The Future of Secondary Education CLOUDS AND SUN

The Arts, Critical Thinking, and Reform: Classrooms of the Future

Ivan Olson
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill


As the arts very gradually gain attention as worthy and necessary components of public school curriculum, they become more and more the center of debates of policy and economics, yet, also become prime sources of research, remodeling, and reform in terms of learning theory and philosophy. The impressive development of school reform networks has contributed greatly to this increased consideration of the arts as serious study in our schools. Many of the reform groups seem to place an emphasis upon cognitive activity, problem solving, intellectual discipline, academic self-discipline, or, simply, thinking skills development, and most include the arts as an integral part of the plan.

Implications of recent federal legislation

When Secretary of Education, Richard Riley, accepted the National Standards for K-12 Arts Education at a press conference on March 11, 1994, a new era began for arts education in the United States. For the first time, legislation was passed to enable the arts to share a more important role in the public school classroom. Later that month, President Clinton signed the Goals 2000: Educate America Act which established the National Education Standards and Improvement Council to certify voluntary standards submitted by the states. In April, 1994, the National Education Commission on Time and Learning included the arts among the common core of learning in which all students should develop skills and understanding.

School reform

The movement toward national standards will not, in themselves, bring about the changes we seek. Such standards, voluntary at this moment, will find fertile ground in the numerous school reform foundations and networks. If, indeed, reform groups include arts study as an important component in their programs, some high quality model programs might be on the near horizon. They can not be aimless or disconnected series of exercises. they must allow for, and nurture, a sense of primacy in the arts in the search for the good life.

    Education reform is currently a powerful force. We can take advantage of it to strengthen our programs. But we can do so only if we are willing to state clearly and precisely what it is that we want our students to know and be able to do. We must demonstrate that music (and the other arts) are subjects for sequential study and not merely an activity. (Lehman, 1993)

In Search of More Rigorous Programs

Will the reform groups have any real success in bringing about sufficient academic challenge in secondary school programs in the visual arts, music, dance, and drama? It might be years before we can assess the impact of current reform networks upon secondary programs. We do know that school reform networks such as the Accelerated Schools Project, Coalition of Essential Schools, Core Knowledge Foundation, Galef Institute, Project 30 and Holmes Group, and the National Paideia Center clearly emphasize "intellectual payback"; students are expected to achieve to the best of their ability.

As an example, consider the Coalition of Essential Schools (CES). With offices at Brown University within the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, the coalition serves as a high school-university partnership. Like all the reform groups mentioned above, the CES has identified a list of commitments or "imperatives" for better schools. Two of these imperatives echo much of what all these groups are saying: a) "Insist that students clearly exhibit mastery of their school work," and b) "Focus the students' work on the use of their minds." With 150 member schools in 30 states, the CES, like the other reform groups, involves both public and private schools, all of which are literally shaped by goals that demand student mastery and achievement through performance-based assessment (Brown U., 1994).

During an anticipated period of thinning out within agencies and state governments, the Standards will become increasingly important. It will have significant impact on educational policy in the arts. Three things will happen, no matter what budget limitations might be:

  1. More attention given to "academic payback." Performance-based Education will no longer be confused with Objectives-based Education
  2. Less reliance on budget shortfalls as an excuse for poor organization
  3. Continued attempts to develop awareness skills in arts/aesthetics, to widen the modes of perception and sensitivity to art objects and concepts, and appreciation for them.

The future of arts "core" subjects in grades 8-12

Although the Core Knowledge Foundation is involved only with grades K-6 (grades 7 and 8 will be included by fall 1995), the group's philosophical and curricular approaches are relevant to all levels. Its spiral curriculum, allowing for substantial study in music and visual arts, is driven by the concept of learning in sequence.

The Sequence offers a planned progression of specific knowledge in history, geography, mathematics, science, language arts, and fine arts. It represents a first and ongoing attempt to state specifically a core of shared knowledge that children should learn in American schools. It should be emphasized that the Core Knowledge Sequence is not a list of facts to be memorized. Rather, it is a guide to coherent content from grade to grade, designed to encourage steady academic progress as children build their knowledge and skills from one year to the next" (Core Knowledge Foundation, 1995).

Because of the strong representation of the arts in its schema, and because more than 150 schools in 30 states are implementing the program, Core Knowledge is a strong representative of the many model programs that recognize the arts as essential. Unfortunately, there are those who criticize Core Knowledge as elitist, attempting to impose elite culture on everyone. Such critics appear to be part of the same faction that is determined to revise and reorganize history and literature to further their own ideals and social and educational objectives. E. D. Hirsch, founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation in Charlottesville, Virginia, has responded to such critics as follows: "Core Knowledge is an anti -elitist idea. It aims to guarantee equal access for all to the knowledge necessary for higher literacy and learning" (Core, 7-10). For some time Hirsch has echoed many thoughtful scholar-educators in his concerns about the questionable level of "cultural literacy" in the United States. The Core concept is by no means new; it is simply being renewed and invigorated out of deep concern for the well-being of our schools.

Cultural literacy in the high school

With the slow but sure success of core concept (or related models), programs at the early grade levels should finally impact upon secondary and even post-secondary policy and curriculum.

Systems that achieve across-the-board effectiveness in early schooling are systems that specify a core of knowledge that children should acquire in each grade of elementary school. All the national systems that are fair by the IEA standard do in fact use this core-knowledge approach. By contrast, no national system that fails to use a core knowledge approach has managed to achieve fairness [in public schooling]. The cross-correlations between fairness and core knowledge are 100% (Hirsch, 1991).

With the slow but not-so-sure success of the core concept at the high school level, several imperatives must be realized for achieving success:

  1. Increased emphasis on discipline-based arts approaches to supplement and complement drill-orientated programs
  2. Serious reform in arts assessment and evaluation as related to high school (public or private) graduation requirements
  3. Critical links between elementary and secondary arts identified and clearly defined
  4. A cultural literacy that embraces a true multiculturalism
  5. Increased emphasis on excellence and fairness
  6. Increased research and experimentation with Humanities curricula
  7. More study and writing "across the curriculum."

Extending the core knowledge general concepts beyond any one particular group or movement seems natural and logical, if the goals and principles of most reform groups can be taken seriously. Consider the second of the nine Common Principles of the Coalition of Essential Schools (CES):

The school's goals should be simple: that each student master a limited number of essential skills and areas of knowledge. While these skills and areas will, to varying degrees, reflect the traditional academic disciplines, the program's design should be shaped by the intellectual and imaginative powers and competencies that students need, rather than necessarily by "subjects" as conventionally defined. (Coalition, 4)

Institutional/Traditional vs. "Open" (Anything Goes)

The ongoing battle of institutional/traditional arts vs. "open" arts (anything goes) will rage on. The public is confused as to what art is. The word, "artist," probably appears in English-speaking nations as a malapropos more than any other in the vocabulary. The blind rush toward egalitarianism has left us currently with a dilemma, what the late William A. Henry III, culture critic for Time magazine called "the great post-World War II American dialectic and tension between elitism and egalitarianism" (Henry 1994).


Anti-intellectual populism seems at times almost out of control, with the idea of inclusion carried to an absurd extreme. As the arts and entertainment often reflect our society, it should not surprise us that much of our entertainment since 1950 celebrates mediocrity and rewards the banal. In music, minimalism abounds in pop hits; even serious concert music has its minimalist offerings (e.g., that of Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and John Adams, three minimalist composers who have gained some considerable fame and fortune with their craft).

Withstanding Political Agendas

For the last 30 to 40 years, those who have willfully misunderstood and reinvented the past have been less concerned with the education of our nation than with their political agendas. To openly recognize the fact that this kind of contrived egalitarianism has resulted in some evidence of stunted growth in the arts is not considered the thing to do. Yet, amid all this philosophic turmoil, there remains a marvelous, albeit small, elite in the arts and the world of entertainment. From around the world several young violinists, numerous pianists, dramatists, painters, sculptors, poets, dancers--many of them not yet 25 years of age-are already part of the elite. Some will remain for many years as the supermen and superwomen of the arts. Jazz continues to furnish us with new members of this elite. This small-truly multicultural-elite in the arts and entertainment--seems to get better every decade. Even as dismal as is the status of singing among the American public, the small but first-rate group of young opera, concert, and choral singers issuing forth from U. S. programs is impressive. It is the masses, the 95 or so per cent who have been losing out over the years. They are part of what anthropologist Margaret Mead in 1970 called "the impending Dark Ages of American culture" (Mead, 1970).


If we can agree that the small select group of those who are the artists in the truest sense of the term are as good as ever, maybe better, then we might also agree that more attention must be given to the remainder of our society. That ninety-five per cent of the population just might live fuller lives through better understanding and appreciation of the arts, aesthetic experiences free for the taking.

We must foster the realization that the joys of aesthetic discourse are available to everyone, regardless of class or social position, and we must seek to provide our citizens with the skills necessary for a lifetime of participation in it (Gunstream, 1986).

We might find that some remedies lie within the school reform networks. Six of the seven major school reform groups cited earlier form a clear consensus, which is highlighted by the following points that apply to arts education:

  1. Most important purposes of quality public education
    • intellectual discipline
    • problem solving
    • ethical ideas
    • thinking skills development
  2. Programs infused with sufficient rigor
  3. Recognition of the essential coexistence of elitism and egalitarianism in the arts K-12
  4. Emphasis on curricular change and experimentation in seeking an improved learning environment.

Social and ethnic contextualism might not continue to be as much of a driving factor in the new century. As a result, the construct, "cultural literacy," will be more easily defined and understood; cultural literacy must remain on a foundation of universal truths and ideas. The term has been misused badly. Cultural literacy does not mean specifically "understanding of other cultures," even though such understanding is certainly a natural part of the schema. It refers to the understanding and communication of essential elements of expression of the human spirit in our civilization.

Is it Art or Entertainment?

At first glance, this is a question of little consequence to the majority of our population, but most of us who are concerned, are deeply concerned. In the context of daily life, our answers to the question will determine how culturally literate we are as individuals and as groups. Our answers to the question will have some bearing on curriculum development, policy, assessment, andexpectations.

Enter Critical Thinking

Although the reform groups I have cited in this writing seldom mention critical thinking as an entity, they constantly refer to analysis skills, cognitive development, higher order thinking, etc., which most certainly relate to such a construct. By consensus, "critical thinking" would today be defined as: disciplined process of analyzing, synthesizing, or evaluating information resulting from observation, reasoning, or reflection, based upon intellectual values that apply to all areas of human experience. It is this critical thinking emphasis nested within the objectives of the reform networks cited that presents the nation with some hope for the future of education, including some short-range relief from the desultory condition of arts among the general public as well as in the American high school.


Coalition of Essential Schools. (1994). The common principles. Providence: Brown U.

Core Knowledge Foundation. (1995). Core knowledge sequence. Charlottesville, VA.

Gunstream, R. (1986). Yesterday's wind, today's whirlwind. Design for Arts in Arts Education, 87 (5), 5-15.

Henry III, W. (1994). In Defense of Elitism. NY: Doubleday.

Hirsch, E. (1991). Fairness and Core Knowledge. Charlottesville: Core Knowledge Foundation.

Lehman, P. (1993). National standards for K-12 arts education. Educational Leadership in the Arts. Chapel Hill: UNC.

Mead, M. (1970). Culture and commitment. New York: Natural History Press.

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