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Missouri arts teachers want to make voices heard

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 9, 2011 - As academic tests emphasize students' mastery of Tolstoy and trigonometry, teachers of the visual and performing arts worry that the importance of tragedy and the trombone may be not only pushed to the back burner but taken off the stove altogether.

So the Missouri Alliance for Arts Education has sounded the alarm for members to make sure that when money is tight and test scores aren't as high as everyone would like, their passions and their concerns are heard by the state Board of Education.

"We feel that the arts should be considered a basic source of every child's education in Missouri and should get the same emphasis as other academic areas, like math, science, communication arts, foreign languages and other core subjects in the curriculum," said Robert Gifford, a retired music professor at Southeast Missouri State University and chairman of the alliance.

"When push comes to shove, or financial cutbacks happen, the arts are among the first things to go."

In a call for members to contact members of the state board, Deborah Fisher, executive director of the alliance, outlined several arguments in favor of the arts:

  • In districts where more students are involved in the arts, test scores in communication arts are higher for students in grades 6-8.
  • A similar correlation can be found with higher scores on the math part of the state's MAP tests.
  • Where more students in middle and high schools take part in the arts, attendance is higher -- a bottom-line plus for districts whose state funds depend in part on how many students show up for class each day.
  • The arts also influence two other areas that factor into accreditation; districts with have high participation show fewer disciplinary problems and higher graduation rates.

Why is the Alliance Concerned Now?

For several months, members of the state board have been discussing what might be included in the next round of standards that will be used to determine whether Missouri school districts are accredited. While no final decision is expected at the board's meeting next week, arts educators want their presence felt and their worries heard.

"We want to make sure that the state board does not change the wording to allow less of a commitment by school districts to the arts," said Kaye Harrelson, supervisor of music education for the St. Louis Public Schools.

"What is not required is going to be the first to go. If there is a money crunch, school districts are going to get rid of what is not 'necessary'."

While Harrelson understands the pressures schools are under, financial and otherwise, she noted that most districts in the state have maintained their accreditation, so she and her colleagues do not want to see mandates weakened for everyone.

"With most school districts being accredited," she said, "why does the state need to remove minimum requirements for all school districts? The repercussions are a little scary."

State education officials are not tone deaf to the arts educators' concerns. Chris Nicastro, commissioner of elementary and secondary education, said she understands that the statewide alert resulted from a move by the legislature that could be seen as having undermined the importance of the arts and their role in accreditation.

She said similar concerns could be voiced for other areas not considered part of the academic core, such as physical education and foreign languages, in a time when everyone from President Barack Obama on down keeps hammering on the relative weakness of the test scores of U.S. students compared to their counterparts in other countries.

The difficulty, she said, comes in devising ways to measure proficiency in fine arts and other areas in the same way that standardized tests do so in math and communication arts.

"How can we come up with those performance standards?" Nicastro said. "I'm not sure what that looks like. We are trying to identify some models throughout the country."

Peter Herschend of Branson, a longtime member of the state board, echoed her concerns.

"There are two difficulties," he said. "One is the obvious one of finance. Standards bring a built-in cost to the state of $1.5 million a year to monitor, to make sure they are being followed. The parallel problem is a lack of peer definition at this point as to what the formal criteria are that are acceptable.

"If you take a course in mathematics, we can give you a standardized test as to what progress is being made. The same in English or other courses, at any grade level. The difficulty is coming up with a system of accountability that makes sense for fine arts or music or dance."

Herschend said he and his fellow board members are supportive of the alliance's concerns but must be equally concerned with the practicalities involved.

"These are big, big issues,"he said. "It doesn't do any good to say everyone is responsible for fine arts if they can't say how that will be done.

"In terms of enforceable criteria," he said, "how do you make student rules in fine arts as finely defined as they are in chemistry? The board can't say we want a slide trombone player to be this proficient at this level at this grade. That's a professional educator's job."

The arts educators probably wouldn't dispute that. In the end, they just want to make sure that state standards support a well-rounded education and recognize that financial and academic pressures shouldn't shortchange any area.

Sybl Slaughter of Lebanon, another board member whose career was spent as an elementary school teacher, then a principal, added that she knows about the time and money crunches that schools find themselves in. But she says those pressures should not lead to a reduced commitment to arts education.

"School districts are cutting everything possible to make ends meet," she said. "But I would hope they would not cut these things. They are in our standards, and they are expected to be included in our schools and in our curriculum if we are going to have quality schools."

Adds Fisher, the head of the arts teachers alliance:

"When accreditation is based on the state tests, and No Child Left Behind is based on communication arts and mathematics, other subjects may lose instruction time. There are only so many hours in the day."

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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