After Draconian Cuts to Arts Education, Is a Creativity Renaissance Coming to America’s Classrooms?

No Child Left Behind caused budgets to be slashed, but now that the legislation’s on the way out, will the Common Core bring art back?

(Photo: Getty Images)

Nov 12, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Tasbeeh Herwees is a journalist and writer from Los Angeles. She has written for Good Magazine, The Majalla, TruthDig, L.A. Currents, and others.

When George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind act in 2002, he became the target of criticism by educators from all branches of the U.S. educational system. Arts instructors in particular were dismayed by the policies enacted by the legislation. They argued that the initiative placed too much importance on assessment and testing and sidelined arts education. Twelve years later, many arts programs are still reeling from the shift.

“Funds were pulled from art education programs to provide instructional resources for test preparation to employ other people who engaged in preparing students to take tests that were not in any way related to visual arts,” says F. Robert Sabol, the architect of one of the most comprehensive studies of how No Child Left Behind policies transformed the quality of visual arts education in the United States.

Published in 2010, Sabol’s study, No Child Left Behind: A Study of Its Impact on Art Education, compiled data from more than 3,400 instructors, from preschool teachers to museum educators. Sabol found that No Child Left Behind’s policies influenced arts education in a variety of ways, although the negative effects outweighed many of the positive ones.

The biggest problem? No Child Left Behind shifted funds to test preparation and assessment, causing arts education efforts to be on the receiving end of massive budget cuts. What’s especially disturbing is that Sabol’s study was conducted with data collected right before the global economy was crippled by the 2007 financial crisis. That means his findings do not reflect the damage subsequently inflicted on school district arts education budgets because of the Great Recession.

However, the data does reveal how early budget cuts reduced the amount of time students were allowed to spend making art. Most art materials and resources are single use—unlike math and language arts materials, which are reusable—and budget cuts reduced funds for consumable resources by approximately 63 percent. This meant that students began spending less time in creativity-generating studio classes, according to Sabol.

“Studio learning is very much a discovery process, where students will begin work and revise it, edit, change it, based on things they’ve learned,” says Sabol. “When you have less time in your class period, you have less time for this discovery process.”

The time spent in arts classes was sometimes co-opted by efforts to provide students with additional test preparation. Many of the respondents to Sabol’s study suggested that school administrators pressured them to include language arts and mathematics instruction in their visual arts instruction. About 84 percent of them reported that their programs had “increased interruptions, conflicts, and problems or have become more complicated.”

“Frequently, students were pulled out of arts classes to do makeup tests or to do test preparation with other personnel,” says Sabol. “Students were often taken out of the art room to acquire the types of skills related to testing.”

Although arts educators had overall unfavorable perspectives on No Child Left Behind policies, Sabol’s study garnered positive findings as well. Because they had less classroom time to instruct students, many educators became more prudent about how they spent the time that they did have in the studio.

“Teachers became more reflective about which instructional methods would enhance their teaching and provide the most effective delivery of the content,” explains Sabol. “[They] became more knowledgeable about assessment and how it can be used as a tool for enhancing visual arts education.”

Now, as states begin moving away from No Child Left Behind’s policies and begin implementing the Common Core State Standards, Sabol says there is some concern from teachers and arts education advocates that the arts will continue to be marginalized in favor of stronger language arts and mathematics instruction. But Sabol says it’s too early to tell what kind of impact the adoption of the Common Core will have.

There’s hope that the Common Core State Standards might provide an opportunity for multidisciplinary collaboration that could strengthen all sectors of the educational system. Language arts instructors should be able to coordinate with their visual arts colleagues to find opportunities for visual arts teaching during literary instruction. Math teachers could also improve the instruction of visual learners through implementation of visual arts strategies. That change could fuel a creativity renaissance in our schools.

One thing is for sure: The restoration of the arts to their proper place in our education system isn’t something we can take for granted. “It’s going to take some real, concerted effort on behalf of teachers and on educational researchers across the entire field of education,” says Sabol.

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