Creative Core: How the Common Core supports the arts and where growth is needed

February 27, 2015

By Tara Brancato


As Governor Cuomo’s educational plans are hotly debated by teachers across New York, in many ways the heart of the conversation is the role of the Common Core standards in our educational future. Regardless of the controversies related to implementation, most teachers agree that Common Core is supporting our students in the climb toward excellence. Currently, however, the standards focus on state-assessed subjects: math and English. But the educators whose voices I always strain to hear – arts teachers – are lost in this sea of ‘tested’ voices. Bringing non-tested subjects into the statewide conversation requires a look at both where Common Core is already connected to our practice, as well as the changes that would make stronger links.


Highlights from the National Core Arts Standards (NCCAS)


Both the Common Core writing and math anchor standards are naturally supportive of a comprehensive arts curriculum. Where there are gaps, the National Coalition for Core Arts has crafted eleven anchor standards for creating, performing, and responding to art.  These standards are an extension of the 1994 National Standards for Arts Education, but aimed at connecting organically to the Common Core.  


While a school musical, art show, or concert might be the most visible aspect of arts education, performances are not the main focus of daily lessons. I teach music in both an ensemble and a classroom setting because my International Baccalaureate (IB) school considers the arts to be part of the core of education. My department has begun using the National Core Arts Standards in conjunction with selections from the Common Core writing and math practice standards. Thirty percent of my students’ IB Music grade is based on a listening exam that asks them to respond to unfamiliar music from any time period and any place in the world, which aligns perfectly with Arts Standard #7: ‘Perceive and analyze artistic work.’ They must be analysts and ethnomusicologists, using high-level music terminology to form arguments based on the evidence that they hear. It is not accidental that these tasks correspond with Common Core writing standards 2, 4, and 9, as well as mathematical practice standards 3, 7 and 8.  Both sets of standards encourage the analysis, critical thinking, and depth that I try to bring to my students every day.


An IB school is particularly suited for Arts Standard 7, but my chorus struggles with the same challenges of any neighborhood school. Our main assessment is our end-of-semester concert. But we record performances and rehearsals, and evaluate our recordings to develop goals.  We develop criteria for what we want to hear, and measure – this is NCCAS #9:’ Apply criteria to evaluate artistic work.’ As an arts teacher, I am trained to evaluate and diagnose skill gaps, and I want my students to develop the same standards based skills. Again, this is intrinsically aligned with both math and writing standards, and the Common Core is helping arts teachers across the nation solidify the language of our arts education.


Room for Growth: Model assessments and encouraging arts standards

The NCCAS website makes a good preliminary attempt at establishing model assessments, but they only address a few generic types of arts classrooms. These standards incorporate and grow from the widely used arts standards we have embraced for the past two decades – teachers in the classroom need to build assessments around them and share resources. But this can’t be done without training arts teachers on how to use the Common Core standards in their own practice and encouraging more universal adoption of the NCCAS.

Recognizing that our students are whole children, who come to us with unique challenges and a host of needs, requires an education that holds them to the highest standards in every area. Arts teachers can no longer be left out of Common Core implementation. The standards do not harm our classes – and indeed, many of them support our pedagogy.  To help combat the Common Core confusion, we have to look at the standards themselves, at our practice, and then find common ground in designing the fair assessments and evaluations that are needed.

Tara Brancato is a founding member of KAPPA International High School, an International Baccalaureate World School in the Bronx, and has been a teacher of arts and human rights studies there since 2007. She is a traditionally certified teacher and a proud UFT chapter leader at her school.

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