A friend recently shared with me a proposal for a major documentary film he wants to produce on the role of art in the history of man. As he points out, humans began to make what we call“art” 30,000 or more years ago. Why they made cave drawings, decorated their instruments and weapons, and perhaps, themselves, we really do not know, but at a time when every bit of man’s energy must have been directed towards survival, they still found time to create art.

Art continues to have an important place in our civilized world. Whether it is drawing, painting, theatre, music, poetry or anything else, art plays a role in our lives.

Art is also essential to education. A recent bulletin from the Department of Education, for example, tells of schools that“provide a sequential and cumulative arts program for students in pre-kindergarten through grade 12.” The schools, all in Aldine, Texas, were “plagued by low test scores and low school attendance.” To reverse that, the district developed an “arts-infused curriculum founded on research showing that training in the arts could enhance student learning in core academic subjects and could improve school attendance.”

The program has been a great success in terms of art and creativity, and in terms of scores and attendance. (You can learn more about the Aldine program at .)

That art is an important element in education should not surprise educators. That it is an important element in our lives should be no surprise, either. The trouble is, as I walk through schools, I find art being de-emphasized in terms of space, time and faculty as schools shift from the education of students to worrying about test scores.

Because test scores have become the measure of school success, many superintendents and school boards seem to think that more time and emphasis must be placed on reading and mathematics. To do that, they often minimize art. Here are some of the results I have noted.

• I walked through four elementary schools in one school system recently and was struck by the lack of a single picture drawn by a student. The schools, I was assured, stress reading and arithmetic and “every child is able to read before entering the first grade.”

• In another district in another state, every room that had previously been designated for elementary art and music had been converted either to regular classrooms or to computer labs. Music had been assigned to the stage in the multi-purpose room (“but the teacher only comes one day a week”) and art had been put on a cart kept in a janitor’s closet. The subjects are still taught, but the conditions have been reduced and the teachers dash from building to building to meet their schedule.

• A middle school reduced the exploratory activity of its students, including art and music, to provide an extra daily period of language arts. Students who are not doing well in mathematics lose another exploratory period in order to take an extra dose of arithmetic.

My grandchildren attend an elementary school with a very strong arts program including music, art, dance and drama. They love it, and they produce wonderful results (you’ll have to allow a grandfather to exaggerate a little). But I was disturbed to find that there is pressure to limit the arts program and to teach more basic subjects. One parent told me it was more important to study history than to “spend time dancing around.”

Art, as my film-producer friend has noted, is essential to humans. He has suggested that it may well be a “biological necessity.” The Department of Education, a proponent of academic testing, publishes an example that shows that teaching and emphasizing art can actually increase tests scores. Yet, in district after district, I find art being denigrated, marginalized, almost eliminated in an effort to find more time to “teach the basics and do well on standardized tests.”

There’s a disconnect somewhere, a disconnect that, I believe, is damaging the education of children. Art should be an essential element in education, in learning, in developing, in maturing. Children, just like the cavemen from whom we are all descended, need to participate in and appreciate art. Schools that marginalize art may very well be working against their own objectives.

About the Author

Paul Abramson is education industry analyst for SP&M and president of Stanton Leggett & Associates, an educational facilities consulting firm based in Mamaroneck, N.Y. He was named CEPFI’s 2008 "Planner of the Year."