The ongoing debate about K-12 education in the United States is replete with concerns for levels of student performance in its schools and most particularly in the areas of reading literacy, mathematics and science. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD’s) 2009 “program for International Student Assessment” (PISA) report provides all involved, in one way or another, with the education of America’s children and youth with sobering evidence for such concern, for in its league table comparison of the performance of fifteen-year-olds around the world, as reported by the Huffington Post, “the united States [ranked] 14th out of 34 OECD countries for reading skills, 17th for science and a below-average 25th for mathematics.” The US Education Secretary Arne Duncan responded at the time to America’s rankings, stating, “being average in science is a mantle of mediocrity—and especially in a knowledge economy where scientific literacy is so central to sustaining innovation and international competitiveness.”
In light of the PISA data, combined with the associated concerns for global and economic competitiveness, it is not too surprising that a laser focus is fast being directed at what is being taught in this nation’s public schools, how subjects are being taught and, indeed, the beam expands to include an investigation of the quality of its teachers. The adoption by states of Common Core Standards is an example of one educational policy strategy designed to address American students’ poor performance in the areas of mathematics and English language arts in relationship to their global peers. The prioritization currently being given in schools both here in the United States and, not coincidently, in the United Kingdom to the quartet of STEM subjects – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics – is another example.
While I certainly understand the economic drivers that have elevated STEM subjects to prominence in schools across the country, it would be unwise to believe that an emphasis on these subjects alone can be solely responsible for reversals of the nation’s fortune and for improving its competitiveness. Further, a consequence of the subsequent reductionist approach to the education of American students, which preferences STEM subjects, will inevitably and regrettably come at the expense of the provision of a broad educational experience for our young people, one that is inclusive of the humanities and, most particularly of course, the creative subjects, which all too often find themselves on the margins of school curricula—this in spite of declarations in reports, such as “Reinvesting in Arts Education: Winning America’s Future Through Creative Schools,” that “education in the arts is more important than ever. In the global economy, creativity is essential.”
It is against this background of the narrowing of school curriculum that John Maeda, the Rhode Island School of Design’s (RISD’s) president, is positioned at the vanguard of advocacy, which challenges the exclusivity of STEM fields as the sole incubators of innovation, by inserting Art and Design to produce STEAM. What president Maeda and others recognize is that engagement with art and design is far from just a physical or therapeutic act and that as an area of study, it has the capacity to engender in students the kinds of skills of critical thinking and problem solving, communication and collaboration, and creativity and innovation that The Partnership for 21st Century Skills has identified as being so essential “as the united States continues to compete in a global economy that demands innovation.” The highlighting in STEAM of the significance of art and design presents the field of K-12 art and design education with challenges and opportunities. It will in my view, for instance, require visual arts educators to scrutinize their curricula and pedagogical practices to ensure that any claims of parity with STEM subjects in terms of rigor are indeed justified. I am not arguing here, however, that art [and design’s] position alongside Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics is warranted by its equivalence to those modes of disciplinary inquiry; rather, I am advocating that once the distinctive features of art and design as a serious area of study for elementary and secondary students are made more transparent and the coherency and quality of student learning outcomes are made more visible, then Art [and Design’s] case not only for a partnership with STEM but also for a role in its own right at the core of all students’ schooling will be irrefutable. I am not, though, naïve enough to not fully recognize the magnitude of the cultural shift required to move art and design education in the nation’s schools to a more central role in students’ learning; however, I firmly believe that if art education in elementary and secondary schools were re-framed and re-presented as an inquiry-based and discovery-orientated subject, and if instruction were designed to truly cultivate and develop in young people dispositions of creativity and innovation, then STEAM could, indeed, hold opportunity as a school subject whose true value in education is largely misunderstood.