The higher value of arts

The higher value of arts

September 13th, 2012 in Opinion Times

Members and advocates of the national Arts Education Partnership who are in town today and tomorrow for their annual national conference will have a lot to say about how arts education in schools improves student achievement in all disciplines and areas of learning. They also will note how the city's renaissance illustrates the fundamental linkage of arts and culture with quality of life and expanding economic opportunity. Though these are lessons we inherently know and once practiced in public schools, we need to pay close attention to what the AEP delegates have to say about arts in education.

Why? Because the county school system over the past several decades has reduced the arts curriculum to the point that most of our schools now provide nothing close to a comprehensive, meaningful program for arts education. It's well past time to address that need.

In fact, there are just six full time art teachers in the county's 44 elementary schools. The paucity of their numbers apparently reflects the shift here, as in many other communities, to a narrowly focused, test-oriented educational curriculum that commonly, if wrongly, assigns higher and more exclusive value to math, science and reading skills. That focus, in turn, means that most of our schools have no regular or standardized arts curriculum. And many of our teachers do not receive in-service training on how to incorporate the arts as an elemental tool in boosting learning and student achievement.

One notable exception is the Chattanooga High School Center for the Creative Arts, a magnet school. It proves the tremendous value of arts in education. The CCA was recognized two weeks ago for its achievement in becoming one of just two schools in the Hamilton County system to be ranked among the state's top 5 percent of schools for both academic performance and overall advancement in test scores. The other county school to earn its way into the top 5 percent of both categories was Signal Mountain's Thrasher Elementary.

CCA's achievement, which also put it among the state's top 10 individual schools, is especially notable for the rich diversity of its student body, and its requirement for every student to be engaged in a visual or performing art, such as music, theater or dance. CCA Principal Debbie Smith attributes the school's academic achievements to the strong role that arts play in academics. "The passion for arts does carry over into academics," she asserted.

CCA's excellence could be expected. The broad academic benefits of an arts curriculum as a quantitative factor in higher levels of achievement has been amply documented. As Sandra Ruppert, director of the Arts Education Partnership, noted in an editorial board meeting with this paper Wednesday, recent in-depth studies have shown that schools with strong art programs -- and especially those in poorer neighborhoods -- significantly improve students' cognitive learning, problem-solving and social skills, their range of creative thinking, innovation and imagination, and their levels of academic achievement and personal development and engagement in learning.

These are precisely the skills and conceptual and personal abilities that large new employers in the Chattanooga area --i.e., Volkswagen, Wacker Chemical and Alstom -- all say they need in new employees, but see too little of in local graduates and applicants. Indeed, there's really no argument about the value of arts education in promoting well-rounded, engaged and higher-achieving students. The question is, when will the school system make a strong arts curriculum the integral part of education that we once took for granted?