In Defense of the Arts in Education

A lot of what I read about education saddens/frustrates/infuriates me. I felt all of that when I read a piece in Valerie Strauss’s column in the Washington Post, titled “Kindergarten show canceled so kids can keep studying to become ‘college and career ready.’ Really.”

I’m certain she added that last word to the headline because such a thing is almost impossible to believe. Almost. To anyone who’s been paying attention to the current educational climate, this is sickening but not necessarily shocking.

Here’s the letter, sent by the school’s interim principal and four kindergarten teachers to parents upset by the cancellation:

We hope this letter serves to help you better understand how the demands of the 21st century are changing schools, and, more specifically, to clarify misperceptions about the Kindergarten show. It is most important to keep in mind is [sic] that this issue is not unique to Elwood. Although the movement toward more rigorous learning standards has been in the national news for more than a decade, the changing face of education is beginning to feel unsettling for some people. What and how we teach is changing to meet the demands of a changing world.

The reason for eliminating the Kindergarten show is simple. We are responsible for preparing children for college and career with valuable lifelong skills and know that we can best do that by having them become strong readers, writers, coworkers and problem solvers. Please do not fault us for making professional decisions that we know will never be able to please everyone. But know that we are making these decisions with the interests of all children in mind.

What a load of baloney! If they really believe they’re making these decisions in the best interests of children, they don’t know children – or early childhood education – at all.

The clear implication here is that the arts have little significance in preparing children to become “college and career ready.” And these kindergarten children are getting the message that there are only certain skills worth having.

Let’s look more closely at the letter. Clearly, these so-called educators believe that such valuable lifelong skills as reading, writing, and the ability to work collaboratively and to solve problems can only be gained through “academic” subjects and test-taking.

But I would ask: What is the better way to ensure a love of the written and spoken word – being forced to read assigned stories, to memorize spelling words and definitions on which they’ll be tested or bringing words to life through a play, or perhaps by writing poetry and songs?

What is the better way for children to prepare to become coworkers? Sitting at individual desks prepping for tests and then filling in bubbles? Or could it be by having them collaborate on a project that brings them joy and a sense of fulfillment?

The same could be said for learning to solve problems. I hardly think that being force-fed information that’s later regurgitated on tests and worksheets is the best way to acquire this skill. Instead, why not give students the opportunity to solve actual problems – such as those that might arise in the creation and production of a play?

And let’s return to that last line about having the interests of all children in mind. Are there not children with the potential and passion to go on to become brilliant chefs, landscape designers, master craftsmen, and architects or to become writers, painters, choreographers, composers, and actors? What will happen to their potential and passion when given no soil in which to grow? When the focus of their education has been “drill and kill?” What will happen to our world when there is no art to entertain and awe us?

Is creativity (the ability to solve problems and to see beyond what already exists – and an essential element of the arts) not going to be required of our future scientists, entrepreneurs, doctors, inventors, and technologists? How is creativity to be fostered in children if all they’ve been taught is to follow directions – and that there is only one right answer to every question?

Further, how will today’s kids learn to look for and appreciate aesthetic beauty when it becomes clear to them in their earliest years that it’s not valued? A life without beauty is nothing to aspire to.

Finally, there’s the contention that the “demands of the 21st century” are responsible for this action. If ever there was a century demanding imagination and self-expression – both of which are nurtured by the arts – it’s this one.

In a 2009 piece in Edutopia, Fran Smith writes,

Years of research show that [arts education] is closely linked to almost everything that we as a nation say we want for our children and demand from our schools: academic achievement, social and emotional development, civic engagement, and equitable opportunity.

Yet again, decision makers are ignoring the research.

Last week I came across this article, contending that the mental health crisis in teens is being magnified by the demise of creative subjects in schools. It’s no wonder. Play and creativity, which are closely linked to each other and to the arts, have been erased from kids’ lives. Without play and creativity, there is no self-expression. And without self-expression, mental health deteriorates.

In a BAM Radio Network interview, Jennifer Stuart, a school art coordinator, asked, “What do we value, and what kind of people do we want to have in the world?”

It’s a great question – and one I think policymakers and education reformers should spend more than a little time pondering.


  • Dear Rae ~ Considering the topic of your recent Post on Early Childhood Education and the lack of development in gross and fine motor skills sadly, this new Post is not a surprize, just very depressing.

    If I may be pedantic, the interim principal of the school referred to made six basic errors of grammar, spelling (US English), and punctuation in the short excerpt you gave us. The declared aims for the young children should not be lead by him or her, as the interim principal does not meet the standards soon to be required of the young students.

    The elitist tone of the Letter and the intimation that parents wouldn’t be au fait enough to grasp the higher plain learning being introduced are extremely insulting. Using this stance allows the interim principal not to bother giving any real, evidence-based, research to support the new system. He or she is incorrect in declaring that ~
    “We are responsible for preparing children for college and career (sic) with valuable lifelong skills and (sic) know that we can best do that by having them become strong readers, writers, coworkers and problem solvers”.

    Kindergartens, Montessori, and other early years education centres are NOT “responsible for preparing children for college …”. They are responsible for the development of fine and gross motor skills through play, games, and artwork, amongst other activities. They open children’s mind to the wonders of our world and the universe. Teachers should be developing the self-reliance of children by letting them teach themselves, through trial and error, many of the skills they require for life. Building their self-confidence and social skills are crucial to the development of well-rounded children and adults, who are better able to interact positively with whomever they meet from their earliest days in education and later on in life.

    Children learn through play how to take turns and to become co-operative in their games and work. The “more rigorous learning standards” touched upon in the Letter are handily vague. The implied suggestion is that the many lifelong skills children would develop and enhance whilst working together to put on a show are not relevant to the new era.

    More rigorous teaching and planning standards, bearing in mind the needs of each child, are what are required, not “more rigorous learning standards”. Indeed, “more rigorous learning standards” makes no sense in terms of early years education. It is widely acknowledged by experts in the subject that assessing children’s skills at kindergarten level is a guestimate more than a science. Children are at the most febrile period of their development in every aspect, and to pretend that ‘learning standards’ can be measured and quantified on a standard scale is misleading.

    Perhaps the boards of management of these new-style / old-style schools have been reading too much Charles Dickens. The personal educational experience of Mr Dickens’s make sad reading and it sounds to me that echoes of “David Copperfield” and “Oliver Twist” permeate the new ethos. Perhaps, all schools holidays shall be banned in the next phase of this fundamental reshaping of children’s lives!

    The learning style as touched upon in the extract of the interim principal’s Letter, is reductive, backward looking, and indicates a reliance on rote learning and an underlying doctrine that an academic career in adulthood is the ONLY acceptable future for ALL children. Why would “21st century” schools aim to become exclusive to academically inclined youngsters, probably with a predominant Visual Learning Style, and thus excluding most children who have other Learning Styles that do not suit a crammer-school type syllabus.

    “But know that we are making these decisions with the interests of all children in mind” is an erroneous, dangerous, ideological statement. When did schools become all-knowing, sole decision-makers on the development of the children of a nation? The level of arrogance is breath-taking.

    Chin up, and kindest regards, Iseult.

    • Rae says:

      As always, Iseult, I love your passion and your ability to express it. You are so right when you accuse them of arrogance. I’m afraid that’s a fault in many adults who believe they know what’s best for “all” children.”

      You’re also right in pointing out that it is not the responsibility of early childhood professionals to prepare children for college and career! It is our job to help them be the best they can be. I don’t know when we stopped seeing childhood as a special, unique phase of life and started seeing it as a dress rehearsal for adulthood. 🙁

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