Basically, Arts are Basic

by Lois Hetland

A new superintendent in northern California recently asked: “Why would I pay 12 music teachers when my students can’t read?”

With his school district’s largely black and brown students testing far below basic levels in the subjects for which educators are now held accountable, that question raises the difficult choices district leaders face: How can limited funds be most equitably allocated to benefit needy and deserving children and communities?

Another superintendent in an adjacent school district has wrestled for six years with this challenge. Despite extra attention to math and reading skills, many students in her district continue to be labeled “chronically and persistently far-below-basic.”

She’s trying something new — a longitudinal action-research project to equip her teachers to use arts as learning resources. By helping teachers link authentic arts learning with English language learning, the project will support teachers in building arts and teaching skills to better engage the neediest students. They’ll learn to use arts to motivate thinking, speaking, reading and writing and, beyond motivation, to make students’ learning visible so teachers can better target instruction to individual needs. The county superintendent is impressed, and she’s bringing all 18 superintendents in the county together to consider such arts-infused strategies.

Clearly, these district leaders do not see arts as unnecessary, elitist luxuries among the valued components of public education, but rather as a set of important tools for rigorous thinking. They’re facing the fundamental challenge of allocating resources to include arts in every student’s curriculum. It’s a choice made all the more difficult by the current pressures of high-stakes testing.

A Higher Order

Our recent research at Project Zero, a research and development group at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, shows that serious instruction in visual arts — and teachers of music, dance and drama suggest that these benefits extend across the arts — teaches habits of higher-order thinking that help students develop capacities to recognize the hidden roots of problems, make careful choices in ambiguous circumstances and seek and synthesize the resources necessary to solve problems in novel ways. High-quality arts education helps students develop important critical and creative thinking that is underdeveloped when schools dedicate themselves only to students’ success on tests.

Far from being irrelevant in a test-driven education system, arts education is a necessary antidote to the narrowed curriculum that too often results from the influence of high-stakes tests. As schools cut time for the arts, they may be cutting just the curriculum that would build the innovative leaders of tomorrow.

The profile of skills required in the 21st century labor force has changed. No longer do memorized facts and rigid formulas pave the way to lucrative careers. Instead, non-routine thinking is the basic skill for job categories that economists predict will increase, while those jobs that require formulaic decisions diminish, either because of outsourcing or automation.

The research, reported in “Studio Thinking: The Real Benefits of Visual Arts Education” by this author, shows that arts help students find important problems and persist toward their solutions. Arts teach envisioning, observing, informed risk-taking, learning from mistakes and comfort with uncertainty. They emphasize collaboration, expression, reflection and articulation of deeply held ideas. These are foundational dispositions our schools need to develop in future citizens and leaders.

Action Options
What’s a superintendent who’s convinced arts do matter to do?

  • Hire certified arts specialists. There is no substitute for sequential, standards-based curricula in the four art forms.
  • Require arts for all students, preschool through high school. The purpose of arts education is not just to develop artists, although that is a happy outcome for some. Rather, instruction should help all students develop capacity to see the world through artistic lenses, when that is useful, just as they learn to use the lenses of mathematics, history, language arts and sciences.
  • Team with arts partners. Supplementing regular arts instruction with collaborative planning and teaching with local artists and/or partners from arts organizations and museums in the community expands students’ and teachers’ approaches to artistic thinking so they can use art better across social and academic contexts.
  • Spend professional development funds on arts training for general faculty. All teachers, and especially those in elementary grades, need to supplement subject-matter expertise with arts approaches. They can do so over time by participating regularly in art-making experiences and collaborating with school art faculty and teaching artists to reflect on possibilities for arts-infusion that supports their curricular goals.
  • Build professional learning communities. Set up regular study groups to develop curriculum. Groups need to mix art teachers with cross-grade, non-arts subject teachers, identify shared questions and relevant readings, and plan ways to learn about them together. Administrators need to support ongoing progress on these plans and set up cross-group discussions at regular intervals.
  • Try to lengthen the school day. Arts don’t compete for time with general learning — they support it. More time in school offers more opportunities to pursue the full range of approaches to learning.
  • Get supervisors into schools and boardrooms. They’ll learn from practitioners about effective approaches and areas of need for professional support and build bridges of understanding to those who make policy. When supervisors talk only among themselves, their potential benefits to the system are largely neutralized.

Lois Hetland is an associate professor of art education at Massachusetts College of Art and Design and a research associate with Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. E-mail: