National Core Arts Standards

On June 4th, 2014, the National Coalition for Core Arts Standards published the first revision to the national arts standards in twenty years. The work was the result of a three year transparent state led process which encompassed massive outreach to the field, ensuring that these standards were created for educators by educators. The new voluntary national core arts standards will serve to inform curriculum, instruction and assessment nationwide and improve student learning and achievement in the arts by defining artistic literacy, shaping policy and research, influencing teacher training, practice and evaluation, and clarifying connections between the arts and 21st century skills.

Historical Context

2010 –Taking the Temperature

In May of 2010, the Common Core Standards for English Language Arts and Mathematics had were about to be released, national Science and Social Studies organizations had begun a process of revising their national standards, and the Partnership for 21st Century skills was working on an Arts Skills map which would be released in the fall. The time seemed ripe to revise the 1994 national arts standards. The State Education Agency Directors of Arts Education (SEADAE), held a gathering of over fifty arts education organizations, researchers and stakeholders at the offices of the Chief State School Officers in Washington, D.C. in order to gather a broad spectrum of persons representing the field of arts education to determine a collective plan of action. In this historic meeting the assembled group voted to pursue revising the 1994 national arts standards.

2011- Building the Framework

By Spring of 2011, the work had begun, guided by the newly created National Coalition for Core Arts Standards (NCCAS), whose members included the American Alliance for Theatre and Education, the College Board, the Educational Theatre Association, the National Art Education Association, the National Association for Music Education, the National Dance Education Organization and the State Education Agency Directors of Arts Education. As time went by new partners were to join the cause including leadership members Young Audiences Arts for Learning and Americans for the Arts. Additional supporting members included the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the Lincoln Center Education department. Monthly and then weekly meetings built the coalition that would fund and guide the work. NCCAS reached out to Jay and Daisy McTighe who became consultants to the work, guiding the inclusion of Understanding by Design elements (2005: Understanding by Design Grant Wiggins & Jay McTighe) to foster an inquiry approach to higher order thinking skills within arts education.

2012- Writing Grade by Grade Standards

By January of 2012, five discipline specific writing teams were in place for Dance, Media Arts, Music, Theatre and Visual Arts. The vision was to support K-12 arts instruction by writing arts standards informed by research and including the first ever national standards for Media Arts. The writing teams and NCCAS leadership spent much of the first year creating the framework and the underpinning philosophical foundations and lifelong goals which would articulate broad goals for learning and define artistic literacy. Artistic processes and process components became the framework to guide the writing. Enduring understandings and essential questions were drafted to ensure a plan for deep transfer of learning tied to the performance standards, and grade by grade standards writing began. NCCAS leadership authored a white paper entitled “National Core Arts Standards – a Conceptual Framework for Arts Learning”, a valuable tool for understanding and using the standards which may be found on the national core arts standards website.

2013- Revising and Refining

In 2013, NCCAS began releasing draft copies of the standards for public review. During a series of three public reviews, the coalition received over 1.5 million comments from over 6000 reviewers, all of which were meticulously studied by research teams, with results driving revisions and edits. Focus groups were convened by the State Education Agency Directors of Arts Education (SEADAE), the National Guild for Community Arts Education, Young Audiences Arts for Learning, The League of American Orchestras and the Kennedy Center, among others, to provide additional commentary. NCCAS heard a clear message in the reviews of the early drafts; a call to simplify the standards, to reduce the number of standards materials and a clear call for more unity among the disciplines. In response to the comments, writing teams returned to the drawing board and simplified the grade by grade standards, created large overarching anchor standards that crossed disciplines and moved Understanding by Design elements into optional instructional support packages.

CASE STUDY: By Educators and for Educators

The map above illustrates the geographic spread of the members of the writing teams; 61 arts educators, chosen from over 450 applicants to form five discipline specific teams. Writers represented diverse schools, colleges and arts institutions across our country and across grades from Pre-Kindergarten through higher education.

The writing was documented and shared every step of the way through live streaming, Facebook and archived meeting recordings. he NCCAS wiki at and the use of social media tools opened the door for the field to allow broad input and inclusion in this transparent process. Here are some quick snapshots:
  • 21,000 arts educators, arts advocates, teaching artists and others viewed the draft revisions to the nation’s voluntary arts standards in the first two weeks of July 2013
  • More than 6,000 provided feedback on the standards via on-line surveys, representing all 50 states and 3 nations
  • 61 writing team members combed through 1,056,000 responses and comments from the field on PreK-8 draft standards
  • 6 nationally released research reports from The College Board supporting the revision process

2014 – Launch and Website Beta

On June 4th 2014 the newly revised national arts standards were published in a cyber-launch with the opening of their interactive website home at for a summer of beta testing, prior to a full launch event in October. Unlike other sets of standards published in hard copy, the new national core arts standards exist only as an internet based tool, within an interactive website which allows users to access, sort and print the standards in ways which are most pertinent to their needs. This marked the end of the three year process of writing and revising the standards; resulting in a set of comprehensive grade by grade arts standards for the disciplines of Dance, Media Arts, Music, Theatre and Visual Arts; supported by six research studies, Model Cornerstone Assessments, inclusion guides for all learners and other instructional supports.

Case Study: The National Standards Website Interactive Home : A Map and A Printing Press


Unlike the old 1994 standards, held together only by the book which bound them, the new voluntary national core arts standards are united by a common framework embedded within the structure of the website. Standards for all disciplines are organized through four non-linear, recursive artistic processes which focus on observable student behaviors that cross disciplines; those cognitive and physical actions by which arts learning and arts making are realized:
Creating: Generate and conceptualize artistic ideas and work.

Performing/Presenting/Producing: Analyze, interpret, and select artistic work for presentation.

Responding: Interpret intent and meaning in artistic work.

Connecting: Synthesize and relate knowledge and personal experiences to make art.

The four artistic processes are the first view that greets visitors to the national standards site along with their companion anchor standards which describe the general knowledge and skill that teachers expect students to demonstrate throughout their education in the arts. The eleven anchor standards are parallel across arts disciplines.

These anchor standards are articulated grade by grade through discipline specific performance standards grades PreK-8 and in strands at the high school by levels of proficiency. Discipline specific standards may be printed as custom handbooks using the tiles along the bottom of the site; which allow the user to slice and dice the standards in customized views.

The standards are supported by a wealth of robust supplemental materials including enduring understandings which state “big ideas” or important understandings, and essential questions which provoke inquiry, process component verbs describe the steps in the actions artist-learners do to complete a task in each grade-by-grade sequence of the standards, inclusion guidelines offer guidance for teaching students with special needs and examples of Model Cornerstone Assessments at the benchmark grades of 2, 5, 8 and the three high school levels illustrate potential models for measuring student achievement aligned to targeted performance standards.

Policy Implications

Why rewrite the 1994 arts standards? Why national? Why core? Among other reasons, it was decided to revise the 1994 arts standards because art making and the tools available to teach art have changed. Since 1994 the technological revolution has created a huge innovation in the tools available to create, produce and present art in all forms, and have impacted the teaching of the arts. In addition, media arts have emerged more fully as an art form, and this has created a need that must be addressed. Assessment has moved to the forefront of education, and there is a growing demand for examples of high quality performance assessments linked to standards for arts education. Finally, from a policy standpoint, it became clear that it was vital to publish revised national arts standards to affirm the place of the arts as a core academic subject. Beginning with the 1994 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Goals 2000, and continuing with the 2001 reauthorization entitled No Child Left Behind, Congress has defined the arts as a core academic subject.

No Child Left Behind Title IX General Provisions states
“(11) CORE ACADEMIC SUBJECTS- The term core academic subjects' means English, reading or language arts, mathematics, science, foreign languages, civics and government, economics, arts, history, and geography.”

It is important to note that the word national in national core arts standards does not equal “federal”, and the word “core” in the title of these voluntary standards does not equal common core. The new national core arts standards were funded by dollars contributed by the member organizations of the National Coalition for Core Arts Standards, who proudly included core in the name to remind us all that the arts are core academic learning.

Based on historical precedent, the new national core arts standards will serve as a valuable resource to inform and shape arts education curriculum, instruction and assessment nationwide. Their predecessors, the 1994 arts standards, drove arts standards creation or revision in 49 states. Once voluntary national standards are published, each state department of education determines for themselves what, if any, influence the national models will have on their own state arts standards. This process usually begins when a state’s existing arts standards come up for a revision cycle. In 2011, a survey of State Education Agency Directors of Arts Education members, those persons in charge of arts curriculum and instruction in their respective state departments of education, showed that 44% of the member states who were planning to review their state level standards would hold off until the national standards could be revised. State standards writing and revision involves a host of public input, teams of state arts educators and stakeholders and cycles of writing and review. In this way, the publication of voluntary national core arts standards can prompt an opportunity unlike any other for rich dialogue between students, educators, administrators, parents and community members and a point of advocacy for the arts to ensure artistic literacy for all.

Case Study: Kentucky: One State’s Journey

The publication of voluntary national core arts standards often prompts revision of a state's existing arts standards and opens the door for a process of rich dialogue between students, educators, policy makers, administrators and parents. State standards writing and revision involves a deep dive by the states arts educators and a host of public review and input, As shown in the diagram above, standards can become an intersecting point of dialogue and communication which is highlighted in the revision process, engaging arts stakeholders and communities in a deep examination of what it means to have access to a high quality education in the arts. This process ultimately defines artistic literacy in ways most meaningful for the state.

In the state of Kentucky, the launch of the new voluntary national arts standards coincided with Kentucky’s revising of their own state arts standards. Discipline specific teams of educators had been meeting to begin the careful and detailed state process of standards review and revision. The new voluntary arts standards were one of the models considered, and a deep dive into the newly published standards began, along with a full public review of the work as a potential to inform Kentucky state standards. The full public review for the state of Kentucky was undertaken in November and December of 2014. Phil Shepherd, Manager Academic Core Branch of the Kentucky Department of Education, had served as the Project Director for the writing of the National Core Arts Standards, and so was able to offer Kentucky teachers deep insights into the work. In the public review, every standard went under scrutiny and was open to public comment and suggestions. Once the review ended, Phil along with the Kentucky Department of Education Arts and Humanities Consultant, Robert Duncan, met to summarize the collected data and comments to share with the Kentucky Board of Education. Based on the overwhelmingly favorable public review, it was decided that the new voluntary standards were a match for Kentucky’s needs and they became the model for revision. In April of 2015 the Kentucky Board of Education gave their recommendations and the process of revising Kentucky standards moved a step closer to fruition. In June of 2015, the Kentucky State Board of Education approved the adoption of the newly revised Kentucky Academic Standards for the Arts.

Phil Shepherd reflected on the process of creating standards that worked for Kentucky based on the national model
“We have learned a great deal about effective ways to share and explain arts standards so that the various perspectives can better understand what they are and how they can be used. There are important lessons learned about how to customize for various school programs, and the use of the overall model. Now we start the road to implementation. “