If you ask Dr. Robert E Sabol, professor of visual and performing arts at Purdue University, art education has suffered some serious setbacks since No Child Left Behind--the landmark federal education law that put a greater emphasis on high-stakes testing.
Since No Child Left Behind became law in 2002, school systems--under increased pressure to raise student proficiency rates in the "core" subjects of reading and math--have less money to spend on materials such as paint and clay, and art instructors have less time to teach students what to do with those things, a Sabol study found.
"Art teachers were put in a very difficult position," says Sabol, president of the National Art Education Association, based in Reston, Va., and author of the 2010 study titled No Child Left Behind: A Study of Its Impact on Art Education.
Sabol's study found, among other things, that many art educators saw budgets for their programs decline under the federal law and the money redirected toward "core classes," test prep and other areas.
But now--as the Obama administration grants states more flexibility under No Child Left Behind and state and local educators work to implement a new set of education standards known as the Common Core State Standards--art educators are hopeful that they can restore art education to what they believe is its rightful place.
"At this point, the Common Core is being implemented, so it's a little premature to say how [art education] is going to be affected," Sabol says.
At the same time, he says, the implementation of the Common Core State Standards represents a prime opportunity to recognize art's role in helping to develop the much-heralded "21st Century Skills"--such as critical thinking and creativity--that proponents say students need to compete in the global economy. The Common Core State Standards Initiative is led by the National Governor's Association and is meant to provide a "clear and consistent framework to prepare our children for college and the workforce," according to the website.
Art education should also be seen as something that contributes to the economy and makes for a more thoughtful society, Sabol says. It is often the designs of artists, Sabol says, that influence consumer and civic decisions that range from what car or home to buy to how to interpret messages from political candidates and others who are trying to shape public opinion.
"Learning about art is extremely important in that regard," Sabol says. "That's not to mention the billions of dollars that the arts [contribute] to the economy."
In order to get decision-makers to see the educational relevance of art, Sabol says the National Art Education Association has assembled teams of writers to develop art standards that are consistent with the Common Core State Standards. The art standards should be released within the next 12 to 18 months, Sabol says.
"The Common Core Standards can be taught rather successfully in the arts classroom if the instruction is focused on using language arts and math to learn about art," Sabol says.
That wasn't always the case under No Child Left Behind, Sabol says, noting that art teachers found themselves being forced to teach math and language arts during art class--and not necessarily by tying their lessons into art. In some cases, he says, art courses were eliminated altogether.
The case for making art a core part of education stands upon a growing amount of research.
Contrary to what some believe, it's not that art education causes students to get better grades or score higher on tests, says Ellen Winner, professor of psychology at Boston College. Winner is also senior research associate at Project …