Opinion: Michigan shouldn’t scrap arts requirement

Shaw

Two new bills introduced in the Michigan House of Representatives, HB 4269 and 4270, are set to scrap the one credit arts requirement for Michigan high school students. This should not happen. We should speak up and save the requirement, since Michigan already has weak arts education policy.

This move would also be in direct opposition to the spirit of federal education law and the Michigan Top Ten in Ten initiative that recognize the need for a well-rounded education that includes the arts.

Specifically, the bills would eliminate the required credits in the arts and foreign languages from the Michigan Merit Curriculum, replacing them with a three-credit requirement from courses focused on "21st Century Skills."

The proposed bills would add computer science and computer coding courses, or a combination of the two, and an MDE-approved formal career and technical education (CTE) program (e.g., construction trades, automobile tech) as available options for students to meet the "21st Century Skills" three-credit requirement.

On first read, this may sound technical and harmless. After all, isn’t flexibility good? But it really goes to the purpose of K-12 schooling and revives an age-old debate: Is K-12 education about experiencing a broad, rich curriculum or should it focus on vocational training and job readiness? If certain classes are optional, does this mean they’re seen as less valuable than those that are required?

Currently, Michigan high school students must complete credits across different areas as part of the Michigan Merit Curriculum (for example, four credits in English language arts, three credits in science). Since 2006, all Michigan students are required to take one credit in the visual, performing or applied arts. Additionally, students (beginning with the class of 2016) must complete two credits of a foreign language. An important note: while individual districts may require additional credits, the Michigan Merit Curriculum provides minimum numbers.

The evidence we have suggests these required credits in the arts matter for ensuring art education experiences in schools. When the arts were included as a core subject under the federal GOALS 2000 legislation in the late 1990s, states began to require the arts as part of high school graduation requirements (44 states and the district of Columbia now require arts credits for graduation. There’s a trickle-down effect on a more local level, too. When a state requires the arts, districts employ more certified arts educators and offer a more robust variety of arts courses.

The needed flexibility for students and schools has always been present, too.

The current arts requirement includes the applied arts, which can incorporate industrial technology courses. Also, even with the requirements in place, students have been able to modify requirements as part of a “personal curriculum” if they choose. Finally, we also know that at least 12 percent of high schools in 2012 weren’t complying with the arts requirement of the Michigan Merit Curriculum. Put simply, the Michigan Merit Curriculum and its arts requirement are not cumbersome or keeping students from job training programs.

If these bills pass, students could opt to take three credits of computer coding, or three credits of foreign language, or three credits in a CTE program. They could even take three arts credits. So what’s the problem?

The proposed bills are problematic for Michigan students for several reasons.

First, they would likely diminish or potentially eliminate arts opportunities. Students who might not normally take an arts course probably wouldn’t, thereby missing out on the valuable experiences one gains in the arts. More troubling is the prospect of schools deciding not to offer arts courses at all. If a school can focus electives only on CTE education and computer coding, especially when these programs are commonly supported by private grants or run at the intermediate school district (ISD) level, wouldn’t they do so?

Second, putting the arts into a pool of “21st Century Skills” courses sets up a false equivalency among curricular experiences. When the State Board of Education approved the arts requirement, it stated an important goal for all students: “The goal of the visual, performing, and applied arts credit guidelines is to ensure that all students have a foundation and experience in the complete artistic/creative process.”

This process, the board noted, is non-linear and requires that the student explore possibilities, thinking divergently to solve problems. Put simply, this artistic process is not fulfilled by foreign language courses, computer coding or CTE classes, but is integral to arts disciplines.

Michigan has relatively weak arts education policies. We are one of only a handful of states that does not require elementary school arts experiences, does not require the arts in middle school, and allows classroom teachers without arts training to teach the arts in primary grades. Let’s keep the one credit arts requirement — it’s a bright spot that ensures all students in Michigan learn the valuable lessons offered by a rich curriculum.

About the author: Ryan Shaw is an assistant professor of music education at Michigan State University.

This guest commentary first appeared in Bridge Magazine, an online publication of the nonpartisan, nonprofit Center for Michigan.