National Standards and Local Cultures in The Chicago Guide for Teaching and Learning in the Arts

The Chicago Guide for Teaching and Learning in the Arts is a plan as well as a map. Like any good guide, it leads the user to places and potential experiences meant to illuminate and inspire. Our itinerary takes us to arts resources in Chicago and our vehicle is the Chicago Public Schools (CPS)—the first public institution encountered by the vast majority of children in the city. The destination is clear. We want to direct our children to arts experiences that enhance their natural abilities to express themselves creatively. Now, how does the Guide accomplish its goals?

The Guide has been developed by the Office of Arts Education, the first K–12 arts education curriculum office in the Chicago Public Schools that encompasses four arts disciplines: music, visual arts, theater, and dance. The current debate in public education that focuses on reforming national standards, particularly in reading and math, has influenced our approach. We hold that individual schools and the school system should be as accountable for student learning in the arts as they are for learning in other curriculum areas.

Implementing this conviction presents a challenge. How do we construct a new approach to arts education—one that engages all the stakeholders in a common agenda that focuses on large-scale improvement and greater quality arts education opportunities for all students?

The Guide is our attempt to codify a rigorous but flexible approach that can work for all arts educators serving the schools. Within four strands—Arts Making, Arts Literacy, Interpretation and Evaluation, and Making Connections—content and skill development are sequentially ordered and aligned with existing national standards. An awareness of the vast differences in developmental abilities encountered in every classroom is also reflected in this approach.

Chicago offers an immense array of resources that can support children who study the arts in the public school system. Local cultural and professional arts communities, as well as well-trained teachers, are among these supports, and all can help students to advance across benchmarks in the arts as they move up the grades. We expect students to graduate knowing not only about the cultural history of these arts but how to sing tunefully, draw competently, move gracefully, and act expressively. We expect no less than this, given the opportunities that can exist for every child in a twenty-first century American public school when the will and mutual respect is there to align resources for the task.

The Guide is our contribution from the curriculum standpoint. It is intended to be a living document with information that users will build on, refine, and extend as they apply it to practical experiences related to arts education. Schools are the crucibles of public culture. The Guide is a tool to bring about the common agenda for engaging the many arts education stakeholders. They are the school leaders, classroom teachers, credentialed and endorsed arts teachers, teaching artists, parents, funders, and college arts educators who care deeply about arts education.

The funders of arts education and parents of arts students will discover in the Guide evidence of the system-wide commitment to arts education as a core curricular area. That commitment becomes district policy as the arts move to greater visibility in the educational landscape. The learning that takes place in the band room, the art studio, the dance class, or the theater is critical learning for all students in the twenty-first century world economy. College arts educators will build curriculum for their teaching-training programs premised on these expectations.

The vibrant cultural community in Chicago is poised to invest in this work with a new and more intense level of engagement. There is great need for coordinated efforts to ensure that every child in the system, regardless of neighborhood, can enjoy the opportunity to shine as an arts learner. Given the proper nurturing and resources, all children can succeed in this endeavor and graduate from the Chicago Public Schools as expressive, confident life artists. That is our destination. The Guide is our map.