Judging from the education goals adopted in 1989 by the nation's governors and then-President George Bush, the arts are fairly low down among the nation's educational priorities. Arts education was not even included among the six "core" areas originally defined by a national panel of educators as subjects in which students should be proficient.
The Clinton administration appears to be moving to rectify that neglect. The Goals 2000 education bill recently passed by the Senate and House greatly expands the role played by arts programs in schools by codifying a wide range of activities to be included in the nation's education goals.
To meet those goals, it sets specific benchmarks for student achievement in music, dance, theater and visual arts by the end of grades four, eight and 12. It also says the arts are more than a frill, declaring them "inseparable" from the educational process.
Although voluntary, the goals outlined in the legislation offer a much-needed incentive for urban school districts like Baltimore to rebuild their arts programs, which over the last decade have been drastically cut under the pressure of budgetary woes. Though school officials will still have to figure out how to come up with the money to pay for such programs, their inclusion as an essential component of the educational process will make it easier to justify and plan a curriculum that includes a clear and agreed-upon description of what ought to be taught.
The guidelines envision a minimum level of arts instruction leading to basic understanding of music, dance, theater and the visual arts. Students are expected to be able to communicate proficiently in at least one art form, to analyze works of art and be acquainted with the great works of art from a variety of cultures and historical periods.
Many studies have suggested that art and music are important elements in the education of young children. The therapeutic effects of music and art instruction are particularly important to children from poor inner-city communities, whose lives away from school often allow for little of childhood's untroubled innocence. For such children, the disciplined freedom of creative expression plays a vital role in fostering mental and emotional well-being. That is why Baltimore educators need to take special note of the "Goals 2000" legislation. Achieving all the guidelines call for won't be easy. But there should be no mistaking the urgency of the need for prompt action in this area.