From Neolithic to Neo-Core Arts Standards:The Back-story to Writing New Standards

From Neolithic to Neo-Core Arts Standards: The Back-story to Writing the New Standards

Kristy Callaway Jim Palmarini

Since the Neolithic Revolution, apprenticeships were the career pathway towards master artist status. In addition, one had to have a patron to provide access to the resources of their craft. Twelve thousand years later, we have codified the artistic learning experience into a matrix of what students should know and be able to do, through specific benchmarks known as standards.

The first National Standards for Arts Education were issued in 1994. A coalition of national arts and education organizations will issue a twenty-first century update of the standards in early 2014.

Kristy Callaway (Executive Director of the Arts Schools Network and member of arts education council at Americans for the Arts) interviews Jim Palmarini (Director of Educational Policy at Educational Theatre Association and member of the leadership team of the National Coalition for Core Arts Standards) about the process of updating the national arts education standards.

Kristy: Please set this up for me. What is the back-story of the writing teams? How were they selected and assembled?

Jim: We have five writing teams working to rewrite the national standards in the content areas of dance, media arts, music, theatre, and visual arts. In October, 2011, the National Coalition for Core Arts Standards (NCCAS) leadership issued an online application process. We had more than 360 applicants, most of who were highly qualified and experienced in one or more arts discipline. What we were seeking in each team was a balance of individuals who had expertise in teaching, standards and curriculum writing, assessment, and, of course, practical knowledge in their area of expertise. The leadership of NCCAS selected the team members. The College Board managed the selection of the media arts team.

The full five teams have met twice in person—most recently this past July—but most of their work has been done virtually in webinars, phone conferences, and email discussions.  Writing grade-by-grade PreK-12 standards is intellectually challenging and complicated work, especially when you are working to both honor what is unique about each art form and trying to find common ground across the content areas.  And nobody is getting paid—this is a voluntary effort by a dedicated cadre of individuals who truly believe in the value of standards for students and educators.

Kristy: How are the standards triangulated with instruction, assessment, and teacher evaluation?

Jim: I’m going to answer your question with a question of my own: How can you fairly evaluate either students or educators if you don’t have a baseline of instructional practice from which to measure? Standards provide educators a lens through which to see their teaching, and a framework for student assessment that can be linked to teacher evaluation. Therein is the triangulation. We in the coalition like to say that teachers ought to be able to envision themselves and their students in these new arts standards. If they don’t, then we haven’t done it right.

We are also working towards making sure that the standards are the right grain size—in other words, broad enough to clearly state what a student should know about a subject area at each grade level, but not so specific as to limit an educator’s ability to build a curriculum suitable to the needs of his or her students. At the end of the day, they ought to suggest student learning outcomes that are measureable. One of our goals is to dispel the myth that art learning is not assessable. Further, we want to make it clear that arts education is on the cutting edge of teaching the 21st century skills of creativity, collaboration, communication, and critical thinking.

Regarding teacher evaluation, we all know that arts teachers throughout the country are being evaluated based on student achievement in tested subject areas. No one really knows how widespread this practice is or what percentage of teachers’ evaluation is based on this data—while there are some places where this is spelled out state wide, much of this kind of decision making happens at the local education agency level. The ASCD-led assembly of subject area groups, College, Career, and Citizen Readiness Coalition, has been working on a teacher evaluation consensus statement and report language for inclusion in the S. 1094 bill that will hopefully become part of ESEA reauthorization. There are several recommendations included, keyed most importantly by this statement: “Teacher evaluation systems should be based on curricula that are taught under model national, state, and local standards.”

In the trifecta of education accountability—standards, assessments, and teacher evaluation—is the opportunity to articulate the rich and varied learning experiences in all the arts and their value to students’ well- rounded education. It’s why we’re building standards founded on clearly defined philosophical foundations and lifelong goals and asserting that arts literacy is just as important as numeracy and reading.

Kristy: How can the public be involved during the comment period?

Jim: We’ll be launching an online public comment period for the high school standards September 30 that will run until October 21, and a final public review of the full PreK-12 standards in January, 2014. The best way to keep apprised of the work and to learn how to participate is by visiting our website on a regular basis. The reviews will be conducted in the same way as our earlier public review of the PreK-8 standards were done, with an online training video that participants will be asked to watch prior to beginning their review of one or more content areas. We’ll also be conducting a “town hall” webinar later this month that will allow people to ask questions and raise concerns about important issues.

Here’s the most important thing I can say about public involvement in this project: NCCAS is fully committed to transparency and we have tried to communicate the philosophy, strategy, and progress during each phase through press releases, social media, and our member organizations. But we do need input if we are going to make these standards the very best they can be. And that input needs to come from the widest possible range of stakeholders: teachers and teaching artists, of course, as they are the end users, but also administrators, policy makers, parents, and even students. Anyone, really, who cares about student opportunity, learning, and achievement in dance, media arts, theatre, music, and visual arts.

Kristy: Thank you, Jim, for taking time to explain the back-story and call to action. Your collective leadership is taking us into the future of arts education, the Neo-National Coalition for Core Arts Standards Movement.

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