Minnesota arts education: Strong standards, but we’re not there yet


Minnesota has a strong arts education infrastructure, based on clear standards and graduation requirements, but some schools lack the required theater, dance or media arts focuses. That’s the bottom line in Building a Legacy, a study released in October by the Perpich Center for Arts Education (PCAE). The study found that, while 99 percent of the respondents have access to arts programs for students, less than half of all middle and high schools and only 28 percent of elementary schools provide the required number of arts areas. 

According to state law (MSA 120B.021), public elementary and middle schools must offer at least three and require at least two  of the four designated arts areas: dance, music, theater and visual arts. The law requires high schools to offer at least three and require at least one of five arts areas — the four elementary areas, and also media arts, which includes things like filmmaking. According to the study, 92 percent of elementary, 77 percent of middle and 49 percent of high school students participate in at least one arts area in one year, with music and visual arts having the highest enrollments.

Arts beyond visual art and music

The main problem in meeting the state standards is in offering courses in all of the arts areas.  While most schools do offer some kind of music and visual art, many schools still don’t offer a third area, such as theater, dance, or media arts.

For example, Christy Cole, an art teacher in her fourth year of teaching at Deer River Public Schools, said her district doesn’t have a theater or dance teacher, although they do have band, choir, and visual arts. For the first time this year, they also offer a media arts class, which she co-teaches with an English teacher, and the students receive an art credit and an English credit. In her district, students in 6th-8th grade take one quarter of art each year, and must take two art classes in high school. For theater, the school generally does a play in the fall, she said, with someone from the community or a teacher at the school directing.

Finding licensed teachers who live in rural areas — particularly dance teachers — can be difficult, according to Diane Aldis, the Dance Education Coordinator at PCAE.


About the study

The study, which was conducted by Quadrant Arts Education Research, was funded by  a grant from the Minnesota State Legislature through the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund of the Clean Water, Land, and Legacy Amendment. 

According to Pam Paulson, Senior Policy Director at PCAE, the agency hired Quadrant Arts Education Research to collect data during the 2010-2011 school year. Quadrant has done similar surveys in other states, such as Arizona, Michigan, New Jersey and New Hampshire, and as many of the survey questions were the same in different states, a comparison will be available early next year. 

All of the surveys were conducted electronically, Paulson said, and they ended up with a 44 percent response rate, which is a “pretty much a state-wide look.” Initially, PCAE did reach out to private schools, but had no response, and they received a low response rate from charter schools as well. 

Unfortunately, at this time, there isn’t a comparative analysis between rural, suburban and rural schools. However, Paulson said, “We are always pleasantly surprised when we are out in the rural areas about the resources that are made available.” Every community, she said, has artists. Small towns often have small galleries, and libraries often prove important partners, as are the regional arts councils. 


According to the Quadrant study, nearly two-thirds of schools spend less than $10 per pupil per year for arts instructional materials. At the elementary level, the per-pupil arts spending is only two cents per day. Some schools offset the funding requirements for arts offerings by seeking outside grants, or working with arts organizations in the form of residencies or after school programs. The survey found that 23 percent of all schools reported using outside funding to offset budget decreases and nearly half of all schools charge fees for extracurricular arts activities.

After-school programs generally don’t count toward state standards, both because they do not take place during the school day and because there’s generally not academic oversight, according to Diane Aldis, the Dance Education Coordinator for PCAE.

Certain exceptions can be made. Students who attend Minnesota Dance Theater can satisfy their art requirement, although the question is resolved on a district by district basis, Aldis said.

In addition to arts residency programs, the Cowles Center also has offered a way for students all over the state to take a master class that helps them meet the standards in dance. 

The major museums based in the Twin Cities also play a key role in making art learning resources accessible, by putting their displays online. And 93 percent of schools offer field trips to museums, exhibitions, or theater events. Some 83 percent of schools have some form of assemblies with arts content. In elementary schools, 59 percent have artists in residence. According to the survey, 93 percent of all schools reported providing students field trips to museums, theaters, musical performances and exhibitions to engage in artistic experiences.

Teacher shortages

Besides lack of funding, one barrier to schools providing all of the art areas is a lack of licensed teachers in certain areas such as theater or dance. Diane Aldis, the Dance Education Coordinator at PCAE, said dance educators who are working in schools tend to be highly qualified, many of them spending more than five years in schools. Unfortunately, she says, there have been shortages of licensed dance and theater teachers in recent years. 

This year, there was a shortage in dance teachers for the second year in a row. “I’ve been getting calls from different districts,” she said. “They would add a position but nobody with a license had applied. There are only a couple people who are available.”  

Currently, a number of schools have teachers teaching with wavers. A waiver, she said, puts the teacher in a holding pattern. You can have the waiver for up to three years, with the expectation that you are working toward a license.

Schools can also work with arts organizations, which send teaching artists and artists in residence to schools. Teaching artists are generally not licensed, but they can work with a licensed teacher to help present material that meets the state standards. The licensed teacher must sign off for the material, determining whether it meets state standards.  

Teachers in non-arts disciplines such as physical education can sign off for students learning dance in gym class, for example, or for students meeting theater requirements through an English class.

Minnesota has only offered theater and dance licenses for teachers for the past 10 years. “It kind of acknowledged the level of what happens,” Aldis said.

Genevieve Bennett, the chair of the theater program at the St. Paul Conservatory for the Performing Arts, a charter school, is newly licensed, after working with a temporary license when she first started working at the conservatory. She said the process of becoming licensed was difficult.  “I have a BFA in theater and an MFA in Directing. I could teach at the university level, but because I didn’t have education courses, I couldn’t teach past the limited license that the department sets up.”

The alternative teaching license structure doesn’t work well for professional artists, Bennett said, and is not practical for working artists, who are often the best people to teach their craft. Because they spend the majority of their time as working artists, it’s cumbersome to go back to school for the necessary coursework for teacher licensure.

Now that she has her license, Bennett gets calls from schools that are desperate for theater teachers. Someone from St. Paul Public Schools called her and said they had three full time theater positions open, and no one qualified for the positions. “If you don’t have the people, those positions can ultimately be cut,” Bennett said. “It’s a sticky wicket.

Jon Ferguson also taught at St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Arts for four years, but when his temporary license expired, stopped teaching at the end of the 2011-2012 school year. “[Teacher licensure is] a really long process, and I chose not to do that,” he said.

As a working artist, it was difficult for him to leave his job, where he earned $27,000 for working half time. “It’s unfortunate,” he said. “I’m qualified in terms of experience and work that I do.  I don’t fill in all the boxes.”

Life@SPCPA – This video underscored by sections of “Tout Les Temps,” composed by: Renae Tuschner, SPCPA Class of 2013. Registered copyright 2011, used by permission.

Strong Infrastructure for the arts in Minnesota

While the study showed that Minnesota public schools could improve on the variety of courses that are offered, they are doing a number of things well. The study found that 87 percent of schools have aligned their curriculum with state arts standards.

“One of the things we discovered,” Paulson said, “is that Minnesota public schools have a really strong infrastructure on policy.” For example, most schools have some kind of arts graduation requirement, such as needing to earn one credit in the arts for graduation.

In addition, PCAE has begun working in cooperation with the Board of Teaching, seeking an endorsement of media arts as a teacher licensure option, a graduation requirement, and a university entrance requirement. 

For Minneapolis Public Schools, arts standards have been integrated into teachers evaluation processes, according to Angela Lackey, a visual arts instructor at Anishinabe Academy. “Minneapolis is really all about the arts standards,” she says, “especially when it comes to professional development and the teacher evaluation system.” Lackey, who has been teaching in the district for a number of years has been with Anishinabe for the last three, says that teachers have to cite the standards as part of their lesson plans and other required write-ups.

When she meets with her Professional Learning Community (PLC), which is a group of art teachers from other schools, the standards are always part of the conversation. Also, through a Facets grant, Lackey was able to attend training, hosted at PCAE, that focused specifically on American Indian arts, for her work with Native students at Anishinabe. The training culminated in a three-day workshop in January of 2010, with teachers from all over the state, talking about culturally appropriate ways to teach art. 

Jo Wells, a Minneapolis Public Schhools teacher who retired in June from Armatage, said that she had to put a poster with the standards in her classroom. She used an arrow to show which standard they would be working with on a particular day. Like Lackey, she also incorporated the standards into her lesson plans. The school also placed importance on public displays, like writing a grant for a mosaic that kids helped create with a guest artist. Wells said the standards were stressed a lot in her school — “they looked at us as professionals” — but time was always a factor.


In recent years, PCAE has been trying to improve arts assessments, which Paulson predicts will be even more important as teacher evaluations for non-tested subject areas include student achievement. According to the study, most assessments are teacher-developed, with fewer that 3 in 10 schools reporting district developed assessments in the arts. 

 “We have to be very careful about how to look at achievement,” Paulson said. “It requires you to have some measurement. The standards are the most important benchmark.” 

State law states that there cannot be a standardized test on arts or social studies, so assessment has to be done at a local level, which makes any comparison between different districts difficult. “What we ended up doing is having teachers develop their own assessments, often collaboratively,” Paulson said. “So that they are the ones that really carefully match the assessments with the classroom goals they are going to set.”  The nexus of developing a really good assessment, she said, are verbs used in the standards themselves. 

Verbs in the state standards indicate exactly what a student is supposed to learn, Paulson said. “If a verb says analyze, you’re talking about analysis,” Paulson said. “That could be a written or verbal, whereas if you say a student needs to perform, you’re talking about a skill.” 

Rubrics are also very helpful is developing assessments for students. Rubrics don’t have to be just for a high stakes assignment like a portfolio, but can also be used to give student feedback along the way.  Jo Wells said she often used informal rubrics and self-assessments to help students measure their progress.

For Alejandra Tobar-Alatriz, who teaches through the Children’s Theatre Neighborhood Bridges program, rubrics are a way for teaching artists to “sharpen their tools” in an ongoing basis, especially as teachers visit each others classrooms. At Bridges, teaching artists are “invited into the praxis,” Tobar-Alatriz said, and given a voice in curriculum development. They also form strong partnerships with classroom teachers, becoming “strong allies.” 

Right now, there isn’t any kind of statewide accountability system. No one is going to the schools or individual districts and making sure that the standards are aligned and progressive through the K-12 system. “Nobody’s checking on that,” Paulson said. However, in her work with teachers, Paulson believes that teachers do want to do the right thing. “It’s not like people are intentionally trying to shirk that responsibility.”  The reality is, Paulson said, resources don’t go toward assessment.

While the standards are definitely a part her work as a teacher, Angela Lackey said the students are never tested in any way. The best practices, instead, she says, would be things like making sure that art is being hung in the school, and with something written up about the project acknowledging the state standards. “A lot of art teachers that I know do that to show that it is an academic discipline,” Lackey said. “It’s helpful for teachers of other subjects to know that and see that.”

For Jon Ferguson, evaluating art is very difficult. “It’s opinion based,” he said. While you can have technical criteria — is the student loud enough, for example — there’s a lot that’s subjective.

When Ferguson was teaching, he never dealt much with the state art standards. In fact, he rarely wrote down his curriculum, preferring to allow room for exploration. “To try to stick to a guide would be tricky,” he said. “It would change how I do things.”

That’s not to say there wasn’t an evaluative process. Someone would come in and observe his classroom once a year.

Ferguson graded his students on attendance, focus and professionalism, on “being present in the room.” Very rarely would he grade based on a scene or monologue. “My overall approach was what they brought in term of commitment and professionalism, really,” he said.

“What’s really interesting, is that arts standards are still being overseen at the district level,” Aldis said. While there are state standards, each district comes up with ways to meet those standards.  There are now statewide tests.  “It’s both a blessing and a problem,” she said.

It’s a blessing, because it offers leeway for districts to indivdualize their methods.  It’s a hindrance, because the curriculum can be “spotty and uneven,” Aldis said.