ART in the Classroom

Exploring the Importance of Art Education

By Cady Schulman

At a time when some educators are obsessed with rankings on standardized tests and many school systems face spending cuts, arts education can be seen as a luxury. But studies have shown that instruction in visual arts, music, theater and other disciplines can promote cognitive abilities, critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

According to the advocacy group Americans for the Arts, arts education stimulates critical thinking, refines cognitive and creative skills and strengthens problem-solving. Participation in arts programs has also been linked with gains in math, reading and other areas, according to the research compendium Critical Links: Learning in the Arts and Student Achievement and Social Development. 

“Research in education is showing us that the creative thought process … [and] the high order of thinking skills we need to be instilling in kids are a fundamental component of their intelligence,” says Kevin Glass, headmaster of Atlanta International School (AIS).

An early grounding in the arts helps students draw connections between different subjects, says John Kennedy, headmaster at Lakeview Academy. In drawing classes, for example, students “go from stick figures to proportions, which is a mathematical term,” he says. “And music helps with composition, which is used in writing.”

“All schools need to have a core art program,” says Jessica Henley, head of school at Creative Career Academy. “It just builds that bridge.”

A Wealth of Options

Fortunately, metro Atlanta is rich with options. Its public school systems, including those in DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett Counties, each boast an arts department that stresses the importance of arts education in a well-rounded curriculum. Similarly, most of Atlanta’s independent schools offer classes in music, visual and/or performing arts.

But while just about any school in the Atlanta area offers some form of basic arts instruction, some have chosen to single out arts education as a key part of their academic focus. Mill Springs Academy, an independent school in Alpharetta, employs a full-time arts faculty including two art teachers, a band director, a music teacher, a theater teacher and a technical

director. Lakeview Academy has added new programs and staff in recent years to ensure that every middle school student is able to take at least three years of art, drama and music.

Mount Paran Christian School offers the Dozier School of the Performing Arts, a school-within-a-school providing courses in dance, drama and vocal and instrumental music, as well as the after-school Murray Arts Academy. And at Creative Career Academy, students choose a major and pursue a curriculum based on such fields as computer science, video game design and digital filmmaking.

Atlanta’s charter and magnet schools each offer a different degree of emphasis on the arts, as well. The Atlanta Preparatory Academy, a K-8 charter school, includes a magnet-like arts and technology focus, while the DeKalb School of the Arts, a magnet school serving grades eight through 12, combines a rigorous academic curriculum with studies in dance, drama, creative writing and other disciplines.

But independent, charter and magnet schools aren’t alone in offering a more concentrated focus on the arts. In addition to its Fine & Performing Arts Department, Atlanta Public Schools has developed ArtsAPS, a three-year program to improve arts curriculum and implement arts testing in grades five, eight and 10. Funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, the program underwent a pilot run at Grady High School in 2011 and aims to become a national model for arts education.

Helping Students Learn

In addition to their academic benefits, arts programs can also provide students with the motivation to stay in school.

“A child may not be a great reader, but for 45 minutes or an hour a day, he looks forward to walking into a room and playing with clay and making something beautiful,” says Kennedy of Lakeview Academy. “There are a lot of children who find humiliation, who find frustration [in school]. If you can find something that gives them some kind of feeling of success, you’re going to keep them in school.”

Most importantly, says Glass from AIS, introducing children to the arts can help them figure out what their passions are and give them confidence and a sense of self that will serve them well in the world beyond school.

“If you can discover that thing that makes your heart sing, you know you’ll have a happy and healthy life,” he says. “[They will] leave school with absolute understanding that they can and will do new and cool [things] with their lives.”

How Arts Education Promotes Learning

  • READING Drama instruction has been shown to help develop literacy skills.
  • MATH According to multiple studies, students who take music classes in high school are more likely to score higher on standardized math tests. One reason is that training in rhythm emphasizes such mathematical concepts as proportion, patterns and ratios.
  • SOCIAL SKILLS Learning to dance or play an instrument and performing in front of peers can instill confidence, persistence and self-esteem, allowing students to overcome fears and see that they can succeed.
  • MOTIVATION At-risk students “cite their participation in the arts as reasons for staying in school,” pointing to such factors as “a supportive environment that promotes constructive … criticism and one where it is safe to take risks.”

Source: Critical Evidence: How the Arts Benefit Student Achievement (National Assembly of State Arts Agencies and the Arts Education Partnership)

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