BEHIND THE STORY | How do you quantify arts education?


Recently on TC Daily Planet, I wrote about the disheartening phenomenon of music being dropped from the school-day curriculum at EXPO elementary. Unfortunately, it’s not surprising that this is happening and it’s not entirely new. Arts education historically has been underfunded and valued, particularly in the 13 years since No Child Left Behind, where testing of reading and math have drawn focus away from other subjects.

Perhaps as a way to combat the trend, arts educators have come up with their own assessment models and ways of measuring the value of arts education through various means. The Perpich Center for Arts Education (PCAE) has been leading this charge, particularly in the realm of arts integration, where academic achievement is bolstered by art-making. For example, visual arts might be used as a way to understand geometry, or dance might be used as a way to understand molecular biology.

Metrics are one way to show the value of art in the classroom. You can look at various studies that show direct correlations between, say, music education and academic achievement. Even more directly, when you break art education down into rubrics, the value becomes evident. In a theater class, a young person learns skills that aid them in public speaking, confidence and collaboration. An art class teaches self-expression and communication, not to mention coordination skills. Whatever the arts activity, you can pick out skills that a student gathers along the way, whether its critical thinking, emotional intelligence, abstract thought or physical fitness.

I do believe these measurable skills can all be attributed to arts education, but for me, there’s something missing when you break it down so much. There’s something inherently unquantifiable about art. There’s magic to it, something that you feel physically when you experience it, that you sense in your stomach and at the back of your neck.

About a year ago, this viral video summed up for me what it’s like to experience art. It’s a little baby listening to her mother sing “My Heart Can’t Tell You No.” Throughout the course of the two-minute video, you see the little one go through every emotion imaginable: delight, serenity, love, sadness, despair and redemption. It’s remarkable because of course, a really moving performance of a great song, like a dance or a poem- does bring you along for an emotional ride- and while adults maybe better at keeping those emotions less visible, we do experience them.

I struggle with the question of quantifying art in my writing as well. How do you break down the experience of watching a dance performance, or a piece of sculpture? It’s an impossible task really, and writing about art draws on the skills of a writer which are equally abstract at times as writers try to portray the experience through the altogether unscientific means of words on a page.

Art’s intangible qualities don’t diminish its value, however. Its value indeed lies in its mystery. How you explain that to the gatekeepers of funding in the world and those that dictate what we teach young people in school is another question. Perhaps we just ask the naysayers to simply experience great art themselves every once in a while. Once they have that experience for themselves, perhaps they’ll come to the right side of thinking.