Arts Education: There’s Something Happening Here

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.