“How Can You Measure a Rainbow?”

In a paper presented at the National Art Education Association Conference in 1971, Elliot Eisner clears up some misconceptions about evaluation of arts education programs. 

One of the most important functions of this paper is to define the various terminology that is prevalent in the arts education field. Eisner focuses on visual art education, but it applies to the other main arts disciplines of drama, dance and music as well. He defines evaluation as a process to secure  evidence and judge its value. The terms measurement and evaluation are often used interchangeably in the field, but Eisner says they are not the same at all: “Measurement deals with a quantification of data. Not all data, especially in art, need or can be quantified.” (36) This distinction is useful, but the larger question becomes: how do you evaluate something that cannot necessarily be measured?

The lack of consistent means of evaluation and measurement could be one root of the tendency to push the arts aside in favor of other academic subjects that are considered to be more basic or necessary to a child’s education. To start with, art has more subjectivity to it than other basic subjects that have clearer right and wrong answers. In English there are grammar and spelling rules that must be followed, math and science have formulas and calculations, and social studies has sequences of events that cannot be rearranged as well as specific dates for the events. These kinds of right answers are not always there in the disciplines of arts education.

But there are still benefits to be gained from learning in the arts. Especially with Eisner’s definition of education being “a process of improving human life.” (36) The arts accomplish this again and again, and personal testamonials, classroom behavior observations and the enthusiasm and motivation to learn are just as valuable, though varied means of assessment that are just as valuable as test scores.

So, are we really such a fact-oriented culture that we don’t trust something that cannot necessarily be measured in numbers?

The full text of “How Can You Measure a Rainbow?” by Elliot Eisner can be found here: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3191667

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