Thursday, June 25, 2015

AV#130 - The basis of a well-rounded liberal arts education for K-12: Colorado’s Academic Standards

                                                                                                                                           May 15, 2015

Have we talked ourselves to death about testing?  I hope so.  Time to remind ourselves what we test for, what assessments are supposed to reveal: how well students meet our standards. Yes, our standards. The Colorado Academic Standards. Not the federal government’s standards, not Barak Obama’s standards, not left-wing-America-should-be-ashamed-of-itself standards.

Our standards. Yes, fellow countrymen, I come—no irony intended—not to bury the standards, but to praise them.

Because after a legislative session fixated on what we’re against, let’s remember what we are for.
And because, as imperfect as they are, the Colorado Academic Standards—if we were truly committed to them—offer a flag around which most of us can rally.  Perhaps especially—and here is my main theme— for those who fear their discipline has been discounted by an accountability regimen focused on English and math.  Arts advocates, those eager to ensure civics are taught, everyone determined to see health and physical education get their due, anyone with a passion for economics, geography, or history—each can point to our standards and say: look.  We say this is what we expect for all students. So let’s do it.

Or to capture it all in three words, our standards tell us—if we are true to our word—we believe all Colorado students deserve a liberal arts education.

    Standards for student learning are not new in Colorado. Passed in 1993, House Bill 93-1313 initiated standards based education for all of Colorado. The statute required the state to create academic standards in reading, writing, mathematics, science, history, civics, geography, economics, art, music and physical education.
     Why standards? State standards for student learning define what students should know and be able to do at the end of a grade level or grade span. Standards advance equity of outcomes for students by setting a bar for student performance, defining the floor but not the ceiling of student learning.
Twenty-five years ago this month I received my Master of Arts (of all the impractical fields of study one can imagine!) in Liberal Education.  The next day I drove north from Santa Fe, New Mexico, and started a job at the Gates Family Foundation in Denver.  The previous September, our nation’s governors had gathered at Charlottesville, Virginia, for the Education Summit, which began the push across the country for academic standards.  That same month the Gates Family Foundation hosted an education conference at Keystone, where 225 Colorado leaders supported 19 public policy recommendations —including a call for standards that would articulate the skills and knowledge to expect of high school graduates[1].  During my six years at Gates, we saw Gov. Roy Romer sign the standards bill in 1993[2], and we connected with arts, economics, geography, and science groups as Coloradans wrote the first draft of our standards–then in 11 disciplines (see box).

Twenty-five years later, I believe we should still uphold the standards movement, and our standards. How we get there, the curriculum and lesson plans and instructional approach, will differ school to school—three cheers for choice and autonomy!—but the standards articulate, in broad terms, what we expect of K-12 public education.  At a minimum.  And to every school that can push for more, great!

And yes, I go a step further, and say, to everyone who insists that reading, writing and math must come first, to every recent rabid convert to STEM education, or to those who argue we test-too-much-and-so-no-need-for social studies assessments – OK, but can we at least all agree on this?: that a sound K-12 public education should offer every Colorado student a curriculum that meets the Colorado Academic Standards.  Which by definition means every student will have a broad-based education that addresses each of 10 standards, “for preschool through 12th grade.”  

1. reading, writing, and communicating
2. mathematics
3. science
4. social studies
5. world languages
6. music
7. visual arts
8. drama and theatre arts
9. dance
10. comprehensive health and physical education 

Note that only #1 and #2 of the 10 standards include Common Core guidelines.  The broad-based nature of our standards has its roots in legislation over 20 years old, so there is no need to confuse concerns about the Common Core State Standards—a much more recent addition with the larger point here.

(See the Colorado Department of Education – What content areas are included in the Colorado Academic Standards?      
% of students receiving arts education, by grade cluster: 
Elementary – 98%    Middle – 71%    High - 54%

In spite of the recession of 2008, “Colorado has ‘held the line’ on provision of arts education in our public schools” [since then].  However, “28,000 Colorado students attend schools that do not offer formal arts education [&] only half of our high school students are enrolled in arts classes.”
From Colorado Visual and Performing Arts Education Survey Statistical Report, May 14, 2015

But, you remind me, these are GOALS.  Not many schools offer a rich curriculum in all ten disciplines.  Our “local control” state allows us to claim we’re committed to the standards, but we insist on very little.  Two examples:  ARTS:  The just-released survey on arts education in our state, the Colorado Visual and Performing Arts Education Survey Statistical Report (sponsored by Colorado Creative Industries) reveals that less than 60% of high school students took any arts class in 2013-14, and that roughly 30,000 K-12 students attended schools with no arts instruction (see box). PHYS ED:  Another recent report found that “only 46 percent of the Colorado’s high-schoolers take at least one physical education class each week.”[3]   

How can this be, if we are committed to the standards?

Similarly, a middle school will say supervised recess qualifies as meeting the standards in physical education. Civics and economics are often overlooked[4], even though they make up two the four specific sections in Colorado’s Social Studies Standards (along with history and geography). [5]  Afterschool electives, offered to a limited number, is too often “the best” a school can do to address one of these “other” disciplines.

What to do, to see that K-12 education truly commits to the full range of standards?

1.       Don’t whine.  Of course we don’t want to emaciate the K-12 curriculum and let it become a mere skeleton of its full measure.  And yet we do not serve our cause—our favorite discipline—by sounding like the spoiled kid in the playground: “That’s not fair!”  Or by repeating a variation of double negatives: “Don’t cut the __!” “Let’s not discount the value of __!” “We can’t take away __!”

2.       Instead, let’s hold high a larger vision of what a public education should be: one that provides a well-rounded, broad-based curriculum—which, without overstating the case, we can say reflects a belief in a liberal arts education for all.

This way, all of us advocating for the rightful place of the arts, civics, economics, geography, physical education, etc., in our schools can join forces and make a stronger case, together.  No righteous indignation on behalf of our single issue.  Our real cause is about the very purpose of a public education.

It should help to know we are not alone.  Here I gather a few of the voices now making the case for the liberal arts.[6]  They can help us affirm a more uplifting goal than “mastery of the 3 R’s,” a more inspiring vision than “proficiency on state exams.”  And sorry, but an appeal to the latest fuzzy buzzword, “21st century learning,” won’t cut it. Let’s return to a concept with a rich history, one that unites many around a clear purpose: a sound liberal arts education.

1.       Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia spoke at the Microsoft YouthSpark Connections Breakfast last month.  The session could have focused exclusively on STEM, but he—and other speakers—reminded us of the big picture: “We don’t need just scientists and engineers,” he said, we need them with “a good liberal arts education.  What makes innovative students? The arts. The ability to communicate.”  And when Suma Nallapati, Colorado’s Secretary of Technology and the State Chief Information Officer, was asked what advice she would give high school students who wish to be ready for the job market, answered: “Focus on the liberal arts.  We don’t need to separate them from STEM.”  She then added, with a smile (obviously directed at this former English teacher): “I’m a big fan of Shakespeare!” 

2.       In Defense of a Liberal Education, the new book by Fareed Zakaria (2015).
Historian and author David McCullough was asked to give advice to students at Providence College who are pursuing a liberal arts education.  He responded:  “Pursue it with your whole heart and soul because you will never ever regret it.”    10/28/2013
“The liberal arts are under attack. The governors of Florida, Texas, and North Carolina have all pledged that they will not spend taxpayer money subsidizing the liberal arts, and they seem to have an unlikely ally in President Obama. While at a General Electric plant in early 2014, Obama remarked, ‘I promise you, folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.’ …
“Zakaria eloquently expounds on the virtues of a liberal arts education …. He turns our leaders' vocational argument on its head. American routine manufacturing jobs continue to get automated or outsourced, and specific vocational knowledge is often outdated within a few years. Engineering is a great profession, but key value-added skills you will also need are creativity, lateral thinking, design, communication, storytelling, and, more than anything, the ability to continually learn and enjoy learning—precisely the gifts of a liberal education.”

3.       “In defense of liberal arts education,” Jill Tiefenthaler, President of Colorado College.
“… these politicians are making the all too common mistake of confusing education with training. The idea that universities should simply be factories for producing graduates focused exclusively in STEM … fields is incredibly shortsighted. While getting a job that leads toward a fulfilling career is a great reason for going to college, it certainly isn't the only one. A liberal arts education (including, for example, philosophy, art and sociology) educates the whole person and prepares students to excel in a range of careers and, even more importantly, live a life rich with meaning and purpose.” The Denver Post, Guest Commentary, 10/24/2011.             

4.       Wall Street Journal op-ed, “Conservatives, Please Stop Trashing the Liberal Arts,” by Christopher J. Scalia of the University of Virginia, March 27, 2015. 
“Thomas Jefferson recognized that a broad education could ensure the survival of the new democracy. He recognized that ‘even under the best forms, those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny.’ To defend against this threat, Jefferson wanted ‘to illuminate, as far as practicable, the minds of the people at large, and more especially to give them knowledge of those facts, which history exhibiteth, that, possessed thereby of the experience of other ages and countries, they may be enabled to know ambition under all its shapes, and prompt to exert their natural powers to defeat its purpose.’”
“The liberal arts, Jefferson recognized, have a practical value that has nothing to do with direct economic benefits: They are linked to the vitality of a commonwealth and the survival of a free people.”

5.       Education Week commentary, “The Humanities Keep Us Human,” by Fred Zilian, Portsmouth Abbey, Rhode Island, Jan. 7, 2015.  STEM is in vogue, and Zilian acknowledges his own appreciation for the sciences. But he urges caution: 
           “… a caution against imbalance. We take a risk in shifting resources to STEM from the humanities,   the mix of subjects that includes the language arts, history, philosophy, religion, and the visual and performing arts.             

I taught one summer at Zilian’s school, Portsmouth Abbey.  Like all my most rewarding teaching experiences, I was in a school with deep convictions about the importance of the liberal arts.  Lt. Gov. Garcia and President Tiefenthaler of Colorado College notwithstanding, I am discouraged we have so few Colorado leaders stand up to the current zeitgeist of “education as training for the workforce.” I have tried to make this case in various ways of late (AV#115 – “Sorry, Governor(s), but the purpose of education is not ... a job”; #118 – “Balance – Part 1: Let them talk”; #119 – “Balance – Part 2: Civic Education”), and I will keep at it.  It is up to school people, I believe, to articulate our higher purpose.

I reflect on the 25 years since I drove north from St. John’s College, to a new state, a new job.  In that time, two themes have been central to K-12 public schools: choice and standards.  Even after a quarter century of legislation, reforms, and resistance, both remain central to what we say we want of public education. 

I hope we can renew the standards discussion in a way that takes us forward, to a broader and shared understanding of what we owe our students: a liberal arts education for all.

Another View, a newsletter by Peter Huidekoper, represents his own opinion and is not intended to represent the
view of any organization he is associated with.  Comments are welcome. 303-757-1225 /

[1]Establish National Standards for High School Graduates.  The teachers of this nation deserve an answer to their question, ‘What is it that the United States needs and wants? Give us specifics.  Provide us with a clear set of goals and empower our principals and us to reach those goals and we will do it.’” From the Keystone Conference, “A Shift in the Breeze,” Sept. 1989.
[2] The legislative declaration for HB 1313 called on the state “to develop content standards, programs of instruction, and assessments that reflect the highest possible expectations.”
[3]  “Overall, Colorado ranks 24th among states when it comes to daily physical activity among school-aged children. In contrast, adults and senior citizens rank first and second respectively…. The report …  also cites major disparities … Only about 58 percent of kids with family incomes under the federal poverty level got at least 20 minutes of exercise four or more days a week, compared to 74 percent of kids living in the wealthiest homes.” Chalkbeat Colorado, by Ann Schimke.
[4] See yesterday’s Wall Street Journal: “Teaching Better Civics for Better Citizens,” Sandra Day O’Connor & John Glenn, 5/13/15.
[5] CIVICS: Our standards present from 2-3 pages of Grade Level Expectations for civics for each grade, K-8.  So at least we say this is our intention for every K-8 classroom across the state. And yet, as I showed in AV#119 – Civic Education – Colorado’s expectations for civics instruction are modest, at best, compared to most states.
[6] My alma mater, of course, never stops making the case. Last fall St. John’s College hosted a national conference titled, “What is Liberal Education For?”  Details at

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