Arts Integration: Implementing a Critical Yet Devalued Core Subject into US Public Schools


Arts Integration: Implementing a Critical Yet Devalued Core Subject into US Public Schools

Sally Sasz
Published by the PIT Journal: 


Despite the devalued status of visual arts programs in publics schools across the US, when it comes to the topic of the visual arts in education, it is widely understood that the visual arts are a vital contributor to students’ creative development and overall success. This article will examine the diverse performance and psychological benefits that distinguish the visual arts from other “core subjects.” Such benefits provide a backbone to address the critical debate regarding how to best integrate visual arts into public school curricula in order to maximize the discipline’s unique benefits for students.


The visual arts are not valued nearly as much as other “core subjects” in American public schools. Often considered supplemental rather than essential to education, visual arts programs receive scant fractions of funding across the United States; art programs are underdeveloped and often the first to go during rampant budget cuts. Nevertheless, when it comes to the topic of visual art in education, it is widely understood that visual art is a vital contributor to students’ creative development. Due to the far-reaching benefits of the visual arts such as improving

student performance, standardized test scores, and cognitive development, many scholars and experts agree that the arts are immensely beneficial and should be more fully implemented in schools. Where that agreement ends, however, is on the question of how best to integrate visual art into public school curricula in order to maximize the discipline’s unique benefits for students.

In order to answer this question, it is first important to explore the diverse and widely accepted benefits of the visual arts that make the subject so essential to education. After establishing the critical importance of visual art in schools, I will next address the debate over how best to integrate visual art into curricula to promote the subject’s immense benefits. I will then weigh the pros and cons of the three different approaches examined in the debate. I will also present my own view regarding how best to integrate visual art into education and explain why support for art integration in public schools across the US is particularly vital today. While this debate engages the economic obstacles challenging progress in visual arts integration, these obstacles will not be the main focus of this article. Instead, my goal is to present a model for visual arts integration for public schools across the US and justify why this model is worth implementing.

First, it is critical to recognize the unique benefits of visual art that make the subject so valuable to students in schools. The first and most fundamental benefit of visual arts coursework is its promotion of the simple joy of creating. Visual arts classes are unique in that they foster a way to “experience, understand, and express the world and our relationship to it” through art activities such as painting, drawing, and sculpting (Fowler, 4). Simply speaking, making art makes students happy. Unlike many other subjects in schools, art focuses on self-reflection and introspection as a means of self-discovery and personal development, providing students with the opportunity to comprehend emotion through artistic expression (Groff).

In addition, by capturing student interest, visual arts programs also promote improved student performance in school. Several studies conducted across the country correlate visual arts education with decreased dropout rates and increased student attendance and standardized test scores. A study conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts entitled “The Arts and Achievement in At-Risk Youth” compared school drop-out rates between schools with Low (limited) Arts and High Arts engagement programs; it is important to note that this study compares students in schools with similar economic situations. The study found that 18% more students dropped out of schools with limited arts engagement as compared to schools with high arts engagement, demonstrating how strong visual arts programs align with decreased school drop-out rates (Catterall). Furthermore, visual art courses promote higher standardized test scores in both English and Math. A study conducted by the Chicago Tribune found that students’ scores improved by approximately 22% in reading and 19% in math after visual arts programs were implemented (Leroux).

However, visual art programs also support extensive psychological benefits that are not as easily quantifiable as improved student performance. In her Doctoral dissertation from Walden University, Cynthia M. Garcia advocates that visual arts courses promote “learning to learn” through hard work, a skill that is applicable to all other disciplines as well as interpersonal relationships, professional roles, and daily life in general (Garcia). Visual arts engagement stimulates cognitive growth in the areas of the brain responsible for the tactile, auditory, and visual senses as well as decisions, judgement, and emotions (Jensen, 113). As a result of extensive brain development, Eric Jensen, a member of the Society for Neuroscience and the New York Academy of Sciences, argues that visual arts programs consequently promote “aesthetic awareness, cultural exposure, social harmony, creativity, improved emotional expression and appreciation for diversity” (Jensen, 3). Further psychological benefits of the visual arts include the development of critical thinking, abstract thinking, and problem-solving skills that prepare students to confront challenges in a variety of ways. The visual arts are unique in their pedagogy; unlike science or math where there is only one correct answer to a problem, there is no distinct right or wrong in art. As a result, visual arts programs equip students with a

constructive outlook that can transform a stray mark or smudge into an opportunity to create something new.

As a result of the widespread performance and psychological benefits promoted by visual arts programs, when it comes to the topic of visual arts education, most will readily agree that the subject is essential to breeding creativity and, furthermore, to progressing overall student development. Therefore, many scholars and experts, including Eric Jensen, Charles Fowler, John M. Wilson, and Dawn Baker, agree that visual art should be supported in education across the US. Where this agreement usually ends, however, is on the question of what is the most effective way to incorporate visual art into school curricula to benefit students.

A central position in this debate of how best to incorporate the subject into education is that visual arts curricula should focus only on the fundamental practice of “doing” art. “Doing” art can be defined as the hands-on process of making art such as drawing, painting, or sculpting; in the classroom, the “doing” art approach would include a brief period of teacher instruction followed by significant time designated for students to make art. According to Amy Charleroy, the Director of Arts at The College Board, “doing” art is the top priority when it comes to visual art education. Charleroy encourages students to engage in making art in order to develop critical thinking skills that promote success on standardized tests such as the SAT. Beyond performance on such assessments, however, she contends that “doing” art also promotes benefits that are essential to students’ overall education; such positives include the advancement of creative thinking, writing, and memory skills. Hence, Charleroy advocates for universal visual arts programs that focus strictly on “doing” art in public schools across the US.

Scholar Eric Jensen, a member of the Society for Neuroscience and the New York Academy of Sciences, also supports the fundamental importance of “doing” art in order to allow students to maximize the benefits of visual arts education. In his book,

, Jensen contends that visual arts programs are most effective when used as a hands-on instrument for academic learning. Jensen advances Charleroy’s argument to highlight that “doing” art separates the discipline from other subjects by promoting unique performance and psychological benefits. By developing students’ spatial and visual senses, Jensen contends that engaging in the hands-on process of art-making enables students to understand themselves and the world around them through emotional expression, a concept often excluded from the educational sphere. Making art connects the curriculum with students’ personal lives and engages them directly in coursework. The North Carolina A+ Schools Program stands as a case study for the “doing” art approach. According to this study, students’ standardized test scores improved significantly in English and Mathematics after taking strictly hands-on visual arts classes (Baker).

Whereas some are convinced that the actual process of art-making is the most important element of visual arts education, others maintain that visual arts curricula would be more effective by expanding the practice of “doing” art to something more multi-dimensional. The second position in this debate argues for the “comprehensive” art approach, which combines the practice of “doing” art with art history and art theory. By making the subject more interdisciplinary, this approach not only acquires more educational credibility, but it also enables students to develop an increased understanding and appreciation for diversity by examining art history. In his book

Dr. Charles Fowler argues that the ultimate purpose of arts education is “to engage children’s imaginations, feelings, and emotions;” developing a more comprehensive curriculum that involves “doing” and understanding art has the potential to maximize students’

experience (101). Fowler combats the “noncognitive” misconception of the visual arts as a field of emotional rather than educational importance. In contrast to the “doing” art approach, “comprehensive” art enables students to express themselves by making art while also connecting them with the history of creative human expression through art history and art theory (Fowler, 43).

In addition to Fowler, John M. Wilson further advocates for the “comprehensive” art approach in his article, “Art-making Behavior: Why and How Arts Education is Central to Learning.” A former Professor Emeritus in Dance and International Studies at the University of Arizona, Wilson points out that visual arts programs in public schools across the country “have not been developed to anywhere near the levels that those in the field of arts education know they can be,” and he contends the “comprehensive” art approach is the most effective method to benefit students (Wilson, 28). Wilson asserts that art-making is “essential to cultural evolution” (Wilson, 29). However, by also exposing students to the rich history of visual art, students can understand the diversity of past human expression and build on the tradition by expressing themselves through art (Wilson, 29). Thus, Fowler and Wilson contend that there is a necessary balance between “doing” and understanding art. Ultimately, school “curricula cannot be limited to just skill development,” and balancing the process of creating and understanding strengthens the visual art curriculum (Fowler, 104). Collectively, Fowler and Wilson argue that the “comprehensive” art approach promotes the fundamental benefits of “doing” art while simultaneously fostering further psychological growth through understanding the history of artistic expression and developing personal identity.

Beyond the critical performance, psychological, and developmental benefits supported by the “comprehensive” art approach, Mark Baurelin, a Professor of English at Emory University, claims that incorporating art making, art history, and art theory into visual arts curricula also acquires more concrete value in the modern education system. Visual art is often considered unnecessary fluff by critics of arts education. For this reason, among others, visual art does not receive significant funding in the public education system. However, Baurelin contends that the “comprehensive” approach adds meat to the subject by engaging other disciplines. For this reason, Baurelin, Fowler, and Wilson assert that the “comprehensive” art curriculum model is the best way to implement visual art in education.

Lois Hetland argues that the Studio Thinking Method is the most effective visual arts curriculum that models what the “comprehensive” art approach would look like in the classroom. According to Hetland, a Professor in the Art Education Department at the Massachusetts College or Art and Design, the Studio Thinking Method includes a brief lesson and instruction by the teacher, time designated for students-at-work “doing” art, and class critique. In addition to providing students with an opportunity to engage in “doing” art, the “comprehensive” model exposes students to lessons in art history and art theory. This model is closely correlated with improved student attendance and overall classroom environment.

The final position in this debate argues that the best way to implement visual art in education is through the “integrated” art approach. Instead of instituting individual visual arts classes, this method incorporates arts-related skills such as hands-on making skills, critical and abstract thinking skills, and aesthetic design skills into the foundations of other subjects. Examples of “integrated” art include project and thematic based, often hands-on, learning in subjects such as science, math, and English.

In support of the “integrated” art approach, Dawn Baker, a Doctor of Philosophy and Educational Psychology at the University of South Carolina-Columbia, claims that incorporating arts-related skills into other core subjects strengthens these other disciplines. In her article, “Art Integration and Cognitive Development,” she claims that strengthening other subjects through the implementation of visual art skills will best benefit students. In her research, Baker examines SPECTRA+, a specific curriculum model based on the “integrated” art approach. A case study of the “integrated” art approach, SPECTRA+ incorporates arts-related skills into other subjects as a way to encourage academic success, self-confidence, and imaginative thinking.

Other scholars such as James Parton Haney, editor of

and Kenneth Osgood, a Professor of History at the Colorado School of Mines, agree with Baker in support of the “integrated” art approach. Haney and Osgood encourage infusing other core subjects with visual art-related skills, especially those linked with STEM subjects, through activities such as building physical models and dioramas and creating digital graphics. Together, Baker, Haney, and Osgood advocate for the “integrated” art approach to visual arts education as a means of expanding the diverse benefits of the visual arts to improve other subjects.

The three primary positions in the debate over the most effective visual arts curriculum model include the fundamental practice of “doing” art, the “comprehensive” approach of “doing” art combined with art history and art theory, and the “integrated” approach of incorporating arts-related skills into other core subjects. Despite the different methods to implementing visual art into school curricula, all three positions strive to expose students to the unique benefits of visual arts programs. Although it is extremely difficult to select a single, most effective method to integrate visual art into public schools across the US, my goal is to propose a model for the best visual arts curriculum to implement. Thus, I will now weigh the pros and cons of each of the three positions explored in this debate and then describe my view in regards to the most effective way to implement visual art school curricula.

Despite the arguments of scholars such as Baker, Osgood, and Haney in support of the “integrated” art approach, it is critical to recognize that this position does not emphasize the art itself. Through the “integrated” art method, students do not receive all of the potential benefits promoted by simply making art.

In an attempt to make visual art more substantial and accessible to students, visual art is often sculpted to look like math or reading. As a result, the “integrated” curriculum model deprives students of the fundamental benefits of visual art such as improved student performance in school, psychological growth, and overall happiness. After all, these benefits serve as the primary motive for implementing visual art in education in the first place.

In her argument in support of “integrated” art, Baker does not stress the value of hands-on art-making nearly to the extent of Charleroy and Jensen, supporters of the “doing” art approach, nor does she promote the importance of art history and art theory like Fowler and Wilson, advocates for the “comprehensive” art approach. Although the “integrated” art method would be the most feasible method to implement into public schools due to the minimal amount of funding resources and required, by sacrificing the unique opportunity to make art, “integrated” art is not an effective model for visual art curricula; it is merely an additional bonus.

While arts-related skills have the potential to strengthen other core subjects, schools still need to recognize visual art as an independent subject. In his book,

, scholar Eric Jensen maintains that “art is the representation, science is the explanation – of the same reality” (62). The essence of Jensen’s argument is that art and science provide different avenues to exploring and understanding the world. In his view, students need both disciplines in order to receive a well-rounded education; in other words, one cannot substitute the other.

Although economists vary in opinion regarding the partition of public school budgets, some will likely dispute my claim that integrating visual arts-related skills into other core subjects would not be the most effective method to visual art integration. Instead, they would probably suggest that embedding arts-related skills into other pre-existing subjects is the most feasible option to art integration, exposing students to visual art, strengthening other core subjects, and requiring the least amount of funding from already-limited public school budgets. Ultimately, however, finding the method that best benefits students through visual arts education is my end-goal. Thus, I debunk the “integrated” art approach upfront in order to address how other visual art curriculum models, although not as practical, would be significantly more beneficial to students.

Disregarding the issue of funding, I would argue that the most effective model of visual art integration out of the three approaches examined in the scholarly debate would be the “comprehensive” approach. I agree with scholars Fowler and Wilson that “doing” art combined with art history and art theory maximizes the unique benefits of visual arts programs for students. Not only does this model promote the unique benefits of art-making such as problem-solving, critical, and abstract thinking skills, but it also exposes students to the diverse history of art. Fowler states that the ultimate purpose of arts education is “to engage children’s imaginations, feelings, and emotions;” creating a more comprehensive curriculum that involves “doing” and understanding art is the most effective way to capitalize on students’ experience (Fowler, 101). By exposing students to art history, they join the multi-millennium artistic conversation and are encouraged to use these influences to shape their own creative voice. Ultimately, the “comprehensive” art approach is the best method examined in this debate that answers the question of how best to integrate visual art into public school curricula in order to maximize the discipline’s benefits for students.

However, as previously acknowledged, a significant obstacle arises between developing a visual art curriculum that will be most beneficial to students versus developing a visual art curriculum that will be most financially feasible in the US public education system.

In terms of providing the best possible visual arts education for students with economic concerns in mind, “doing” art should be schools’ top priority. While it can be further strengthened academically through the “comprehensive” approach or incorporated into other core subjects through the “integrated” approach, universal, hands-on art-making classes are the simplest and most fundamental way to promote the unique benefits of the visual arts. At its core, scholars such as Charleroy and Jensen will agree that visual art is meant to be a creative expression that promotes experiential learning. Visual arts classes that reach beyond craft to engage students in the creative process is the simplest, most practical method to implement that still does justice to visual art.

Connie L. McNeely, a Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University, further addresses the economic logistics of the situation through the “excellence versus access debate” regarding visual arts integration. McNeely argues that, after selecting the best curriculum model, the next step is to provide widespread access to visual arts programs in education. In support of McNeely’s approach, Wilson suggests that in order for students to reap the full developmental and performance benefits of the visual arts, schools must provide opportunities for all students to engage in “doing” art.

Though I concede that, ideally, art “curricula cannot be limited to just skill development,” the hands-on, skill-based process of art-making is the most fundamental and crucial element of the visual arts; furthermore, due to the scarcity of public school funding for the arts, strictly skill-based art classes are the most practical form of visual arts education to universally implement after “integrated” art (Fowler, 104). For this reason, Susan J. Bodilly, author of

concludes that promoting universal access and support for visual art education through the “doing” art approach is the essential first step in improving students’ overall education and promoting critical psychological development.

However, at the end of the day, the success of visual arts programs in US public schools is entirely context specific. Public school funding varies depending on the socioeconomic status of the region. From classroom space, to art materials, to teachers, many public schools lack the resources to implement individual visual art classes based on the “doing” art approach. Thus, after examining the most effective method to implement visual art in education, the next step is advocating for the financial support of the discipline in the US public education system. Although finding economic support to implement visual arts programs into schools will continue to pose a significant challenge, most will agree that working toward universal art-making classes and eventually more comprehensive visual arts classes is not an option, rather, it is a necessity.

Visual arts programs are widely devalued in American public schools, and yet, most scholars and experts will agree that visual art is essential to education, particularly in the twenty-first century. Visual art has the potential to engage diverse experiences, foster difficult conversations, and build bridges between students. However, by failing to support visual art in education, the US public school system deprives students from reaching their full potential.

Carol Sterling, Arts and Education Consultant and Educational Puppeteer, highlights why support for the visual arts is important now more than ever. Sterling contends that the “deteriorating quality of contemporary education” threatens student development as well as the broader global community (Sterling). Ultimately, what is at stake here is students’ ability to develop critical and abstract thinking skills, problem-solving skills, and an understanding of personal identity among many other benefits linked specifically with visual art. By failing to provide adequate visual art programs to students, public schools across the US endanger students’ critical creative growth and development, and therefore, threaten students’ future success in all industries and areas of the nation as well as the world.


Furthermore, Sterling argues that visual art is also especially crucial today because it is “supportive of diversity… [presenting] an opportunity to discover one another’s cultural inheritance in a fashion that celebrates and appreciates rather than promoting bigotry, stereotyping, and intolerance” (Sterling). Hence, in addition to the discipline’s immense performance and developmental benefits, visual arts education is also one of the most effective methods to promote an understanding and an appreciation of diversity, fostering “positive knowledge and empathy for the myriad of cultures and languages” through art (Sterling). Ultimately, “an education enriched by the creative arts should be considered essential for everyone” (Sterling).

I agree with Fowler that “we need more and better arts education to produce better-educated human beings, citizens who will value and evolve a worthy American civilization” (13).

Visual art is not extracurricular, but rather, essential to education. Given this fact, the challenge facing educators is identifying the most effective way to incorporate visual art into school curricula to promote students’ growth and development. The most essential element of visual art is the hands-on process of creating or “doing” art. Despite the conflicting views regarding the best way to integrate visual art into school curricula, scholars from all sides of the debate agree that the inherent value of “doing” art cannot be substituted or overlooked. While finding support for implementing visual arts programs will continue to pose a challenge, by understanding the critical importance of the visual arts and how to effectively implement visual arts curricula, schools can make strides toward developing the most successful thinkers in every field.


Works Cited

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McNeely, Connie L. and Gordon E. Shockley. “Deconstructing U.S. Arts Policy: A Dialectical Exposition of the Excellence-Access Debate.”

, San Francisco, vol. 33, iss. 2, 2006, pp. 45-62, Accessed 1 Feb. 2018.

Osgood, Kenneth. “Engineers Need the Liberal Arts, Too.”

Washington, 21 May 2017, Accessed 3 Feb. 2018.

Sterling, Carol. “The Evolving Symbiotic Relationship of Arts Education and U.S. Business.”

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About the Author(s)

Sally Sasz is an English and Art History double major with a minor in Hispanic Studies. A sophomore from Charlotte, NC, she is passionate about visual art and art education and enjoys drawing and painting in her free time. In addition to Ernest Hemingway, she loves Napoleon Dynamite and Vietnamese food. Her favorite pastimes include walking her three dogs around the block and reading art magazines in Barnes and Nobel. She is often seen biking around campus.