W.Va. to Make the Arts a Priority in 21st Century
By Dr. Steven L. Paine

July 25, 2006

Is teaching the arts vital to the success of a 21st century student? The answer is a simple, "Yes." But why are the arts so important? The answer to that question is multi-layered and will lay the foundation for the future of education in our state.  

Students in the 21st century must master problem-solving skills, critical thinking skills, communication skills, financial and technology literacy and global and cultural awareness.  

Unfortunately, there is a disturbing trend in some schools that I believe will impact the progress West Virginia makes regarding 21st century learning skills. Schools that cut back on the arts in the regular curriculum to focus on improving test scores in other subjects are making a major mistake and truly leaving our children behind.  

Arts programs encourage students to think creatively and adopt fresh approaches. Classes such as music, visual art, theatre and dance challenge our perceptions and help develop ways of thinking that are visual rather than verbal. They foster creative thinking and help bridge language and other barriers among diverse cultures in a global society.  

That's why I've doubled total arts funding this year. And this month, the West Virginia Department of Education is launching a three-year plan to improve arts programs in public schools.  

This plan will incorporate 21st century learning skills, including critical thinking, creative problem solving and collaboration, into arts classes. It also strives to strengthen relationships with parents and the community and engage both more actively in school arts programs and will work to strengthen arts teachers' instructional management skills in the classroom.  

Our new effort proposes to empower educators to build on that knowledge and take control of the quality of arts education in schools beyond individual classrooms.  

Research shows the arts not only impacts how young people learn to think, but also how they feel and behave. Arts-rich education experiences engage students and enhance learning in other subjects.  

Reports by the College Entrance Examination Board show that students of the arts continue to outperform their non-arts peers on the SAT. In 2005, SAT takers with classes or experience in music scored 56 points higher on the verbal portion of the college entrance test and 39 points higher on the math portion than students with no experience in the arts.  

If you think this discrepancy is because the arts students may have come from privileged families whose income provided the edge, you're wrong. Champions of Change: The Impact of the Arts on Learning, a summary of separately conducted studies, shows that arts education helped level the educational playing field for economically disadvantaged students.  

An analysis of U.S. Department of Education data on 25,000 middle and high school students also found that students who were highly involved in the arts performed better on a variety of academic measures than other students.  

They earned better grades, did better on exams, dropped out of school less, performed more community service and watched less television.  

And here we are in the 21st century - a time when creative skills are crucial in a world economy. Yes, we need scientists and engineers, but this new competitive global economy demands the blend of art and science. It demands imaginative, resilient thinkers who can design and produce new ideas, new services and products. Well-taught arts courses are where creativity, flexibility, innovation, understanding and empathy are consistently required - true 21st century learning skills indeed!  

The National Governors Association recognizes not only the effects arts education has in helping children learn valuable skills but that it can be a cost-effective way to build the workforce of tomorrow. In the report, The Impact of Arts Education on Workforce Preparation, the association says such instruction reinforces multiple skills that connect learning to real work experiences that students will face in the 21st century.  

In West Virginia, music and visual art are required core subjects in the K-8 curriculum. In grades 9 through 12, dance, music, theatre and visual art courses must be offered and no student can graduate without an arts credit. Yet, there are still many people who dismiss the arts as fluff or frills.  

We need the arts curriculum to be taught by arts teachers. And we must make sure these teachers have the resources they need. We need to provide arts-rich opportunities for all students in the school day as well as choices after school for those who want to pursue extra-curricular activities in the arts.  

Finally, we need to include arts at the table of school committees, activities, and in decision-making arenas. Our education system will never experience true reform appropriate to the 21st century until our schools become exciting places of discovery and engaging learning. The arts are essential to this kind of reform.  

Paine is state superintendent of schools, overseeing West Virginia's public schools.

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