Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The Case For The Arts In Overhauling Education


For a lot of kids in grade school, the one class they might actually call fun is art class, or music. Most parents would probably also agree that having their children exposed to art and music during the school day is a good thing. It might be the only break students get from studying for their next test. But there are lots of people who believe the value of arts education is far greater than just play time.

NPR's Elizabeth Blair has been delving into the intersection of the arts and education. She's beginning a series of reports that will air on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED this week. Elizabeth, thanks for being here.


MARTIN: So, we often hear that arts education is the first thing to get cut from school budgets when they are under pressure. Does that mean that these kind of programs are disappearing altogether from public schools?

BLAIR: That is what we hear. We always hear arts is the first thing to go. Arts is the first thing to go. But, in fact, the middle-class/upper-class school systems, they still have arts - a good 90 percent or more. But where the arts programs are really hurt are in low-income, poor neighborhoods in the country. In fact, President Obama himself has said, you know, when I was growing up every school had a music teacher and a visual arts teacher, not just the rich neighborhoods. So the question is what are we doing about it.

MARTIN: You mentioned President Obama. Is this an issue that the administration is acting on?

BLAIR: In a very small but strategic way, they are. The President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities launched a pilot program about a year and a half ago, where they took eight schools - they are the lowest performing schools in their states - and said, we're going to introduce a rigorous, aggressive arts curriculum and get kids to want to come to school again. It's called the Turnaround Arts Initiative.

MARTIN: How did it work out?

BLAIR: We're in the middle of it right now. There are eight schools: Des Moines, Denver, Portland, Oregon, a reservation in Montana and a few others. I visited a school in Anacostia, which is just east of the river in Washington, D.C. And we have some audio of Anthony Jones who was teaching some third, fourth and fifth graders a keyboard class.

ANTHONY JONES: One, two, ready and...


JONES: Stop. And we have C. And what's the next note after C?


JONES: Then after D?


JONES: Next.


JONES: Next.


JONES: Uh-uh.


JONES: There's no H in...


MARTIN: It's not the Alphabet learning music - not the Alphabet. This is a pilot program, Elizabeth. How are they going to measure whether or not it's successful over the long term?

BLAIR: They feel strongly right now. They want to be judged on the fact that attendance is up. Behavior is better, families are getting involved. But, you know, at the end of the day - at the end of the two-year program - it's test scores.

MARTIN: We hear a lot, as you're talking about - about the pressure on teachers and students to perform in testing scenarios. One of the stories in your series looks at the practice of testing creativity. I didn't even know there was such a thing. There's a creativity test?

BLAIR: Most people don't. Because we know there's an IQ test; we test intelligence but we don't test creativity. And there is one out there. it's called the Torrance Test. And it was created by a child psychologist, you know, in the late '50s, early '60s. It's perhaps maybe not the best test, some other psychologists say.

James Catterall, who is the director of the Centers for Research on Creativity in Los Angeles, has come up with what he calls The Next Generation Creativity Survey. And would like to try a couple of the questions that are on that test?

MARTIN: OK, let's try them.

BLAIR: All right, well, here's James Catterall.

JAMES CATTERALL: How would life be different if all animals on the planet could speak English and Spanish?

MARTIN: How would life be different if all animals on the planet could speak English and Spanish? Wow. Well, first of all animals are talking - so that's crazy.

BLAIR: That's right.

MARTIN: So I imagine a lot of things are going to change.


BLAIR: Right. Well, I've had a lot of time to think about it. And, you know, if the squirrels could talk, there would be less crime, right? You couldn't come home too late - your parents would find out. So the squirrels would squeal, I guess. And you want to hear another one?

MARTIN: Sure, let's try it.


CATTERALL: What if all the streets and roads on the planet were actually rivers and streams?

MARTIN: Wow. OK, so no roads. Only waterways like Venice or something.

BLAIR: But you get the idea. I mean, it really is forcing you to think way outside the box.

MARTIN: So, with all this attention being given to the importance of creativity - they're even testing it - what did you learn? What is the big picture when it comes to arts education?

BLAIR: I think what I learned is that while there's a lot of exciting exploration in creativity - and while we hear a lot of people talking about innovation, we need more creative thinkers - there's this disconnect between with what's actually happening in the schools, where it is teach to the test. You know, multiple choice; right or wrong, which doesn't leave a lot of room for creativity.

MARTIN: NPR's Elizabeth Blair, her series on art education is airing this week on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Elizabeth, thanks so much.

BLAIR: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

KUER is listener-supported public radio. Support this work by making a donation today.