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Curriculum & Instruction        < Previous        Next >


The Arts Vs. Technical Crafts


Q. Is it wise public policy to spend a lot of money at the K-12 level on the fine arts, performing arts and music? Aren't they just frills to puff up parents' egos? Do they really translate into productive outcomes for our society? Or should we scrap the arts and teach practical job skills?


We're reaping what we sowed when we allowed educational policymakers to switch from traditional schooling to standards-based education. When the "outcomes," or "standards," were first proposed in the 1980s, critics predicted that the focus and resources of K-12 education would shift from education to training. They predicted the abandonment of a broad-based, liberal-arts orientation in favor of a highly-regulated, over-tested, heavily-documented government school system focused on workforce development - which appears pretty close to the mark, in some quarters.


Job forecasters are calling for more, not less, career and technical education in public schools at the same time that budget squeezes are threatening fine arts programs. Most people can agree that there are more jobs available in voc/tech areas than fine-arts areas. But if the idea of K-12 education is to prepare the whole person for a civilized life, not just a career, it's difficult to justify replacing the creative arts with shop, drafting and auto mechanics on a universal basis.


Some schools have waiting lists of students who want to get into voc/tech classes, but there's a shortage of qualified teachers. In rural areas, it's tough to get either kind of teacher, fine arts or voc/tech. Another key point is that voc/tech classes are usually far more expensive than a traditional, liberal-arts class, even a fine-arts class, because of the expensive equipment being used. Voc/tech classes also take up far more space in the school building than the average class.


But if state policymakers decide they're more needed than fine arts, and make voc/tech classes mandatory rather than elective in order to turn out more graduates with job skills, the pool of students who might choose a fine arts class will likely shrink, threatening the jobs of fine-arts teachers. School administrators say something's got to give because we can't have both without big cost increases. Once again, the bottom line is: where's the money going to come from?


The narrowing of the curriculum was noted by the Center on Education Policy in a report, Social studies and science courses have been reduced because of No Child Left Behind, but so have the arts, according to the report. One-fifth of the nation's public schools have reduced time for art and music "somewhat, or to a great extent" to focus more on math and reading. This narrowing is especially true in schools that serve high numbers of low-income children.


According to the Massachusetts Cultural Council, some students graduate from public high school without ever taking a course in music, visual arts, dance or theater. Meanwhile, arts study has been linked to better reading, speaking, math, thinking and social skills, as well as motivation and a positive school environment. Learn more on


Homework: To learn more about voc/tech, see the Association of Career and Technical Education:


By Susan Darst Williams Curriculum 06 2008


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