May/June 2016

14, 34, and 1,400: Updating Illinois arts standards starts with time 

By Jonathan VanderBrug
Jonathan VanderBrug is policy and research director for Arts Alliance Illinois.

What is the significance of 14, 34, and 1,400?

Are they the code to unlock a safe? No.

Are they the formula for a new physics problem? No.

Perhaps they are winning lottery numbers. Unfortunately, no.

The three numbers symbolize the extensive process used by the Illinois Arts Learning Standards Initiative to develop recommendations for updated arts learning standards. During a 14-month process that began in January 2015, the Initiative’s steering and advisory committees – led by educators – met more than 34 times and volunteered over 1,400 hours.

Arts Alliance Illinois coordinated the process in partnership with the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE). The Initiative’s steering committee consisted of leading arts and education organizations and the advisory committee, which spearheaded the development of the updated standards, was comprised of a diverse group of teachers, administrators, and teaching artists.

In February the Initiative presented its recommendations to the Illinois State Board of Education. The public comment period occurred in mid-April. The board will likely vote on the recommended standards sometime this spring.

Value of arts education

Why is this initiative significant? The answer lies first in the significance of arts education.

The arts are essential to a complete and competitive education for all Illinois students. Students today live in a world marked by rapid advances in technology, the potential to collaborate on an unprecedented scale, and an abundance of information. The arts equip students intellectually, emotionally, and socially to thrive in this ever-changing environment.

Arts education prepares students for success in college and career. It increases test scores across subject areas and results in higher levels of literacy. Over 70 percent of companies rate creativity as a primary concern when hiring, yet 85 percent of these companies cannot find the creative workers they seek, according to Americans for the Arts and the American Association of School Administrators.

Arts education also helps close the achievement gap. Low-income high school students who have arts-rich experiences in high school are more than three times as likely to earn a bachelor’s degree. They are also more likely to obtain promising employment, volunteer in their communities, and vote, according to reports by the National Endowment for the Arts.

In addition, the arts promote self-discipline, self-confidence, and self-reflection, while at the same time teaching students how to empathize with others and communicate effectively. The arts classroom is often a school’s most democratic space, where students of all levels learn to respect each other’s unique contributions and to work collaboratively.

Arts learning standards identify what is important for students to know and be able to do in dance, media arts, music, theatre, and visual arts. Standards help organize teaching and learning, and they reinforce best practices.

Arts and media are continuously evolving, but Illinois has not updated its arts learning standards since 1997. Technology, education policy, and artistic mediums have changed considerably since then. In addition, over the past five years, ISBE has been reviewing the state’s learning standards in other subjects. ISBE adopted new standards for math and English language arts in 2010 and for physical education in 2013. In 2014, it adopted new science standards and began the review for social science. Now is the time to bring Illinois’ arts learning standards into the 21st century.

Recommended standards

Arts Alliance Illinois and its partner organizations have created a new online center, dedicated to arts learning standards in Illinois: The site enables you to review the standards and learn more. Here is a summary of the four major themes at the heart of the recommended updates:

1. Flexibility and Local Control

The standards identify and broadly articulate important knowledge and skills that educators can observe and document. Curriculum and assessment based on the standards, however, are best developed by local school districts, schools, departments, and teachers. The choice of exact content in curriculum belongs to local communities. They are best positioned to determine the particular content related to the artistic processes in the various artistic disciplines. The Initiative kept this in mind as it crafted the recommended updates; it avoided the prescriptive and emphasized flexibility.

2. Inclusion and Diversity

The process of developing the standards   reflected the diversity of Illinois’ school districts. The Initiative’s advisory committee included balanced representation among geographic regions, grade levels, and artistic disciplines. At the same time, the Initiative did not take votes. The committees and work groups made decisions by consensus. The Initiative’s recommendations therefore reflect full, strong support.

3. Technology

Of particular note, the Illinois Arts Learning Standards Initiative’s recommendations include learning standards for the discipline of media arts. Illinois currently does not have standards for media arts, and in this area alone, the Initiative’s recommendations reflect a significant modernization of student learning in Illinois. In fact, across all the artistic disciplines, the updates reflect a greater emphasis on technology and research in the arts.

4. Educator Leadership

The Initiative’s advisory committee, which played the lead role in developing the recommendations, consisted of teachers, administrators, and teaching artists. “Educators led the development of these standards,” says Donna Torkelson, an advisory committee member who teaches fine arts at Westfield School in Winthrop Harbor District 1. “The Initiative empowered me and all the teachers involved.” Advisory committee member Josh Shearer, from Anna CCSD 37, adds, “It has been energizing to participate in such a grassroots process and see fellow educators with diverse views reach consensus on these practical standards.”

The Initiative also held public forums and conducted online surveys, gathering input from school board members, parents, and educators throughout the state. As a result, the recommended updates reflect the diversity of Illinois schools, provide teachers and school boards the flexibility they need in giving students quality arts education, and reflect the best practices seen in Illinois classrooms.

Arts Alliance Illinois and its many partner organizations are grateful for the diligent leadership of school boards across the state and for the Illinois Association of School Boards’ support of the recommended arts learning standards.

If you have questions or would like more information about the Illinois Arts Learning Standards Initiative, please contact Jonathan VanderBrug, policy and research director, Arts Alliance Illinois, at, 312/855-3105, x12, or @JVanderBrug.