In this article, I portray the status of visual art education in United States public elementary schools between 1997 and 2004. I report on trends in state policies and interpret data from a national survey of elementary principals, visual art specialists, and classroom teachers. I also provide information on public opinion about arts education, and the possible impact on art education of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. Data from this period serve as a benchmark for tracking shifts in policy and practice as the nation's schools respond to NCLB mandates for improved scores in reading, mathematics, and science by 2014. My discussion highlights recurrent themes and contradictions in policy and practice.
In this article, I focus on survey data from multiple sources bearing on visual art education in elementary schools between 1997 and 2004. This interval of time is significant in that a standards-based accountability movement, initiated in the early 1980s, has since been elaborated in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB). Various surveys cited in this article document this increasing focus on national standards even as they reveal policies and practices that marginalize art education.
Art educators are caught in a Catch 22 environment of policy making. On the one hand, standards-based reforms offer some promise of raising awareness of the arts as a worthy domain for study. In addition, there may be benefits from greater oversight of art education in relation to access to instruction and the quality of teaching and learning. These hopes were expressed in the formulation of national standards in the arts in the mid1990s (Consortium of National Arts Education Associations, 1994).
On the other hand, NCLB is the most fully developed case of federal micromanaging of schools in United States history. In exchange for federal funds, NCLB requires schools to make "adequate yearly progress" (AYP) in raising test scores in reading, mathematics, and science. Annual tests in these subjects are intended to spur improvements so that, by 2014, 95% to 100% of students will score "proficient or above" in all three subjects. Further, practices must be based on "rigorous" scientific evidence of their efficacy and cost effectiveness.
Although NCLB does include the arts in a list of core academic subjects, the law does little to support education in the arts, or foreign language, or the humanities and social studies. Indeed, since NCLB has been implemented, these neglected subjects have been called the "the lost curriculum" by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO, 2002) and cited in a discussion of the "atrophied curriculum" by the Council on Basic Education (2004). These growing concerns suggest that extraordinary leadership may be necessary to retain and strengthen school-based studies in art in the next decade (National Art Education Association [NAEA], 2003a; NAEA, 2003b). In any effort to achieve some balance among studies of the arts, sciences, and humanities it is politically useful to have some grasp of national patterns in policy and practice.
I focus on the status of elementary art education for several reasons. First, elementary instruction influences how later studies are shaped, including the extent to which learning becomes remedial in the upper grades. Second, there is more detailed information on elementary school policy and practice than for secondary schools. Third, the surveys draw attention to issues bearing on the role of specialists and classroom teachers in elementary art education. Part I centers on state policies bearing on all schools, including elementary schools. Part II offers a closer look at reports from elementary principals, art specialists, and classroom teachers. Part III is a brief report on public opinion about arts education and recent developments in relation to NCLB.
Some caveats are necessary. First, there is no uniform national system of distinguishing between elementary, middle, and secondary schools. …