Saturday, April 28, 2007

NCLB, Arts Education, and 21st Century Skills

The dreadful federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act has turned its devouring eyes to the arts. If you artist-teachers, in your art classrooms or pushing your art-carts, felt safe from NCLB before, well, that time is just about over. Reports are that in early 2007 the State Assessment and Curriculum Officers convened a “mega-conference” on assessment and student standards in K-12 art education. While the arts are considered a “core” subject area under NCLB, to date, they have not been subjected to the kind of “performance-based” assessments that other subject areas have. While this is surely a good thing, some art educators fear that without this federally mandated attention, funds for the arts will continue to dwindle. Right now, the push is for arts instructors to use their subject to enhance learning across-the-board, or augment other subjects through “integration.” There’s nothing wrong with art everywhere, of course, but as Eliot Eisner pointed out, neither should the arts be seen as “handmaidens” to the “real” learning in schools.

A meeting at this mega-conference focused on what is being described as a new core subject area—21st Century Skills. The Gates Foundation is supporting this through an organization (of which Microsoft is a member) called Partnership for 21st Century Skills. The goal? To create the new workers he and other corporate leaders want. "This unique partnership of education, government, and business leaders seeks to help schools adapt their curricula and classroom environments to align more closely with the skills that students need to succeed in the 21st-century economy, such as communication and problem-solving skills," Gates said. But what does "succeeding" in this new economy mean today? For Gates, it doesn't include participating in a union job, or job security; for example, his foundation supports the development of largely non-unionized charter schools staffed by teachers with year-to-year contracts. Maybe rather than succeeding in this economy, we all need a new one.

There's nothing wrong with communication and problem-solving, but why stop there. I can think of a few skills we are certainly in need of as we move deeper into the 21st century, and aligning what happens in art and other classrooms with the goals of business leaders isn’t going to help us develop them. How about: peace-keeping; cooperation; generosity; ecological caring; justice-seeking; compassion; dreaming. And I can think of many artists/collectives (inspiring arts projects) that could support these skills. I’ll just name three here: Riva Lehrer; Marianne Midelburg; and Red 76. Check out their wonderful work, then teach it to counter the flattening effects of standardized testing and corporate-model "21st Century Skills."

As Louis Sullivan said, "Remember the seed-germ."
Avoid the rest.

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