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The Dumping Down of America

The arts, foreign languages, and physical education, for the most part, already reside in the educational garbage heap despite the enormous hidden cost to society that comes with their disposal.
Octavia Davis

Issue #55, May 2001

A sustainable behavior can continue in a society indefinitely without harm to the environment, economy, or community. But the manner in which Americans consume and throw away resources cannot be sustained indefinitely. At some point, enough damage will accrue to the environment and the good will of the rest of the world that changes will have to be made. Industries and consumers change their practices as old habits cease to be cost-effective. However, most Americans have no incentive to reduce waste because the cost of tossing an item doesn't appear at the cash register or at the trash can. Municipalities subsidize trash disposal, charging one individual the same for curbside service as the next, no matter what each recycles or throws away. Thus, for most people, the real cost of trashing any particular commodity is hidden.

The habit of tossing things that aren't immediately and obviously useful extends beyond the garbage can to other aspects of our lives. The public school curriculum offers a telling example. In 1998 the US Office of Educational Research and Improvement funded a study called "What Americans Believe Students Should Know." In conjunction with Gallup, the Mid-continent Regional Educational Laboratory (McREL) asked adults across the country to rate standards for each of the disciplines commonly taught in public schools according to whether they thought each was necessary for students to learn prior to high school graduation. The study found that Americans would throw out the arts and foreign languages entirely and would keep only 50 percent of the standards in physical education. In fact, the arts, foreign languages, and physical education, for the most part, already reside in the educational garbage heap despite the enormous hidden cost to society that comes with their disposal.

Americans can view the arts, foreign languages, and physical education as disposables because the present emphasis on standards promotes a view of the school day as a plate onto which only a limited number of items can be served, with the remainder necessarily being scraped into the trash. Proponents of standards argue that in order to ensure that all children have access to high quality education, the essentials of each discipline must be identified, delivered, and tested. While the conviction that basics should be identified is valid, the number of standards defined as "essential" exceeds the capacity of the educational term. Research conducted by McREL shows that in order to accommodate all of the standards currently identified at the state and national level, documents, school would have to extend from kindergarten to grade 21. Even when overlap in standards is taken into account and the fact that teaching a standard in one discipline may address another in a separate discipline, McREL finds that only 160 of 248 standards can be addressed in the K-12 system. Given the assumption that standards best describe public school content, 35 percent of them have to be excluded from the start.

Problems with standards arise, in addition, from the assumption that every discipline is best understood by breaking it up according to Bloom's Taxonomy, which ranks levels of abstraction in educational objectives. Dividing each discipline into isolated objectives reifies each one, making it easier to throw out those that appear frivolous. This "full-plate" attitude toward education ignores the overall benefit that study in a particular area might impart. The standards for physical education which McREL culls from national and state documents, for example, divide the discipline into five pieces:

Standards for Physical Education

  1. Uses a variety of basic and advanced movement forms
  2. Uses movement concepts and principles in the development of motor skills
  3. Understands the benefits and costs associated with participation in physical activity
  4. Understands how to monitor and maintain a health-enhancing level of physical fitness
  5. Understands the social and personal responsibility associated with participation in physical activity.

While it might be possible to say that these five standards address the whole of physical education in terms of Bloom's Taxonomy, it would be ludicrous to argue that they address the physical needs of the child, precisely because they cut the discipline into pieces and rely on the language of abstraction. In fact, when viewed in isolation from the child's body, these standards seem relatively unimportant in comparison to other more obviously abstract skills, such as the ability to add and subtract. If the educational plate can hold only so much, why not throw out "Uses a variety of basic and advanced movement forms," as most study participants did?

If, rather than using the taxonomic language of standards, one were to consider the benefit to children of regular daily exercise in terms provided by health advocates such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Dietetic Association, and the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, one would be far less likely to dispense with physical education. According to numerous studies conducted by these agencies, children must exercise regularly in order to grow into healthy adults. Despite repeated insistence that children should engage in daily physical exercise, time spent in physical education classes across the country has dropped over the last decade from 42 percent of students in 1991 to 25 percent in 1995, according to the American Dietetic Association. Meanwhile, obesity in children has more than doubled. Today, more than 25 percent of children are overweight or at risk for becoming so. The cost to the nation of physical inactivity may not be readily apparent in a child's test score, but it certainly appears in other areas of society. According to a Fall 2000 report to the President by the Secretaries of Health and Human Services and Education, "our nation's young people are, in large measure, inactive, unfit, and increasingly overweight. Physical inactivity threatens to reverse the decades-long progress in reducing deaths from cardiovascular diseases. Ultimately, this could have a devastating impact on our national health care budget." While the language of standards encourages Americans to view physical education as unnecessary, the long-term financial cost to the nation of excluding it demand that it be preserved.

American adults axed only 50 percent of the standards for physical education, but they trashed the arts, including music, entirely. According to the McREL study, Americans were not just neutral about the arts; they expressed a "fair amount of sentiment against incorporating them in a K-12 curriculum." As with PE, music offers holistic benefits to children that cannot be captured in the language of standards, which divide the discipline into discreet learning products:

Standards for Music

  1. Sings, alone and with others, a varied repertoire of music
  2. Performs on instruments, alone and with others, a varied repertoire of music
  3. Improvises melodies, variations, and accompaniments
  4. Composes and arranges music within specified guide lines
  5. Reads and notates music
  6. Knows and applies appropriate criteria to music and music performances
  7. Understands the relationship between music and history and culture

Compared to other learning commodities, music standards, like those for physical education, appear superfluous. The millennial global economy requires a labor force skilled in language and mathematics. From this perspective, to squander time teaching children to sing and improvise music would be a mistake, according to the American public.

However, when judged by criteria other than standards, music education seems absolutely necessary because it enhances learning in the whole child, particularly in the skill areas demanded by the current economy. In recent testimony to the House Education and Workforce Committee, Dr. Norman Weinberger, Executive Director of the International Foundation for Music Research, cited studies that show the "transfer in learning" from music enhances learning in language, mathematics, and science. In addition to these specific merits, Weinberger emphasized that music is "very likely to be a premier activity for facilitating brain function." Hailing benefits to the whole child and nation, Weinberger concluded that music should be part of every school curriculum. In fact, to exclude music from the educational plate would be to inflict an opportunity cost on the country: "Given the fact that the development of children's minds is perhaps the greatest resource of the United States, we ought to employ all appropriate and effective means to achieve this goal." Educators and researchers such as Weinberger advocate music education because they look at music not through the language of standards but through concern for children's overall development.

the dumping down of america

Surprisingly, when American adults consider the importance of music to the public school curriculum in terms of its holistic benefits to children, they reverse their opinion and flock to the bandwagon in its support. Another Gallup poll, "American Attitudes Toward Music," conducted the same year as the McREL study, found that 90 percent of Americans thought music should be taught in schools. While the vast majority of Americans expressed disfavor for music when it was presented in terms of standards, when they were asked to think about music in other terms, 70 percent deemed it so critical to children's development that they wanted it state-mandated for every child. Many factors undoubtedly contribute to the opposing opinions expressed in these studies, but a major contributor to the discrepancy is the terminology of standards and the concomitant assumption that only so many of them can be addressed in the limited school day.

The cases of physical education and music in particular suggest that Americans have aspirations for public education that they hope to materialize but fail to express when constrained by the language of standards. A more comprehensive vision for public education that emphasizes the whole child and community appears in the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development 1995 Yearbook. The ASCD, one of the larger educational associations in the world, calls for a "coherent curriculum" that integrates rather than divides up the disciplines. A curriculum that makes content relevant to children's life experiences and manifests the connections between them and the many communities they inhabit not only promises to be more engaging to students, but also more likely to encourage behaviors that will benefit the greater good. A child, for example, who enacts the process of photosynthesis through dance, studies climactic changes through the cultivation of a garden, relates the tended plant to the food chain through observation of the local ecosystem, compares geographical differences in rainfall and food consumption, and who writes about how personal choices reverberate through time and all levels of community, will be less likely to over-consume or waste food at lunch and more likely to recycle what can be returned to use. In short, the child educated in a coherent curriculum is more likely to engage in sustainable behaviors than one who has not learned to view the world as an integrated system.

wreck Of course, as ASCD points out, the notion of a coherent curriculum implies the question, "whose coherent curriculum?" According to James A. Beane, editor of the ACSD publication on curriculum coherence, the conversation on curriculum reform is limited to the common ground shared by Classical Humanists who advocate the teaching of discrete subjects as unified by such concepts as "truth and beauty," fundamentalist religious groups who see educational content as unified by secular values and filtered through their beliefs, and people who believe learning experiences should be tied to the needs of industry. Left out of the debate for the most part, Beane contends, are the concerns of progressives, who see educational content as best delivered in the context of social issues, with the assumption that learning will be used to ameliorate problems associated with those issues. Beane points out that the politics of a coherent curriculum, which are most closely aligned with a progressive agenda, require difficult concessions from disparate constituencies.

Furthermore, to be blunt, a coherent curriculum as described above upsets corporate interests. Teaching solely through the use of standards promotes taxonomic divisions in human knowledge that function as blinders to "big-picture" awareness. Children educated through a coherent curriculum focused on social issues might not only waste less, but consume less. They might be less easily convinced, for example, to buy processed, non-organic foods, ignore environmental degradation, and accept the messages spread through the mass media. Maintaining an incoherent curriculum, or creating coherence based primarily on the perceived needs of industry, ensures that children remain ignorant of the diverse interests that surround them in the present and through the future. If Americans really wish to sustain society, public education must be shaped with the assumption that it exists to serve the child, the global community, and the ecosystem Earth, not just to safeguard the competitive edge of a singular economy.

Meanwhile, however, what can we do in the short run to retrieve "unpopular" subjects such as physical education and music from the trash? In the last year of Bill Clinton's presidency, the Federal Government produced two documents that affirm the importance of these subjects to American society. The first is the report to the president on the "importance of physical activity and sports" prepared by the Secretaries of Health and Human Services and Education. The report concludes that "All children, from pre-kindergarten through grade 12, should participate in quality physical education classes every school day." The second document is a resolution passed by the House of Congress in July, 2000 that expresses the "sense" that music education "is an important component of a well-rounded academic program." We can start by insisting at the local, state, and federal level that these documents be heeded. Finally, we can address our own attitudes toward consumption and disposal so that we engage in sustainable behaviors.

Octavia Davis received her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from UC San Diego. She coordinates a baccalaureate interdisciplinary program for future elementary school teachers at National University in San Diego.

Copyright © 2001 by Octavia Davis. Graphic 2001 by Octavia Davis. Drawing 2001 by Mike Mosher. All rights reserved.