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Posted at 12:30 PM ET, 10/13/2009

Art Expert: The Problem With School Art Programs Are Teachers Who "Can Barely Draw"

By Valerie Strauss

David C. Levy, art historian, musician, educator and former director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art and Design in Washington D.C., is my guest today.

By David C. Levy
Hand wringing among the enlightened has been a fairly standard response to the widespread practice of cutting the arts first – especially the visual arts -- when school budgets start crunching.

The arts community usually counters this ritual by references to data that show the positive effect of arts instruction on learning in “core” academic subjects. Though intellectually sound, this tactic has been sadly ineffective. It is also unfortunate that in order to make their case, arts advocates have found it necessary to piggyback on English or math rather than come right out with the plain fact that the arts are critically important to a civilized society.

Many believe that the repeated bloodletting of arts curricula in our schools is a reflection of community values in which the arts rank very poorly; perhaps a legacy from our iconoclastic 17th century forebears as well as the outcome of general disbelief in the arts’ relevance to intellectual and academic growth.

I would argue, however, that there is another reason why the arts, and visual arts in particular, are an endangered species in American K – 12 education.

It has been my observation that primary and secondary school art teachers rank very low on the continuum of professional respect among their peers.

And I would posit as a significant cause that they have generally not achieved a sufficient level of skill in their discipline to deserve that respect. For example, while English teachers may not be able to write The Great American Novel, the chances are pretty good that they can compose a competent essay. But many art teachers can barely draw!

This, however, is really not their fault.

A survey of undergraduate art education curricula leading to teacher certification in the U.S. will show that few exceed 38 credits of studio instruction. In other words, the aggregated exposure to art-making by students in these programs adds up to just a tad more than one year.

What is worse, rather then comprising a progressively developing, skill- and concept-building sequence, this precious learning time is generally fractured into a smorgasbord of classes in unrelated media and disciplines -- presumably so teachers can respond to diverse areas of student interest.

The result is a curriculum shaped by a pastiche of courses; e.g., one in ceramics, another in printmaking, a course or two in drawing, painting or sculpture, digital arts, etc. So the majority of K-12 art teachers graduate without rigorous training in the fundamental skills that underpin competence in their discipline.

They haven’t been taught to draw, they barely understand the nuances of spatial organization, color or design, and their ability to produce a professional or even semi-professional art product is de minimis.

Compare this to music education. Would we take a program seriously that proposed to transform 18-year-olds, with only a rudimentary exposure to music, into music teachers after a year and a half of instruction in which each class was devoted to a different instrument?

The answer, of course, is a resounding “no!” We would think such an approach absurd.

But since this is, in fact, the way we prepare our art teachers, why should the educational community value their contribution, when it has so little potential to bring excellence to the table (notwithstanding that, amazingly and as the studies show, the exposure itself appears to have salutary consequences for the academic curriculum)?

How has this come about? How has a profession that was valued and whose skills were rigorously taught by western cultures and their educational systems for centuries fallen to such low regard?

I believe that much of the answer lies in the fact that since the early 20th century K -12 visual arts education in the U.S. and to some degree globally, has been based on fundamentally misguided principles.

The most saliently destructive of these is the belief that art classes for pre-pubescent children should emphasize the nurturing of “creativity and self expression” at the expense of competence. This is reinforced by the erroneous notion that skill development, especially in pre-adolescent kids, is at best irrelevant and at worst, an inhibitor to children’s creative self-expression.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Young kids before the age of puberty and its accompanying onset of adolescent self-consciousness are instinctively, often irrepressibly, creative.

What they need in their art classes is a foundation of skill building to make the fullest expression of those creative instincts possible.

As they become adolescents, much of the ingenuousness that underlay their earlier creative spontaneity will automatically disappear; but good art-making skills will stay with them for life and, for some, the creativity will resurface. At this point it should be enhanced by the existence of the technical skills to actualize its full potential.

Consider that we don’t teach elementary school children creative writing; we teach them reading, spelling and basic syntax. The visual arts have equivalent fundamentals but we are not bringing them into the classroom.

Again, look at music. Kids start playing an instrument early in life and steadily develop their physical, technical and perceptual musical strengths as they grow into adulthood. In the visual arts the physical requirements are somewhat different, but in general they are more similar then not, and the perceptual issues of eye training and visual judgment are corollaries for hearing, understanding structure and interpreting music.

Therefore, it is just as absurd to suggest that a competent art teacher can be produced through only a year-and-a-half of hands-on study in a peripatetic curriculum as it is to assert that music teachers can be produced in a program that sets out to teach them five or six instruments in that same period of time. [Author] Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule may not fully apply here, but it is certainly food for thought.

The argument might be made that like young musicians, serious art students enter college after many years of skill building. Unfortunately, this is not true!

Most students entering college art departments or even professional art schools bring little more than their elementary and high school art classes as background preparation. And, as we have seen, skill development is often sadly lacking in these settings. (How could it be otherwise, when the majority of their teachers have so few skills of their own to teach?)

By contrast, the serious music student has probably had ten or more years of private study with a competent professional as well as participation in advanced school music programs, community orchestras and the like, where technical skills, musical sophistication and competition are the sine qua non. Think about the criteria for participation in All State bands or the demanding meritocracy that determines admission to the elite musical ensembles in a large suburban high school. These have no visual arts equivalents.

A revealing comparison is that students entering good music conservatories quickly embark on the development of a professional repertoire, music theory and advanced technique. By contrast, even in the most selective of art schools the freshman year (or as it is often called, the “Foundation Year”) is essentially remedial. It does exactly what its name implies – lays down a visual arts foundation that should have been built years before.

One might hope that even if the elementary schools are not doing their job, an interested and/or talented student would have an opportunity to develop visual skills at the high school level.

To a limited degree this is true, especially in well-off suburban communities or urban magnet schools and there are other exceptions.

But by and large, even in schools where the art departments have not been slashed and burned by successive budget cuts, the teachers themselves simply do not have sufficient training to understand and foster the skills their students need.

Again a music analogy: Most people can tell in a heartbeat whether or not a kid can play an instrument at a basic level of competence. Since the days of Jack Benny the sound of a scratchy violin or caterwauling saxophone practiced in the bedroom has been the stuff of a thousand sit-coms.

By contrast, most laymen are incapable of telling good drawing from bad, have little sense of composition or design and, in fact, don’t much care. Extrapolated to teachers whose actual exposure to studio arts has consisted of 38 or fewer credits spread across multiple and unrelated art disciplines, it is simply unreasonable to expect them to be able to recognize technical deficiencies or needs, much less correct them. If you can’t see it, you can fix it. And worse, if you can see it but don’t know how to do it, you can’t guide a student effectively towards solving visual problems.

It is hard to say just where to go from here. Certainly there is no quick fix. Given the entrenchment of college and university art education faculties with a vested interest in the status quo, coupled with the myopic licensing requirements for art teachers in most states, the possibility of reform at the college level is remote.

Yet this is the sine qua non for the solution. And even if reform were miraculously to occur overnight, the education of a new breed of art teachers and their gradual infiltration into schools that are already resistant to the arts, particularly the visual arts would be a painfully slow process.

Regrettably, I have no answers. This is a gloomy picture and is likely to remain so. The miracle is that even without the enlightened interest and support of the educational community or the mainstream American public we continue to produce talented, skilled and creative visual artists.

Their success in this challenging cultural environment is a ray of bright light -- a tribute to their force of will and indomitable spirit. It is an achievement well worth celebration and support.

But just as literature is meaningless in a society of illiterates, artists can only expect a capricious and non-critical audience in a culture whose educational system places no value on the teaching of their craft.

David C. Levy is president of the Cambridge Information Group’s Education division. He is the former president and director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art (Washington’s largest private cultural institution) and its College of Art and Design. As chancellor of New School University, he founded the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music. He was also director of Parsons School of Design, founder of the Delaware College of Art and Design in Wilmington, and is now a principal in Bach to Rock music schools.

By Valerie Strauss  | October 13, 2009; 12:30 PM ET
Categories:  Arts Education, Guest Bloggers  | Tags:  art teachers, teach training  
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Or in some cases, the artist doesn't know how to teach or manage a class.

Posted by: edlharris | October 13, 2009 3:57 PM | Report abuse

You're right; it's a gloomy outlook. It's like so many other things in education-there isn't enough money to pay good artists to leave behind a more fulfilling career, and school districts refuse to admit how important art is in educating the whole person.

I minored in art in college, and used to incorporate lessons like the ones you are dreaming about into my elementary classroom curriculum. But with NCLB, there's no time for it, and I would get in trouble if I made time for it.

Posted by: aed3 | October 13, 2009 4:35 PM | Report abuse

I guess my kids have just been lucky -- five schools (four government) and they have had incredible art teachers. I think your data is flawed.

On the English teacher comparison - please don't go there. I bet they cannot write well, either. Not the teachers my kids had in their five schools. Heck, some of them cannot even speak English well and they are all born in the US.

Posted by: knoxelcomcastnet | October 13, 2009 7:14 PM | Report abuse

Much of the article speaks to a very real problem. I am a former art teacher, a former “regular” teacher, and a former administrator. I interviewed many prospective art teachers who were trained to believe that art education is about kids expressing themselves, who believed that anything goes in the art room, and therefore believed that art education is not about teaching a particular set of skills or concepts. Eventually one learns which institutions of higher learning produce the more qualified candidates and interviews only candidates from those institutions.

However, some of the other people posting have good points as well. Too many art teachers, and regular teacher as well, have little training in classroom management so that instruction is ineffective because it takes place in chaos. Few teachers in any discipline have any kind of background in the arts, so they perpetuate “art projects” that consist of coloring sheets or trying to turn out a line of pumpkins that all look pretty much alike.

Certainly better training will help in both of these situations. But that is not enough.

First, we need to combat the belief that good instruction and increasing student achievement means leaving “stuff” out. If instruction is good, tests will take care of themselves. NCLB does not mean that schools must stop good instruction and take up “drill and kill” strategies. The arts can be used very well to help children better understand essential concepts and skills in the “core” subjects.

Second, as a society we must value all aspects of education – the money we provide for education speaks to how much or how little we value education. When there are funding cuts, difficult decisions must be made. I recall arguing passionately to keep our elementary art teacher in the face of brutal budget cuts. The superintendent replied, “We must cut a teacher somewhere. Do you want to have one less ‘specials’ teacher or one less ‘regular’ teacher?” Put that way, I had to choose to keep the classroom teacher.

Clearly, there is no easy solution. We must, however, endeavor to find one or our society will kill off the arts altogether.

Posted by: EdProf | October 14, 2009 2:06 PM | Report abuse

Well, I have 28 years of teaching art to children and adults of all ages under my belt,and I was fortunate to not only have had natural drawing ability, but to have studied under really excellent drawing teachers.

I will tell you, however, that several gigantic obstacles kept me from passing on the same skill levels that I possessed:

1. Art goes through cycles in society; during the time I was studying the visual arts, anything representational and formalized had fallen out of favor; abstract was in, self-expression was the equivalent of the holy grail,and nothing was said of craftsmanship. Aside from my drawing teachers, it was up to me to have the discipline to hone my own skills.
2. Art teachers in primary and secondary schools RARELY have the luxury of college professors to teach only one subject (like a musical instrument - I also play the piano and understand the sequential instruction necessary for music very well).
Instead, you have to teach painting (watercolor & acrylic), drawing, design, sculpture,a variety of crafts (fiber, ceramics)found art, help with stage craft for drama, maybe pick up a graphics art class here and there and oh, yes,include art history somewhere along the line.
It is crazy-making and does little for imbuing quality in ones work and teaching.
3. Schedules are also ruthless in their
lack of regard for students getting quality
instruction: Elementary students are lucky to get art once a week; Middle school students perhaps twice a week; High school students, even the really gifted ones, have great difficulty getting taking more than 2 or 3 years of art because they are supposed to take extra computer, math and science courses even if they aren't going to be engineers or computer specialists.
4. There was and is, still a deep-seated
suspicion that art is not a serious subject, it doesn't really contribute anything meanginful to society, and, worst of all - you might not make a lot of money doing it!!

As long as we are a culture obsessed with the wrong kind of money for many wrong reasons, we will not begin to really
give our children quality educations, and that goes for other subjects as well as art, though art probably suffers the most.

It is indeed a miracle that any decent art gets made at all,and I have to disagree somewhat with David Levy's generally negative portrayal of many art teachers being unskilled; most art teachers I have known over the years have worked incredibly hard to continue honing their skills, and are pretty competent artists in their own right. But as long as art teachers have to be trained to be jack-and-jills of all trades to do impossible jobs, the quality we all seek will remain elusive at best.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | October 15, 2009 12:06 AM | Report abuse

I have been an Art teacher for 49 years and have taught all levels from Pre-K thru Graduate level and adults. I was a professional artist starting my apprenticeship at the age of eight in my fathers sculpture studio. He called it Jerome Florist. I did not have any formal art in my K-12 experience. My professional artistic development started as sign painter and as a graphic art designer I worked my way for a B.A. in graphic design at the UI Champaign-Urbana.
I was a professional artist for nine years before I started teaching. I earned an MS in Art ED. at the Institute of Design at IIT where I learned about the science of art and artistic development.
The point is that being an artist or an art teacher is a choice of life that is self developed.
Educationally the Visual Arts have been selling themselves a creative and aesthetic as their academic base. In natural scientific human development that does not become the natural educational focus until adolescence. In the natural physical and intellectual human development artistic development starts at 2 1/2 to 3 years of age when all children are perfect non-objective artist and when scientifically appropriate environmental is availabele the skill of drawing naturally leads to the eye-hand co-ordination and consintration to write. As human writing is based upon art symbols and the concentration that writing naturally requires leads to reading. In the birth to adolescent development sequence all the arts are naturally important because of there place in the human communication and problem solving sequence of body language, oral language, all the Arts and writing that leads to reading.
The lack of understanding of this natural scientific perspective for natural human development is a basic problem and conflict that educators are struggling with today.

Posted by: LaserArtsMan | October 15, 2009 4:55 PM | Report abuse

Are there any other art teachers out there who are tired of constantly having to justify there skills or value to fellow teachers or artists? Everything I do in my art room impacts student learning in all core areas....including ART. I feel competent as an artist and if I don't know something...I learn and practice until I do know it well enough to teach my students. This helps me become a better teacher and artists. If every regular education teacher walked into the classroom the first day of teaching with all the skills they needed to be great teachers...that would be a miricle...Teaching is a process...we learn as we go...we adjust..we improve...we continue to better ourselves and our student population. I feel most art teachers are under appreciated and under estimated.

Posted by: pjordan1 | October 20, 2009 1:40 PM | Report abuse

As an art teacher I am disappointed to see such a negative view of art educators. I am also surprised to read that the author believes "the majority of their teachers have so few skills of their own to teach" ... and that most of us have only "a year and a half" of studio experience.

Yes, I do agree that skill is important, and it takes great skill to be a great artist. It also takes great skill to be a great art teacher. I have seen incredible artists who make lousy art teachers. Teaching art is not just about teaching studio skills, but it is also about creating an environment where every student has the opportunity to learn. It is about teaching the skill of problem solving and critical thinking. It is about teaching the skill of visual communication. It is about teaching the skill of creativity and expression.

The art teachers in my school district are incredibly skilled! They are not only skilled artists, but they are skilled at teaching a classroom of 30 or more students. They are skilled at teaching students who don't speak English. They are skilled at teaching students with disabilities, or students from extreme poverty, or students who have experienced trauma in their life. They are skilled at managing disruptions in the learning environment, and skilled and providing supplies on a minimal budget. They are skilled at involving parents in their student’s education, building community, advocating for the arts, and collaborating with their peers. Most of all they are skilled at encouraging the growth and development of a child.

Oh, and by the way .... They can draw too! It is unfortunate that the author does not recognize that in modern times an art teacher must be highly qualified and they must continue their education in order to renew their license. It is also unfortunate that this article seemed to focus on insulting art educators rather than placing the emphasis on the importance of encouraging the development of art skills in and outside of the classroom. I hope in the future to see the Washington Post publish an article that recognizes the amazing hard work, dedication, and skills art teachers put forth every day across America.

Posted by: art101 | October 20, 2009 6:01 PM | Report abuse

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