In an ARTSblog post by Erin Gough on July 23, 2013, teachers are encouraged to be champions for the arts in ways that are often not a part of college preparatory curriculum. Erin notes that “too often, teachers believe that as long as their students leave their class with a little bit of technical skills and a lot of inspiration, they’ve done all they can to prove their value.” She then continues to connect the role of student achievement in the arts, in the form of student performances, plays, musicals and visual art presentations, to the role of teachers as advocates for student achievement in the arena of public policy makers.As a retired music educator (one of Erin’s teachers, I’m proud to say!) I would concur that my experience with arts teachers would support the premise that these teachers shy away from the very people and decision-making opportunities that ultimately affect both their art and their ability to be employed. Advocacy for advocacy’s sake is not the realm in which these teachers thrive and provide leadership. However, arts teachers do thrive and provide leadership in a realm that is important to public policy makers at all levels: student achievement.
Current trends in educator effectiveness systems require that evidence of student achievement be attributed to teacher evaluation, often in equal proportion with teacher observation. Arts teachers have long known that student achievement is the primary focus of instruction, and they have provided evidences of that achievement in the ways that Erin describes: student performances, plays, musicals and visual art presentations. However, student achievement must now be examined from the perspective of each individual student that a teacher instructs, and not from the conglomerate success achieved by an art show or a music/theatre/dance performance.
Here again arts teachers can lead the way toward describing and evaluating individual student achievement based on arts standards. Clear descriptions of student achievement are important; few standardized tests exist to determine arts achievement. Standardized testing in the arts has rarely been advocated by arts teachers or policy makers, but a lack of standardized testing provides little data upon which policy makers can advocate for arts education. Of course this lack of standardized testing is likely one of the reasons that there is a lack of standardized modes of arts education delivery between states and schools within a state! Clear descriptions of expected student achievement of the arts standards will serve arts education well, not as a substitute for standardized testing but as a model for what we really believe is important for student success: authentic application of knowledge.
Approximately seventy percent of the teaching workforce has no standardized test for describing evidence of student achievement, and these teachers can benefit from the vision that arts teachers have had in this regard. Many states are now seeing this vision through in the form of the “SLO,” or “Student Learning Objectives” process. This process affords teachers the opportunity to describe student achievement of content area standards in terms of student projects and portfolios as an alternate to selected response “multiple choice” style performance measures. The SLO process in many states provides unique flexibility to look at student achievement in ways that support authentic learning of content standards as well as achievement of 21st Century Skills.
Teachers of the arts in my home state of Pennsylvania have embraced the SLO process as an opportunity to examine both student achievement and improved teaching, based on data derived from the process. Arts teachers have not only led the vision for describing and evaluating student performance, they have also volunteered to be trained as leaders of SLO implementation in their individual school districts as well as creating models of excellence within their content specific professional organizations and learning communities.
As policy makers begin to look at the end result of standards-based student achievement in the arts (and other content areas) as demonstrated through the SLO process, data-specific realizations of the quality of arts education will emerge and provide a deeper understanding that arts teachers prepare students to demonstrate “a lot of technical skills backed by well-informed understandings of artistic inspiration.”
Erin’s vision for arts teachers to be trained and prepared to lead education policy is insightful and forward-thinking. Arts teachers would do well to recognize that the most powerful tool with which to lead education policy–student achievement–is one they know very well. Arts teachers need to look beyond traditional models of student achievement and set their sights on using the data gathered from well-designed evidences of student achievement as the catalyst for informing public policy on the importance, the necessity and the humanity of arts learning.