Opinion | Michigan shouldn’t scrap arts requirement for high school

Ryan Shaw is an assistant professor of music education at Michigan State University

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, three3 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.

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Fri, 05/24/2019 - 8:15am

The list of "necessary" knowledge is long and forever growing. Civics, Algebra, American history, foreign language, personal finance, family health, shop and home ec ..... etc etc! Everyone thinks their own thing is incredibly necessary, and sure they are important, but where does it stop??? This only eats up all available time for that thing that any given kid may really want to pursue - STOP IT!!

Robyn A Tonkin
Tue, 07/09/2019 - 12:00pm

I don't know how old you are Matt, but I am 65, and all of this stuff was taught to me in grade school and high school in the 1960's and 1970's. What do kids really want to pursue? How do you know? How do they know? They only know through exposure to everything, and through that, their natural inclinations and talents will emerge. I was exposed to science and history, and also to glee club, orchestra and wonderful art classes. I remember art classes that I had in 4th grade. Those musical experiences and artistic explorations led to a lifetime of personally enriching creativity, that enhanced my life and the lives of my child and husband, and now, grandson. Isn't that was childhood education is supposed to be about, in a free and supportive society, like we (supposedly) have? Giving us tools for lifelong success in many avenues of life?
I also graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in Natural Resources, major in Forestry. So the science and math did kick in as my "life work" emphasis. Life is more than your job, you know. Or don't you know. I wish you could try life 200 years ago. Back then, girls learned how to sew, but not read. boys followed the arduous family trade of farming, or they were apprenticed to a tradesman, and usually were semi literate, at best. There were no choices, only the predestination of the class into which you were born. Would you be more content with the "meanest sort", as ordinary people were called by the gentry, in those days, having nothing ahead of them but endless work, and death? Have you ever considered time travel? Maybe you would have found that you were born a landed aristocrat. but I doubt it. I think you would be tired with your predestined lot in 5 minutes.

Fri, 05/24/2019 - 8:50am

In order too become a well rounded adult, students need to have an educated mind, a skilled hand and a cultured eye. Anything less is a disservice to our youth.

Fri, 05/24/2019 - 9:08am

Yet another in the long list of people who believe that every child needs every class. This is precisely why the skilled trades are so short of employees. Let the kids have as much flexibility as possible so that they may find a path to success for themselves. I look at it from a practical perspective. Look at any school district and ask how many professional "artists" have they produced? Then ask how many electricians have they produced?
Sending kids into an art path and possibly having them believe that "art" is a viable career path is disingenuous at best. Option I: they attend College, go $60,000 in debt and end up making $35,000/year. Option II: they become an apprentice electrician getting paid and after several years are a licensed electrician and make $75,000+ per year. This looks like a no brainer. After they have a career, if they are interested in art, they can pursue it on the side.

Fri, 05/24/2019 - 10:41am

The arts credit is Visual, Performing, and Applied Arts. Many CTE courses fall into this category. Art is a viable career choice. Cars, clothing, jewelry, houses, furniture, household items, books, technology, music, comics, video games, Netflix, movies, TV, literary everything around you had to be designed, created, performed by someone with some kind of art background. It is naive to think the arts aren't important

Michigan Observer
Fri, 05/24/2019 - 4:17pm

There is no question that the arts are important, but that is not the point. There just aren't very many good paying jobs in that field.

John Q. Public
Sat, 08/03/2019 - 11:10am

There aren't that many well-paying jobs in most fields.

Fri, 05/24/2019 - 4:02pm

Do you not know that the arts are a skilled trade. Have been since the beginning of time.

Fri, 05/24/2019 - 9:26am

Agree with Matt's comment.
In some European countries they start early to find student's strengths as well as their desires. They then are streared towards a trade school track or college track. As Matt said, kids are so tied to so many class obligations that they don't have time to figure out what they really may want to do

Char Zoet
Fri, 05/24/2019 - 9:52am

What happened to the curriculum of the late ‘50s when the students could choose a track to pursue. College prep, business, general.

Scott Roelofs
Fri, 05/24/2019 - 11:40am

I was in high school decades ago. I did not have an aptitude nor strong interest in art. But I loved music and played in bands every year; thankfully we had a fine band program. Band was not a requirement. (Can you imagine forcing every kid to take band)? I had a great interest in math and science and I took every class available in geometry, trigonometry, chemistry and physics. I went on to college and earned a chemical engineering degree and had a successful career. If I had been forced to take an art class in high school, I might have had to drop band (did I mention I loved band?). Or, maybe I would have skipped trigonometry, which would have made engineering school much more difficult for me. As life went on, I came to appreciate art in a lot of forms. I still do not have a God-given gift to create art. But I enjoy what others have created.
My point?: The state has messed up education so badly in the last 40 years by reducing options for kids, and forcing them into things they don't need to be successful in life. Art is fine for students who want it. Industrial arts is critical for students who want it, AND it is critical to our nation's economic prosperity. Music is great for students who want it.
Give kids an exposure to art in elementary school and then give them an elective art choice in high school.

Fri, 05/24/2019 - 4:38pm

This article seems to be a competition between course partisans trying to ensure that their preferred course is assured in the curriculum. If the article was to enlist a read support it needs to describe what it will provide for the individual student or what outcome it should achieve.
As much as I enjoy listening to music I don't know how [as one commenter suggested] having a music course makes someone well rounded or not having a music course prevents being well rounded.

David M Dunn
Fri, 05/24/2019 - 8:58pm

Not having art or music or languages in public education is a mistake. It may not lead to a career in any of them but it can lead to an adult enjoying and comprehending that a larger world exists outside the village that they live in.
Education is a good thing and should be expanded, not reduced to voc. ed.

Sat, 05/25/2019 - 1:17pm

Help me understand how not having those courses is a mistake, how does it stifle a person from having a full life? What is wrong with learning the practical application of the sciences in voc. ed., where would you live without the knowledge and skills people are taught in voc. ed.
I don't see education as a competition of subject, it seems to me if student learns how to learn they can learn all of what you want them to learn when they want to. I have a friend [in his 60s] whose career has been built [literally] on a foundation of voc. ed. and he has in recent years made himself into a musician. Why should a few select subjects [arts, music, languages] be elevated tot the exclusion of others, why can't course compete for student interest, for parental support on what they provide for the student?
I understand the principles of sound [music], I enjoy music, but I have as they say a 'tin ear', no rhythm, I mention this to help me personalize why to support you perspective.

Sat, 05/25/2019 - 11:32am

3 very smart sons who are now at great jobs.
All 3 sons said too many required courses in highschool. Very little counseling (another sore topic!), no aptitude or interest testing, etc.
Agree with comment that students be exposed to the arts in grade school, and then with testing and counseling allow them to choose a path for their next steps in their life.

Sun, 05/26/2019 - 10:27am

O.K. O.K. Lets ask the students!

Wayne O'Brien
Tue, 05/28/2019 - 1:59pm

On what logical authority ought an arts requirement in the schools be made? Seems important? What does well-rounded mean? Should curriculum decisions be submitted to majority rule conclusions or political will and partisan orthodoxies? Neuroscience has been trying to better understand human consciousness and brain function for years......can science help us understand the role of, or need for, the arts? A branch of Neuroscience, neuromusicology, provides replicated and compelling evidence that of all human activities studied to date, no human activity provides greater brain stimulation or greater global human brain involvement than playing a musical instrument. Information about this can be easily located through a Google search. Ought study of, and implications of, 21st century science like this underpin 21st century school curriculum decisions?