The Impact of Common Core Standards on Arts Education

Written by Jennifer M. DiBella, Director of Education at Roundabout Theatre Company

(This essay was adapted from an article originally featured in TCG’s Special Report on Education 2012: Arts Education at the Core (PDF). That report shares findings from the over 100 theatres that participated in the TCG Education Survey 2012, along with essays from leading theatre education directors on the impact of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) on arts education, and CCSS resources from the past year.)

Created by state education leaders and governors from 48 states, the Common Core is the largest effort in the United States to develop a set of unified standards intended to equip students with the knowledge and skills required to succeed in college and careers.  A popular refrain from Common Core advocates is “fewer, higher, deeper” — in essence the main shift from previous standards is to offer a reduced number of more rigorous standards.  The Core has been met with mixed reactions from educators around the nation.  Some are excited about the emphasis on deep critical thinking and others find the new mandates and benchmarks to be cumbersome and confusing.  When it comes to the connection between Common Core and the arts, there is a lot to be explored.

At Roundabout Theatre Company, partnership is at the core of our education programs, so when the Common Core State Standards were announced in 2010, we knew that we had to do our best to prepare our teaching artists to support their counterparts in the classroom as they adopted these new standards. We slowly started integrating the Common Core language and instructional shifts into our bi-annual Teaching Artist training seminars and the Professional Development workshops we facilitated for classroom teachers. We carefully examined our programming to look for natural alignments and we have even overhauled our assessment paperwork to align with benchmarks found in the Common Core.

In order to better prepare students for college and career, the Common Core asks educators to move from content-based instruction towards skill-based learning. This shift aims to give students the tools to access the content information they need to excel in whatever subject area they choose to explore. We quickly found that this “skills-based” focus aligned nicely with the arts integration work that we were already doing in classrooms. As theatre artists, we are required to carefully analyze a script and make choices based on evidence found in the text. Skills like close reading and identifying the author’s purpose are important to helping students make strong artistic choices. These skills have become increasingly important in our current climate of social media information sharing and “fake news”.  Another big push found in the English Language Arts Common Core is an emphasis on using non-fiction and informational texts. In order to support this initiative, we encouraged our partner teachers and teaching artists to use historical primary sources and scholarly articles to help build a social, political, and cultural context for the artwork they are exploring with students. Furthermore, we reminded them that resource guides and even theatre playbills, which include interviews with artists, are fantastic non-fiction resources.

The Common Core requires “regular practice with complex text and its academic vocabulary”. By asking educators to be intentional about their language and vocabulary choices, we are supporting language acquisition skills that students’ need in order to be successful in college and career. The Common Core also asks that, whenever possible, educators provide a connection to “industry” so that students can be exposed to varied possible career options. At Roundabout we have worked hard to capitalize on the rich resources the theatre has to offer students and educators. Not only do students regularly attend our Broadway and Off-Broadway productions, and have the opportunity to meet with the top actors in the business, but we are also looking for less traditional connections to professionals in the field. We have created Theatre Business residencies, where students meet with our Marketing and Development staffs to learn firsthand about their work and then replicate these work processes in their classrooms. We have also created a partnership with the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) to create a “Hidden Career Path” program, where students meet IATSE members working at top Broadway theatres to learn in detail about their roles and responsibilities and to receive in-depth all access tours of the professional spaces in which they work.

As David Coleman, architect of the Common Core Standards, says, “The great news is that the [Common Core] standards call on so many things the arts do well. The tradition of careful observation, attention to evidence and artists’ choices, the love of taking an artist’s work seriously lies at the heart of these standards.” As arts educators, we must continue to do our best to maintain and enhance the alignment of the Common Core Standards in our work with students and support our partner teachers as they fully integrate the standards across their curriculum.

Jennifer M. DiBella currently serves as Director of Education at Roundabout Theatre Company, where she has worked since 2005. Roundabout’s education department reaches over 30,000 students, teachers, and theatergoers each year through in-school partnerships, career and workforce development, professional development, after-school initiatives, and audience enhancement programming. Jennifer holds a MA in Educational Theatre from NYU and a BA in Theatre Education from Wagner College where she also received her NY State Teaching Certification.  She has extensive theatrical directing and teaching experience with artists of all ages.  Prior to joining Roundabout, Jennifer worked for Camp Broadway, Walnut Street Theatre, and schools throughout the tri-state area.  In May of 2010, she completed Coro Leadership New York, a civic leadership development program that provides the skills and knowledge individuals need to effect change in their organizations and across NYC.  Jennifer serves on the Board of Directors for the New York City Arts in Education Roundtable and on the Audience Engagement Committee for the Broadway League. In 2011, Jennifer was proud to receive the Dina Rees Evans Theatre in our Schools Award.