Are the Arts Academic?

November 17, 2014

What do you think?
Last week while I was in New Orleans at the Professional Development Institute held each fall for the “Arts Ed Managers” (people in positions like mine at the Arts Commissions, or Arts Councils, as they are called in many states), we visited an Arts high school that had the morning devoted to “academics” and the afternoon devoted to the “Arts”. The school is 40 years old but in more recent years it added the “academics” so students could spend the entire day there to receive all of their instruction. I asked one of the administrators why they considered the Arts as non-academic and thought about the handful of conversations I’ve had with York High School music educator Rob Westerberg on the topic. When I returned I asked Rob if he would write a blog post on the topic and below is the post. It would be great to hear what you have to say on the topic. As you read through it please think about where you stand on the topic and I invite you to post a comment at the end of the post. Consider having this discussion with your own school district arts staff. Thank you Rob!

IMG_0727In 2010, a student applying to Stanford University posed this question on an online forum called “College Confidential”, asking if their music teacher’s recommendation letter would count as an academic teacher recommendation. This was the primary response: “A music theory teacher, or music history teacher, I could make arguments for. A band director does not teach an academic subject, any more than a football coach or a driver’s ed instructor does.” In contrast, that same year, Indiana published their Academic Standards for Music which states, “The ultimate goal of a fine arts curriculum is to enable students to be proficient creators, performers, critics, listeners, and observers of the arts. Students who attain academic standards in the fine arts will be able to use the arts to think and learn independently, know themselves and the world around them, and communicate in the art forms studied.

So which are the Arts: co-curricular or academic? Let’s take a closer look at the two diametrically opposed perspectives.

As for the insinuation that the Arts are co-curricular, the Glossary of Educational Reform (created by the Great Schools Partnership) defines co-curricular in part as, “typically, but not always, defined by their separation from academic courses. For example, they are ungraded, they do not allow students to earn academic credit” I don’t think too many would argue with this definition, simple though it may be. But Great schools partnership continues with, “A few examples of common educational opportunities that may be considered co-curricular include student newspapers, musical performances, art shows, mock trials, debate competitions, and mathematics, robotics, and engineering teams and contests.” We can decry that the music and art references are entirely misplaced, but we’d be in the vast minority. And we could argue that the Arts are more academically rigorous than the other examples, but we’d be very wrong (more rigorous than robotics – really??).

Yet having said all that, there’s one argument the Arts have that sticks: many of our performingIMG_6137 arts presentations and art shows are tied to academic coursework. So let’s look at that end of the spectrum. The Indiana document, which clearly states the Arts as academic, embeds one extraordinarily important caveat: students are to “attain academic standards”. Let’s roll with that. Great Schools Partnership definition of standards: “concise, written descriptions of what students are expected to know and be able to do at a specific stage of their education—that are used to guide public-school instruction, assessment, and curricula.” Got that? Academic courses are entrenched in curriculum, instruction and assessment. Again, I find it hard to believe anyone would argue this definition.

Now back to the original question: are the Arts co-curricular or academic? To witness arts education across Maine, the answer seems to be a big, resounding, “depends.” It depends on whether or not you base it on what we say, or you base it on what we do. Based on what we say, we’re indeed academic. Based on what we do, it’s usually anything but. I’ll tell you why. We are resistant to changing the way we do things to actually reflect the definition of being an academic subject; we run our Visual Art and Performing Art classes the way we were exposed to when we were in High School. We run them the way we were taught in College. We run them the way we’ve been allowed to by administrators who are happy to have us do what we want because they largely do not see us as academic anyway. At the elementary level, we are viewed as keeping the kids occupied so classroom teachers can have a prep. At the Middle and High School levels, as long as the exhibits and concerts look and sound great, we’ve always received pats on the back and told to keep up the good work.

IMG_3615As Maine implements its proficiency law, it’s about time we in the Visual and Performing Arts took a cold, hard look in the mirror. We are in the extraordinary position of linking arms with the other academic subject areas and joining them in this work if we choose to, holding every individual student academically accountable. I have heard for years from colleagues – verbatim – that “you can’t (or shouldn’t) assess the arts”, and “some kids are just more talented than others”, and “we teach kids, not stuff”, and “when will there be time to rehearse?”, and “I just want my kids to be happy in my classroom.” You know what? We can go there… we can absolutely determine as a state that these are our mantras, and that we are here to enrich our students lives in awesome, meaningful and lasting ways. Game on. Just don’t whine when we finally get removed from the school day, and get completely marginalized as co-curricular in nature. The alternative of course is to move forward as fully fledged, card carrying members of the academic core. But doing so means having to get off our soap boxes, out of our comfort zones, and articulating exactly what we are. Academically. No more, no less. By definition, that means developing standards and proficiency for every student. Every individual student. No more excuses. Does this mean reinventing what we do, how we do it and what that all looks like in practice? You bet it does. But before we complain about it, we need to ask ourselves if the alternative is acceptable. It’s time to get off the fence for once and for all and determine what we are. If we’re truly academic, it’s time to act it.


  1. Kudos, Rob! Fine Arts, when instruction is guided by appropriate standards, ARE academics. Besides performance and demonstration, students should be taught evaluation tools. They should be led to be critical thinkers for evaluating those performances and demonstrations with viable standards. They should be able to talk about ‘why’ one music genre is more appealing to them than another. Thank you for the work you’re doing in Maine!

  2. I completely agree, Rob, and have, myself, jumped on the proficiency bandwagon. Having said that, there are more barriers to achieving “academic status” than just Arts teacher attitude. We see hundreds of students a week. We see them for 45 minutes a week. Our schedule is packed and we teach in several different schools. Our schedules contain the time slots “left over” after the school schedule is organized for the benefit of proficiency based education in ELA and Math. We are not included in the RTI/Title I/Special Education process.
    It is possible to teach the Arts as an academic subject, and still provide a program that students enjoy, (I know many teachers worry that if we teach with a proficiency based approach the students will no longer enjoy our classes.) but to do so we need to be provided with the same tools as the other academic subjects.
    One other thought occurred to me as I read your post. Is any subject only academic? In ELA students learn to write with proper grammar, spelling and syntax, but if they are taught to write in a way that moves people emotionally, isn’t that Art? In science they are taught the experimental procedure, but if they use creative thinking to make new scientific discoveries, isn’t that Art?
    I am not so naive that I believe all the decision makers will suddenly become enlightened and I will see 100 students five times a week starting next year, but I also believe we as Arts teachers need to constantly let those decision makers know that it is not whining to say that it is impossible to “be academic” when our subjects are treated as co-curricular.

  3. Great blog Rob! I totally agree with you. I have always seen “the arts” as academic! My visual art curriculum is designed to inspire students art experiences, however, it also enhances the other areas of the curriculum from math, science, social studies and ELA. I use the standards, both national and MLR’s to guide my instruction. These are tools that lead to the creation of great lessons. As teachers we need to have high expectations for our students. We need to hold them accountable for the arts learning they are doing. Therefore, assessing their process and the skills they are learning help us guide them through their arts experience. It is this guidance that futures their growth and development. How does there arts experience relate to their world! Does it help communicate ideas to others? Does it give them enjoyment? Does it create frustration sometimes? Does it challenge them, make them think differently, encourage them to take risks, inspire others, give them a voice, does it? YES, the arts do that and so much more! Perhaps that’s why the arts are something we have in common with all cultures, since the beginning of time. In my opinion, the arts are the voice of the human experience! That should be an experience all students receive!
    Jane Snider

  4. Rob, as my middle schoolers would say, “Snap!”. 🙂 Patty is also correct about being given the same tools, as well as the need to adapt the lens through which we view the potential of ELA and science as an art. Conversely, there are universal truths in academia and in the work world that the arts contribute to and are measurable.
    Here is an excerpt from a college reference I recently wrote for a student who has been an outstanding stage manager, ” As a stage manager he needs to be highly organized, detail oriented, anticipate problems and solve them, lead others, take initiative, and work independently. Theatre is a collaborative activity. Like an Impressionist pointillism where if one dot is missing the painting’s impact is diminished, every actor’s, technician’s, musician’s, set builder’s and set dresser’s, costume, hair, make-up personnel’s role is a integral piece of a final production. The Stage Manager’s role is to tie all those pieces together.” Are these not academic virtues?

  5. Thanks for the feedback folks! 🙂 A few quick things that come to mind… with regard to academic, stick to the definition: embedded in curriculum, instruction AND assessment. Every co-curricular activity has academic virtues, so we HAVE to differentiate from that! The concern over not having enough time to do all this with hundreds of students and limited face time is palpable and authentic. My stance is simply that wanting more time with our kids has not yielded any results whatsoever over the past few decades. I have a conviction that the only way to make headway on this is to concretely and ACADEMICALLY articulate why that additional time is essential. Finally, I wrote a blog post last June, articulating that we can have both the academic rigor and the student joy in our classrooms. If you can stand to read any more of my thoughts, take a peek at this and see if you agree: http://goobermusicteachers.com/2014/06/14/have-it-both-ways/

  6. Simply stated, less is not necessarily more, it is often just less. The “rigor” of ARTS disciplines is as profound as any other discipline. At UC San Diego School of Visual Arts, their Ph.D. program has eleven areas of specialization with an elective concentration in Art Practice. I have heard recently that the Ph.D. is the new M.F.A., but either way there is a long and “academic” path to obtaining these sorts of post-secondary degrees. How can we refuse the opportunity to, at the least, expose K-12 learners to thinking processes and study in the varied and specific ARTS disciplines that enrich their lives and feed their souls. Without the presence of “soul”, Michelangelo would have fallen into obscurity.

  7. I think that too many view arts as non-academic, first because we as arts educators have historically failed to articulate to colleagues and administrators the academic targets which we are encouraging and supporting our students to meet; and second, because too many of us have not developed and implemented standards-based assessments for measuring student progress. True, we “know” an “A” performance when we hear it, but until we can objectively quantify the elements of that performance that make it worth an “A”, and communicate them to parents, students, colleagues and administrators, we are operating on the same level as the a winning basketball team. Sure, positive outcome, but why? It’s through the establishment and measurement of musical/artistic standards that true “academic” status will be achieved.

  8. You make great points John. Thank you so much for your comments.

  9. Thanks for your remarks Charlie. Isn’t it wonderful how these kinds of conversations are taking place? It wasn’t long ago when these topics weren’t even on our radar. And, all for the quality of teaching!

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