Letter to Encourage School Administrators
to Add Art Elementary Art Teachers

I wrote this letter to the Superintendent of Schools and to the School Board in attempt to influence a decision to add art teachers in an elementary system in our area.  They were depending on the classroom teachers to teach art.  Some parents recently moved here from New England.  They were disappointed with the art being taught.  They appealed to the school administration to add art teachers. 

I publish this here for the benefit of parents and teachers who are looking for ways to influence their school administrators and board members.  This district did add art teachers, but canceled them after several years when the budget was tight.  This appears to be a fairly wealthy district with some of the best facilities and athletic programs in our area. 

About half the children in the U.S.A. are fortunate to have art teachers in their elementary schools.  You have permission to quote what you wish from this letter.  This letter lists many of the reasons you can use in your appeals to add art teachers to your schools.  I have added a table of contents, color, and bold face to help you find the main points in the letter.  I have taken out the names of individuals. 

-- Marvin Bartel, Ed.D.

This is a 2004 update of this page.

Table of Contents

March 21, 1994

Mr. xxxxxxx, President

Board of School Trustees

xxxxxxxxxxxxx School Corporation

xxxxxxxx xxxxxx xxxxx


Dear Mr. xxxxxxxx:


I noted with interest several recent news reports in the XXXXXXXXX (local newspaper) describing parent dissatisfaction in the quality of the visual art education in your elementary schools.  You are fortunate to have parents to take an interest in their in their children's education.  We all know too many children lack concerned parents supporting their learning.


Please allow me to articulate some concerns which may be helpful to you in dealing with this issue in your upcoming meetings about this. 


Educationally, you have to be sure that every other position in your system is more important than the ones being requested.  If you listen to these parents, they are trying to tell you they disagree with the priorities you have set for their children's education.  They've seen better in New Hampshire.  It hurts our pride to be behind in Indiana.

Your district has some beautiful facilities.  I was really surprised to read the cost argument against art teachers.  What is best for the children?  I'm sure any administration wanting to provide quality art instruction can find a way to do it.

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In setting priorities we have to make the hard decisions of where to spend our budgets.  In most cases, when classroom teachers are asked if they want art teachers, they are highly in favor of them.  They know the children's needs will be better met.  In most cases, the classroom teachers take a slightly larger class size but are still happier.  What they really like is the fact that they get a break in their busy week.  Parents who like the program help drum up the taxpayer support as well. 


By now you've surely guessed, I am writing from the perspective of an art advocate.  I am a practicing artist and a professor of art at Goshen College.  I have a doctorate in art education from the University of Kansas.  I have been an art teacher in public schools.  Since 1970, I have been privileged at Goshen College to teach an art course for elementary education majors.  Based on the ability level of our graduates as well as many observations in the schools, I am very much aware of the art teaching ability of the typical elementary classroom teacher. 


Out of 120 some credit hours, our elementary education students get 2 credit hours of art appreciation, and 3 credit hours of art teaching methods.  Most university programs provide them considerably less art education than we do at Goshen College.  Even so, most of our graduates are still ill prepared to teach art to children. 


Unfortunately, because of the situation in schools like yours, many of our students arrive at college with essentially no knowledge or skill in visual art.  The same college students arrive with many years of preparation and reasonable ability in English, math, science, and the social sciences.  Their public school education has provided virtually continuous classes in these fields.  However, in visual art in Indiana many only have a few weeks in Junior High when they actually see a trained art teacher.  These are the same people you are putting back into the school as art teachers when you neglect to employ art specialists. 


Much of my time with elementary education majors is spent helping them overcome their anxieties.  Many draw at the third or fourth grade level.  Because of their own educational deprivation during the critical developmental years, they have avoided any natural self-learning in art.  In addition to not having developed basic skills, most are totally illiterate when it comes to design theory, art history, aesthetics, and art criticism.  Most of them, even the women students, can't give me the name of one nationally or internationally known women artist, living or dead, when they first come into my class. 


The saddest comment of all is when I hear them say, "But I'm not creative."  Of course creativity is much broader than visual art and some are actually quite creative in many other areas of the their lives.  Most become more creative when it is encouraged and rewarded.


Your elementary teachers are qualified to teach art in the legal sense in Indiana, but do they actually teach art to children?  Do they know how to teach drawing in ways which do not intimidate and frighten, but still build expressive and observational skills and self-esteem at the same time?  Do they understand how to meaningfully evaluate a work of art and its contribution to society? 


Most of what I see being done in the name of art by classroom generalists isn't art at all.  It is simply making things while using art materials.  The teachers are merely acting as supply clerks.  It is a kind of child labor.  The children are taught to follow directions in order to produce.  They are asked to do but not to see.  They make stuff, but it is neither meaningful nor expressive.  It is formula stuff.  It is more like slave labor than like art. 


Some children may enjoy this break from the books, but not because it is fulfilling in the sense that they have gained any insights into themselves or their worlds.  At best this might be some sort of preparation for factory work.  We all know technology and developing countries are displacing the factory working class.  Successful citizens of today and in the future are those able to work with concepts.  The typical "art" I see being overseen by generalist teachers does not teach conceptualization skills.


Art education has been considered a frill for so long, that most adults in our society don't realize what they are missing.  Yet everybody wants to be better at drawing, better at singing, better at dancing, and better at expressing themselves in every way.  As you know, literacy and knowledge has many facets beyond the mathematical, and verbal. 


Mrs. XXXXXXX as reported in the (newspaper) only tells a small part of the art education story.  She articulates one benefit of having art teachers.  i.e. "... children need the arts to become flexible creative thinkers...."  In my experience I have seen the enhancement of creativity, but I have also seen children find self-worth when they saw that they could produce expressions that dealt with their own lives and experiences.  They are amazed when they see the work of famous artists who have had the same human concerns they are experiencing in their lives. 


I've watched kindergartners who haven't learned to write their own names produce a complex story with pictures. I see them learning how to think.  I see them ponder.  I see them learn how to make their own decisions.  They are figuring the thing out.  No one is telling them the answers.  They are learning that they are persons who can produce answers both meaningful and expressive.  I see them feel pride.  I see them becoming aware of their own bodies and their minds.  Children who draw frequently when they are small become very smart adults.  Their minds have the ability to deal with conceptualizations.  Having grown up learning to attend to a mental task, they surpass others who have been mainly been taught to follow directions.


I have personally seen children with otherwise short attention spans spend long periods of time pondering and working on their art task when they cared for it because it was their baby.  I have seen the impulsive become more deliberate and the thoughtful become more expressive. 


I have seen third graders develop their observational skills and drawing ability under the guidance of skillful teachers who can explain to them how to look at something, without ever having to draw it for them.  They grow up proud to be able to draw. 


Persons who fail to learn to read and write lack self-esteem.  The same is true for those who lack the ability to express themselves with drawing, but it is easier to slip by.  Just as there are effective ways to teach reading and writing there are effective ways to teach drawing, but few generalist teachers know anything about them.  Unfortunately, I've seen too many third graders get frustrated about their inability while their teachers are helpless to know what to do.  Of course drawing is only one aspect of art, other examples are too numerous for one letter. 


One of my roles is to help the Indiana Professional Standards Board review tests used in teacher licensing.  I hope we don't have to count on generalist teachers to be the art teachers in Indiana in the future.  There are states with an art teacher in every school.  You may want to begin to phase in one grade level per year if you aren't ready to hire all the specialists at once.  How expensive could this be?  The fairest way for the children would be to start with the upper grades next year.  Add a grade each year until the transition is complete.



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     Marvin Bartel

Dr. Marvin Bartel, Ed.D. Professor of Art
Goshen College, Goshen IN 46526

1700 South Main Street, Goshen, Indiana 46526
Telephone: 574-535-7000

POST SCRIPT:  As of this writing, 2004, there have been several troubling developments.  This school district (referred to in this letter), after several years with art specialists, no longer has art teacher specialists in their elementary schools (budget cuts). 

Goshen College has also reduced the three semester hour requirement in art education for elementary education majors.  For over thirty  years we required three hours of art practice and teaching methods and three hours of music practice and teaching methods for all elementary education majors. Beginning in 2003 - 4 we are offering a three hour course in 'related arts' that covers visual arts, music, and theater.  This adds drama, but reduces music and art significantly.  This writer believes that this 'watering down' trend in higher education makes it even more important for school districts to include art specialist teachers in their classrooms.  In sellecting an art specialist teacher, schools need verify the candidates specialized preparation to be an art teacher.  In some cases art is being taught by certified teachers who are not certified in art.  Some have little or no art training and virtualy no background in how to teach artistic thinking, art history, creativity, or the basic skills like observation drawing. Even strong artists do not always understand how art is learned and taught.

Teachers certified as art teachers, more than ever, are needed in every school. 

Resource Links to learn about other art education advocacy sources

Another Advocacy Letter for Art Education (added in 2008)
Creativity Killers in the Classroom
How to Draw an Orchid at age four and three-quarters (added in 2004)
The design of an artroom in your school
Helping students learn to ask questions and get their own ideas for artwork
A drawing lesson that teaches children how to draw everything
Classroom rituals to foster learning
Over 50 essays, art lessons, and so on by this author

-- Marvin Bartel, Ed.D.     Contact