Teachers have felt tied up in knots, for more than a decade, due to the threat of No Child Left Behind, NCLB, sanctions for failing to meet unrealistic proficiency levels. Every Student Succeeds Act, ESSA, opens up many opportunities for states and local school districts to develop curriculum programs for a “Well-Rounded” education for all students. The term “Well-Rounded” appears 24 times in the law, and includes everything from Arts, Physical Education, Science, Civics and Government, Music and Foreign Languages – all of which are programs eligible for federal funding under ESSA.
Secretary of Education John B. King writes: “States now have the opportunity to broaden their definition of educational excellence, to include providing students a strong learning experiences in Science, Social Studies, World Languages, and the Arts; as well as, AP, and International Baccalaureate classes. And even supporting students’ socio-emotional development, that is a huge and welcome change.”
First introduced in 1994 as part of the Educate America Act, the term “Core Academic Subjects” covered nine (9) subject areas in which students were expected to demonstrate competency over challenging subject matter.
The core academic subjects included in this definition were: English, Mathematics, Science, Foreign Languages, Civics and Government, Economics, Arts, History and Geography.
According to the Education Commission of the States, Your Policy Team, June 2016, lawmakers expanded this definition by shifting from core academic subjects to a well-rounded education to include Seventeen (17) subjects covering the commonly tested subjects of English Language Arts and Mathematics; as well as, other subjects covering the Arts, Humanities, Sciences and Social Sciences.
Specifically, the subjects identified in the legislation to define its term “Well-Rounded Education” are the Nine (9) previously defined core academic subjects: English, Reading or Language Arts; Civics and Government; Mathematics; History; Geography; Science; Foreign languages; Economics; Arts;
and an additional Eight (8) now to include in ESSA’s “Well-Rounded Education” definition: Writing; Engineering; Technology; Music; Computer Science; Career and technical; Health; Physical Education.
Surprisingly, this list is not all-inclusive, ESSA allows states to add additional subjects to the definition: “… and any other subject, as determined by the State or local educational agency, with the purpose of providing all students access to an enriched curriculum and educational experience…”
At the Arts Education Partnership National Forum, Former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan remarked that by offering students a Well-Rounded Education, they are able to make connections “which ultimately empower students to develop convictions and reach their full academic and social potential.” He further explained: “. . . the study of history and civics helps provide that sense of time beyond the here and now. The study of geography and culture help build a sense of space and place. And the study of drama, dance, music and visual arts help students explore realities and ideas that cannot be summarized simply or even expressed in words or numbers.”
Christopher Woodside of the National Association for Music Education states that the change is nothing less than transformative, and he explains,
“For the first time, we actually have music education enumerated in federal law . . . ESSA provides clarity on what ‘Well-Rounded’ means and spells it out. I think music educators, arts educators generally, should be very excited about this.”
Teachers now have the freedom to become more creative in the classroom, conforming less to the rigid testing regime forced on teachers across the country. The limitations of NCLB’s accountability made it difficult for teachers to explore topics and dig deep into the material, because there was little flexibility due to the high-stakes of the dominant testing requirements and the narrow range of core curriculum classes offered in schools.
The whole point of the law is to empower educators and students to refocus on teaching and learning in the classroom with greater flexibility to revise their own accountability systems. Teachers now do not have to feel like they cannot provide instruction in a curriculum that is broad and rich in content, not just reading and math, because they are able to explore the arts, civics, engineering, and hands-on technical coursework with students. The broaden curriculum access will increase student engagement, and allow more flexibility for teachers to provide students with learning opportunities for advanced coursework, college and career readiness.