The arts in K-12

Sunday's New York Times Magazine features an article on K-12 arts education. The piece sets out to refute Obama's evidently misleading claims that teaching the arts leads to improved student performance on standardized tests.

There is indeed a correlation between, for example, how many years students spend in arts classes and their SAT scores; more art, higher scores. But that doesn't prove that it's the added exposure to the arts that boosts verbal or math performance. Another study shows that students who take more courses in any subject do better on the SAT. Meanwhile, a British study found the opposite: the more arts classes students took, the worse they did on their national exams. A more plausible explanation, Winner speculates, may be that academically motivated students in the U.S. gravitate to the arts, eager to show supercompetitive colleges they aren't just grinds who do well on their SATs. In England, it's weaker students who are steered onto the arts track.

Fair enough, but there are more important reasons to teach kids about art and music. As Checker and (Fordham board member) Diane Ravitch argued in the Wall Street Journal last year, the breadth of our curricular offerings allows us to "acquire qualities and abilities that aren't easily 'outsourced' to Guangzhou or Hyderabad."

Indeed, the iPod, Google, Hollywood--these world-beating American icons sprouted from fertile minds that, though they certainly benefited from some technical know-how, would never have found proper nourishment in a drill-and-kill, math-and-science-only environment. Are we really so obtuse as to think that it's not worth teaching the arts unless it boosts our SAT scores?

(Read more on this in the Fordham report Beyond the Basics: Achieving a Liberal Education for All Children. An essay by Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, is especially stirring.)