Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Arts Education

“In America, we do not reserve arts education for privileged students or the elite. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds, students who are English language learners, and students with disabilities often do not get the enrichment experiences of affluent students anywhere except at school. President Obama recalls that when he was a child ‘you always had an art teacher and a music teacher. Even in the poorest school districts everyone had access to music and other arts.’
Today, sadly, that is no longer the case.”
– U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan, April 9, 2010

As a casualty of the "Arts Wars" I probably would be smart to pick myself up, lick my wounds, and turn my back on the grim landscape and leave it to others to pick up the pieces of what's left of arts education.  My music program in a public school system was eliminated, as were thousands of music and arts programs in public schools around the country.  My experience is one of the many statistics that went into Arne Duncan and President Obama's lament above.

I don't have a good track record of running from difficult situations however, and I guess I'm doomed to continue in that tradition.  In recent months, I've been trying to look at - not what happened to me, but to what is happening in the arts communities I see around me with an eye toward the hope that there are better days ahead with regards to arts education.  I do see good things happening in the arts communities that have survived.  Good people continue to do amazing things with some of the remaining in-school programs.  These continue to be supported (or replaced) by after-school programs, and programs provided by community programs and arts outreach organizations.  Fundraisers and donations from good-hearted parents and community groups provide financial resources to the degree that they can.

I see people calling for educational reform, and even, wonder of wonders, a partial suspension of the No Child Left Behind Act.  But these seem to me somehow to be delaying tactics in what otherwise is a predominately losing battle. I have provided links in the last few weeks to posts that have emphasized the importance of the arts.  I've thought the posts were excellent, or I wouldn't have provided them.  But I am frequently distressed after reading them.  Not by the posts, but by the readers comments that accompany them.  They are few to be sure, (which is to be expected, after all, they are posts about the arts), but they often reveal antipathy toward the arts that I'm afraid is becoming the populist view.

I am not at all alone in my opinion. This year, the National Endowments of the Arts released a report entitled: Arts Education in America: What the declines mean for Arts Participation.  I encourage you to read it.  It is enlightening, important to anyone involved in arts education, and unfortunately sobering.  Here are a few of what I thought were salient points.
  • Arts education in childhood is the most significant predictor of both arts attendance and personal arts creation throughout the rest of a person’s life. 
  • In their analysis, NORC researchers Nick Rabkin and Eric Hedberg test and ultimately confirm the validity of an assumption made with prior SPPA data, that participation in arts lessons and classes is the most significant predictor of arts participation later in life, even after controlling for other variables. They also show that long-term declines in Americans’ reported rates of arts learning align with a period in which arts education has been widely acknowledged as devalued in the public school system. Nor are the declines distributed equally across all racial and ethnic groups 
  • Although adult classes or lessons appear to have a stronger association than childhood experiences with benchmark arts attendance, it is important to note that most Americans who had arts education as an adult also had had arts education as a child. Arts education also showed strong associations with personal creation or performance, as well as consumption of the arts through media.  
  • A small but growing body of research has shown that arts education is associated with the development of dispositions and inclinations that scaffold learning in general, reaching well beyond the arts to a broad range of positive cognitive,
    social, and emotional outcomes. Some studies have found that arts learning has a more significant effect on low-income student achievement than it does
    on the academic performance of more privileged students, and that arts education is an effective pathway to deeper engagement and success in school for students who are at the greatest risk of academic failure. 
  • Some research has shown that arts education can have significant influence on student achievement, even when measured by the narrow standard of improving test scores.16 For example, one study found that the effects of arts involvement on low-income youth, like the effects of early childhood education, are sustained well into young adulthood. Youth who have substantial engagements with the arts are more likely to go to college, get good grades in college, and get a degree.  
  • Research linking the arts to academic achievement is not without its skeptics, including some who are strong supporters of arts education. They assert that the correlations between arts education and positive outcomes do not conclusively demonstrate that
    arts education is the cause of the outcomes. They are concerned as well that arts learning will become the “handmaiden” of other subjects, and that the intrinsic value of the arts themselves will not be recognized.
    In the view of this study’s authors, however, education policy is likely to favor the arts only if the link to general academic achievement is further established and if the current narrow focus on reading and mathematics is broadened. Recently, the U.S. Department of Education has called for a more inclusive curriculum that explicitly includes the arts and new assessment strategies that will capture “higher-order skills [and] provide more accurate measures of student growth” and progress toward college readiness and the world of work
There is much more included in the report, but rather than list what I think are the important points, I  encourage you to get the report, and read it for yourselves.  My take-away point from all of this is that we are living in a time of great change - in all areas of our society.   Providing excellent arts programs is not enough - I've proven that.  We need to work smarter - not harder to make communities aware of the value and the importance of the arts in education and what they are losing if they let them go. With regards to arts education in particular, those who are involved and concerned about it, need to expand their circles of activity well beyond the world of the arts.  Politics, education, business, policymaking, media outlets, school funding programs - (federal, state, and local) and much more need to be the target of interest and involvement.  It is not by preaching to the choir that we are going to turn the tide of 'devaluing of the arts' It is by getting out into public places and public awarenesses that we can make a difference.  "Glee" has got it right.  Highlighting the importance of the arts to new audiences in new ways is the paradigm that we all need to embrace.  Call it 'Arts Activism', it is what we need to prevent arts education from becoming a privilege, and not a right? (see ...young Minds need art).  Unless those who are involved in the arts get involved in these other areas (presumably which are outside of their comfort zone) - we may win sporadic 'delaying actions' but we will continue to lose the 'Arts wars'

As a program note, I've invited comments from a member of the California State Assembly on the arts in education that I hope to include in an upcoming blog.

Until Next time
Ron Zell

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