West Virginia Superintendent of Schools Steven L. Paine
During periods of economic distress, the arts all too often are sidelined as schools instead emphasize math and reading skills. That is a mistake that as West Virginia’s superintendent of schools I don’t want to happen in our public schools.
The second week of September this year has been designated “Arts in Education Week” by the U.S. House of Representatives. This week, Sept. 12-18, has been set aside to focus on the value of arts education around our nation and to celebrate the unique ways the arts contribute to student learning. I encourage every teacher, every student and every parent to find ways to celebrate the arts in your community.
I am glad that here in West Virginia, we have demonstrated our commitment to arts education as part of our Global21: Students deserve it. The world demands it. We began in 2005 with the West Virginia Arts Teams Project that provided professional development for arts teachers around the state, emphasizing those skills necessary for the 21st century. Since 2007, we have showcased some of our best student artists at Arts Alive! The Best of West Virginia, an evening celebration of arts education at the Clay Center in Charleston. Anyone who has attended one of these events can attest to the quality and emotional power of the student art work and performances featured.
Unfortunately, there are those who question an increased emphasis on arts education because they view the arts as dispensable, especially during economic uncertainty. They often challenge the wisdom of funding elementary and secondary arts programs, saying, “Why should students learn to paint, dance, act or sing while we are facing increased jobless rates and other fiscal difficulties?
The answer is really two-fold.
First, our students deserve an education that includes the arts. Dance, theater, art and music provide unique insights into the human experience. They inform every activity of life with deeper meaning. In an era of increasing leisure time, the arts prepare students to be knowledgeable decision makers instead of mere consumers of mass culture. West Virginia students deserve those opportunities as much in lean times as they do when the economy is flourishing. It is equally important to listen to students, who tell us they want arts education in public school. This is significant because students who believe they have a voice in their education are engaged in their school community and personal learning when it capitalizes their interests in meaningful and productive ways.
Secondly, our world demands students who have had an education in the arts. The skills needed by our students – including creativity, collaborative learning, global awareness, critical thinking and problem solving – are taught daily in arts classrooms. To deprive students of these skills is to doom them to failure in a global economy. If West Virginia students are to succeed in the 21st century, they need a comprehensive education that includes the arts, provided by exemplary arts educators.
That’s why both the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act and our own state policy define the arts as part of the core curriculum essential to student success. The evidence is overwhelming that the arts contribute to other indicators of academic achievement as well.
Recent studies in both Florida and New York indicate that students who study the arts have higher attendance and graduation rates than their peers who do not. They also score higher on standardized tests measuring language and math skills, a trend that has been noted for decades. While these statistics alone would not provide a rationale for arts education, they are strong indicators of just how deeply the arts influence student learning.
For many years arts education was seen as peripheral – like the marching band playing the fight song after a touchdown or rows of hand turkeys lining the classroom wall at Thanksgiving. We now understand that arts classrooms need to be dynamic learning environments where high expectations are set and creativity can flourish. When we have achieved this goal for every student in West Virginia, we may no longer need Congress to designate a week in September to bring special emphasis to arts education. Every week may become “Arts in Education Week.”
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