January 11, 2016

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Educating Innovators

Using Arts Education to Complement Core and STEM Curriculum

By Lisa Christensen

January 11, 2016

The 21st century has been a tough one for arts education. Between a heavier focus on core classes and tighter budgets, most schools lack the time or money to include regular lessons in art, dance, music and other mediums.

But arts education is starting to find a new niche through an unexpected source: STEM.

Schools nationwide, including in Utah, are starting to reintroduce arts education into the classroom, but in such a way as to tie into the core lessons already being taught. In incorporating arts education with core classes—and especially science, technology, engineering and math classes—teachers hope to give students a foundation not only to survive in the tech-heavy jobs of the present and future, but to thrive with creativity and innovation in those fields.

“Generally speaking, when you are looking for people in technology and encouraging technology, encouraging engineering, you’re looking for people that have those skills but can also create; you’re looking for innovators,” says Tami Pyfer, education advisor to Gov. Gary Herbert. “STEM is synonymous with innovation, so you want to make sure students have those experiences that help them to be creative, help them to be able to innovate, and arts education is it.”

Creating STEAM

The new push for including arts in schools is a reversal of years of heavier focus on core classes in an effort to raise standardized test scores, resulting in untested subjects dwindling in their shadow. Among the biggest culprits is the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which was geared toward increasing school accountability and improving education for underprivileged students by penalizing schools that did not meet “adequate yearly progress” each year, as measured by standardized test scores.

Pyfer, who was working in the Logan City School District at the time of NCLB’s rollout, says the act had the side effect of making teachers so focused on teaching the material that would be tested that other subjects fell by the wayside.

“What we’ve seen, especially since No Child Left Behind, is that the increased emphasis on testing, and particularly high-stakes testing, has unfortunately taken time and resources in the classroom away from arts and put it toward subjects that are tested,” she says. “If you’re going to be labeled a ‘failing school’ if your reading and math scores aren’t to a certain level, then you can see how that might lead schools then to say, ‘Well, we’re going to stretch out our reading classes and throw in additional math classes, so maybe we’ll do music every other week.’ It really had this unfortunate effect on arts education in many places across the country.”

Herbert frequently includes the arts in his support for STEM, bringing the acronym to STEAM to include the idea that arts are as integral to education as math or science.

“STEM education is very important in Utah. We're becoming the ‘Silicon Slopes’ and we are increasing students' skills in science, technology, engineering and math. This is the key to preparing our youth for careers in these tech fields. But we cannot forget about the importance of the arts in education, which is why in Utah we talk about STEAM, not just STEM,” he says. “We need students who have technical skills but who are also creative and innovative. Providing experiences through art or music classes and other creative endeavors can better prepare our students today for the workforce needs of tomorrow.” 

Integrating Disciplines

Despite support at the statewide level, Herbert—and Pyfer—are limited in their impact on what happens in schools; that task falls under the purview of the State Board of Education.

In the last Legislative session, however, Herbert did recommend giving $4 million in one-time funds to the Beverley Taylor Sorenson Arts Learning Program (BTSALP)—a proposal that was countered by the Legislature for $3 million in one-time funds and $2 million in ongoing funds. The BTSALP, which falls under the State Board of Education, gives funding to schools to bring in specialists in one of the fine arts. The specialists focus on instructional strategies and collaborate with teachers to incorporate core subjects with dance, music, theater or visual arts to create meaning and deeper learning through the combination of both subjects, says Cathy Jensen, BTSALP curriculum specialist, resulting in a more well-rounded student.

“Schools that catch the vision recognize that it is definitely not time lost—in fact, our studies have shown these schools that engage in this integrated learning, their students perform higher,” she says. “We also try to emphasize it’s not a block of time, but it’s another way to teach; it’s an instructional strategy, not a designated time.”

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