Arts Education: There’s Something Happening Here

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Arts Education
Photo: Francis Family Foundation.

There’s something happening here
What it is ain’t exactly clear…
Everybody look what’s going down…

Fifty years ago, Stephen Stills wrote those lyrics, which were first recorded in an iconic version by Buffalo Springfield in reaction to riots in LA provoked by a culture clash of the 1960s. Since that era, proponents of different political and philosophical points of view have made concerted efforts, overt and covert, to bend our government and institutions to their interests. When rhetoric and actual facts on the ground have diverged (as often happens), we must look deeper to really see “what’s going down.”

Consider, for example, the diminishment and/or disappearance of arts education in our schools. This is truly harmful to our society in light of data clearly demonstrating that exposure to the arts in the lives of school children better prepares them for the complexities of life in our culture and, in particular, for success in our modern information age. So it is heartening to see that while our common narrative holds that arts education has disappeared from our schools due to a lack of funds and the need to focus on building other skills, “there’s something happening here.”

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[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]There’s something happening here.[/pullquote]We are now seeing public and private efforts, some coordinated and some not, to successfully rebuild arts education programs in pre-K-12 education. After so much debate and rhetoric, some people are again acknowledging that exposure to a broad and diverse set of subjects are critical to a thriving civic and business environment — and art must be one of those subjects. This acknowledgement stands in the face of the longstanding argument that because literacy in math and science are critical for success and advancement in our technology-driven information age, and because the US has fallen behind in these areas, we must focus funding and standards on those areas, to the specific detriment of literacy of the arts.

But now, business leaders are increasingly vocal that they are most interested in workers who can think critically and creatively, collaborate and work independently. These leaders realize what a recent undergraduate history major I met already knows — that “making sense of the world is part of what the humanities can achieve”; that the study of humanities is “an exercise in empathy.” This undergraduate, Emily Wong, also wrote this:

…the humanities are the study of the ways in which people have created meaning over time and the arts are some of the physical presentations of such meaning…. We create meaning by sharing, understanding context, making connections, and expressing ourselves.

Wong, like today’s business leaders, realizes that while science and math capabilities are important, they are insufficient in and of themselves for success in today’s world, and they may not be the most important skills to develop. Business leaders are confirming what the data shows: engagement with the arts during early and later education generally build necessary critical, collaborative and creative skills. Ironically, other data shows that engagement with arts education can increase performance in mathematics. Having subjected an entire generation to a diminished or non-existent education in the arts and humanities, it should not be surprising that we seem to have a deficit of critical thinking, collaborative skills and, possibly, empathy for each other.

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Some of our education policies in recent decades have also had another harmful impact: by cutting or eliminating arts education in under-performing schools, we have further hindered those very students most in need of developing the necessary skills for success. Federal and local studies confirm that there is inequity in access to arts education in our schools, and, unsurprisingly, that schools providing less access to such an education are more often attended by students in under-served or economically challenged communities. In general, schools with higher populations from non-white demographic groups, or from families closer to or under the poverty level, consistently have less access to arts education.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]What “No Child Left Behind” left behind.[/pullquote]At the beginning of this decade, the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities called for reinvesting in arts education in K-12 schools. Its report noted growing data showing that arts education increases academic achievement, school engagement and creative thinking. Since then, repeated studies have further shown that arts education increases student graduation rates, improves performance on standardized tests, leads to a better understanding of higher-level areas of knowledge, enhances critical thinking and processing of complex information, and elevates social capabilities, including the ability to understand others.

In a test of its assumptions and findings, in 2012 the Committee adopted a limited number of under-performing, under-resourced schools around the country and invested funds and support for arts education in them. Their Final Evaluation Report of 2015 documented the impact of their investment. The program — entitled Turnaround Arts — invested in schools that had shown no improvement under the state and federal programs that mandated performance at a specific level, such as “No Child Left Behind“:

The premise of Turnaround Arts is that, used strategically within this context, arts education offerings can provide school leadership with powerful levers to support the turnaround process. In particular, the program focuses on improving school climate and culture, deepening instruction, and increasing student and parent engagement, as a pathway to improved academic achievement.

Turnaround Arts believes that student success flows from more than just the classroom — a holistic approach that features a number of strategies now being replicated in other programs nationwide. These strategies include: principal leadership; strategic use of arts specialists; non-arts classroom teachers integrating arts into core contents; using teaching artists and community organizations; engaging districts, parents and communities; and focusing on strategic arts planning, professional development and improvements within the school environment. And the results are encouraging.

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At the same time, significant efforts in Boston, Dallas, Seattle, Chicago, NYC and LA are adopting related, but different, approaches. The results, while not enough in and of themselves to address the pervasive problem, show definite levels of engagement that contradict the commonly promoted rhetoric that there is diminished or no arts education in schools. During the 2014-15 school year:

  • 93 percent of Boston’s K-8 students receive weekly year-round arts instruction, up from 67 percent just two years ago;
  • 58 percent of Chicago elementary schools met the city-mandated goal of 120 minutes of weekly arts instruction, up from 47 percent, while system-wide, elementary school arts instruction stood at an average of 114 minutes;
  • of those NYC high schools reporting, 100 percent met the state requirement of offering one unit of 180 minutes per week of arts instruction throughout the school year, up from 95 percent just two years ago.

In some cases, public schools, private citizens and nonprofit organizations coordinate to provide strategic and philanthropic support and a number of these groups have even built a consortium to exchange ideas, results and strategies. Almost all of them are now documenting improved access to arts education and student performance, though some still have a long way to go. Underlying most of these programs is a common overall approach, which includes:

  • A public-private partnership that engages public education systems, municipal governments, cultural organizations, philanthropies, communities, and families;
  • Data-based assessment that identifies gaps in access and equity, establishes measurable public commitments and policies, and tracks progress;
  • Regular communications about progress toward goals and funding to encourage community members to advocate for and take ownership of these efforts;
  • Investing in the people (e.g., families, youth, teachers, teaching artists) engaged in this work at the deepest level and connecting them with others (e.g., elected officials, philanthropists, school leadership) to help move the needle.

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In many cases, success is also aided by means of a centralized infrastructure capable of supporting the efforts system-wide while not disempowering local expertise — and also by generating additional financial support. Where such a total approach has been implemented, some areas show real success in significantly increasing delivery and access to arts education, sometimes reaching 100 percent of their population.

It is in the nature of the culture we inhabit today that no public debate is free of extreme, often misleading rhetoric. We argue in sound-bites rather than holding a rational consideration of facts and ideas. Half a century ago, some of those unhappy with the direction of the country successfully promoted the idea that we cannot afford arts education in the face of more pressing needs. As data continues to emerge that more and more reinforces what we know about the importance and benefit of arts education, the case gets stronger and stronger to bury the old thinking, once and for all.

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Ken Tabachnick

Ken Tabachnick is an arts manager, educator, reformed intellectual property attorney and intermittently practicing artist. In his different roles, he has worked with: major institutions, such as New York City Ballet, Paris Opera, the Kirov and Bolshoi companies; individual artists, including Stephen Petronio, Bebe Miller, Robert Wilson and Trisha Brown; and educational institutions Purchase College and NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. His current interests occupy the intersection between art, policy, business and organizational structure, and TaeKwonDo. He is active on non-profit boards including Dance/USA, Stephen Petronio Company and Westbeth Artists’ Housing. Select writings and speeches can be found at his blog, Periodic Arts.

  • Philip S. Rosemond

    I apologize for the following rant in advance. But, the rosy picture regarding the arts i the US is sadly misleading. The article is a wonderful marketing program for such programs as Turnaround Arts. We need these programs to be exponentially larger and more important and -powerful- than they are! And, the fact that the arts wield little or no power beyond the Sysifistic task of upholding and supporting culture, is why such programs are no more that tokenism against 5 behemoth super- memes: 1) The dominance of Amateurism over Professionalism, which is directly related to 2) Populism over Excellence, which is directly related to reliance upon 3) Ignorance over Education, 3b) Experimental chance oriented experience, over mentored and guided experience. 4) Most importantly, the arts are not about the artist, but about the art form and the society it supports. 5) And, for that reason, art is not a commodity that can be traded, bough or sold.

    Indeed, I’m quite sure such progeams are working in such “blue” cities as Boston, New York and Chicago. But the fact is that the arts are struggling more now than ever.

    In brief, more money is thrown at wanna be artists with little or no arts education, who desire popularity, stardumb, wealth and fame. Popular musicians warble out their 2:15 songs with no more than three or four harmonic flows; a hipster splatters paint on a giant canvas making one monstrous expressionist portrait of Uncle Sam in from of the flag after another. Would be poets rap out their vitriol at “the man” or about their prowess in bed. And dancers switch to pole dancing because, hey, they know with enough crotch shots they’ll get noticed! Well, you’re damn right we need arts education!…but we need -real- professional, curricular, discipline oriented arts education for those who so deserve it -not- for those who would fritter it away as simply “fun” or a hobby.

    As 40 year professional curator, choreographer, artist, and arts educator I have spent much of this time swimming upstream against this stream of mediocrity. The fact is that western culture has forgotten that art -is not- just entertainment for sale. We have forgotten the idea of performance in lieu of spectacle. We have forgotten that bigger is -rarely- better, and we ignore the fact that true, honest “art de haute qualité” takes years of humble training, learning that their place, no matter how great or not they become, what they produce is not about them. They must train, produce only quality, not as some commodity that the dream will make them adored and rich.

    Yes: artists should make a living, and damn good living too: but, not everyone who labels themselves “artists” lives up to that title. Most moniker themselves so, in order to support to an ego run amuck. I will venture that, at best, 5% of the so called artists out there, critically should be considered as such.

    Yes: we should support a totality of training in the arts for -all- people. But, such education should be inclusive of the training the understanding that the label of “artist” is as difficult to attain as Doctor, Engineer, CPA, PhD or CEO. Where money should be spent is not on reality TEEVEE, rather professional arts education for those children who show all of the following: a) talent, b) interest c) drive, and d) the discipline and e) humility to continue though to the end of their pedagogical training.

    Yes. We need to promote artists and spend money on the arts. But, the arts as a practice and cultural institutions -are not “business”- EVER, even though artists and arts organization need to operate under business-like principles and procedures so they function within society as -needed- instead of simply “desired”. Sadly, the vast majority of populist arts and organizations, (as we see in Hollywood, Las Vegas and, somewhat in New York), simply borrow from art, eroding true artistic quality, and what real,,aesthetic value is to the ignorant masses. All legitimate art forms stand -far above- such endeavors as sport, recreation, entertainment, spectacle, for-profit business and government as necessities for societies and cultures to continue. But, if the arts are degraded into self-serving populism, society degrades with it. In fact, the arts are foundation, chassis and infrastructure by which -every aspect- of a culture either thrives or self-destructs.

    I think there is little doubt this degradation is where we are currently headed. It began with the devolution of art as cultural excellence into self serving amateurism, populism, ignorance, and commoditization slowly after World War 2, with the rise of mass communication. Since the rise of the internet, it has hit bell curve and now is totally out of control.

    Can education correct his course? Not, if the education is coopted by the inequities of wealthy people and corporations altering public heurstic thinking as society is self-oriented: society is about living together. It is the arts that can reintegrate society, -but only if it is recognized as 1) a profession maintained by highly trained individuals 2) maintaining the arts as participatory by non-artists as observers and only then as amateurs, 3) that the arts are, thus, one of -the most precious- ideals society holds equal with science and philosophy.

    I do not see this happening soon. As an educator myself, I can only aspire to it. But, if students are conditioned not react to the need for discipline and effort, (regardless of area of study), as it is now, then mediocrity as we are now experiencing in all levels of our society, (politics, business and even the trades), will cause our demise just as it did ancient Greece, Rome, and Imperial European states.

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