name says, a race, but while NCLB was a horizontal race, Race to the Top is a vertical race; a climbing wall. Again, we have a metaphor built around winners and losers, but this time among states and districts rather than schools and teachers. A level up in the policy food supply chain and a quantum leap away from children, parents, and teachers.

RhizomeRhizomes: There is another metaphor, developed by Félix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze, which is emerging as a useful tool for rethinking social systems like school districts. This is the “rhizome” – networks of biological roots that expand out, grow up, and draw sustenance from and in many directions. This metaphor opposes linear, dualist thinking (dubbed “arborescent” by Guattari and Deleuze based on the image of a tree with a siloed root system and one trunk.)

“No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top” are arborescent – with binary oppositions between those left behind versus those that are carried along, and between the top versus the bottom of the social pyramid. These core metaphors are not just theoretical constructs. They have a powerful influence on both policy and practice, refracted in every aspect of a social system, like the image that recurs in each fragment of a holographic film. For example, Linda Darling-Hammond’s intriguing Edutopia PowerPoint on differences in international approaches to assessment suggests a strong correlation between nations that have binary approaches to measuring student learning and nations that have sustained deep divides between economic wealth and abject poverty. Either/or rather than both/and in economics as well as in education.

So back to our original problem: How can we measure the value of rhizomatic art education inside arborescent systems? Here is my definition of the value of art education:

“Art education expands the opportunities for learners to widen their lives for themselves and for and with others.”

And here is how that definition looks as a linear assessment checklist:

_____ expanding programming

_____ varied opportunities

_____ widened lives

_____ learners working for themselves

_____ learners working for others

_____ learners working with others

Check off each criterion for which there is compelling evidence in your situation. How does your classroom/school/district/state score? The winner becomes a rhizome.

3 responses for What is Art Education For? An Assessment Checklist


Jennifer Rose says
February 19, 2014 at 4:10 pm

Hi ! thank you for the article. I posted it to my Facebook page, most of whom are parents of little dancers most of whom are in the Kent school district, Washington State. I homeschool for the very fact that the school district left my bright science and art oriented child with dyslexia way behind. I understand better Govenor Gregoire's response when she was in office in reference to RACE TO THE TOP.."Good luck with that". The Kent School District is filled with elementary schools under the Title i and Title II and now have millions of Race TO THE TOP and Gates Foundation money , but none of it is going to the arts, music or creative thinking. The music and art programs are lacking, violence is high at the elementary level and the children at the elementary level are struggling. I always ask the dancers how was school today. They avoid the question . But when asked how was dance and what did you do in class? Well all smiles and they love Joselito and Shayda etc. But it's clear there is not much for them at school. We've all found happiness for our kids in a teacher and atmosphere that encourages thought, creativity hard work in a positive happy atmosphere. Just can't say much for the schools. KIds need the arts to survive and express themselves.
The parents have hard time keeping up with the schools spending and most are working so the last thing they look at is what is really going on with the school districts. So it's an uphill battle to understand let alone change it. So I thank you for your article.

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February 20, 2014 at 9:09 am

Your definition of the value of an arts education is great - especially since it posits students as learners while, as you suggest, very little energy today goes into empowering students to become self-learners. It seems to me that arts educators often fail to connect the dots for themselves ... while all will point to success stories, children who gained in their ability to focus and concentrate, interact with others, stay persistent, and creatively find new ways to approach a problem, it almost seems an oxymoron to them that by 'scientifically' assessing those skills and attributes we will be able to level the playing field of competitive funding?

After decades of serving over 2,500 students with out arts mentoring nonprofit, my husband and I developed assessment software that tracks these essential learning points which we call the Principles of Empowerment. Please take a look - definitely rhizomatic! http://merge-education.com/sets-evaluation-management-software.php

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James says
February 22, 2014 at 3:45 pm

i heard that there's a debate on whether or not to keep art education in school. Heres a well done article on it. http://thenebula.org/the-arts-and-education-debate/

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