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How Can Arts Education Be Promoted More Effectively?

In today's installment, Deborah Meier and Joe Nathan respond to readers who commented on their post earlier this week about the importance of advocating for arts in education.

BD Taylor wrote: It wasn't educators who marginalized the arts in schools, but school boards who mainly represented the views and beliefs, contrary to assertions made, of their parent communities. Over the past 40 years we cycled millions of kids through our theatres, concert halls, and museums, conducted hundreds of residencies in thousands of schools, but those kids, who we supposedly reached 10, 20, 30 years ago became the parents of kids in schools where the arts were cut! Face it, we must have done a pretty poor job. The fault, dear colleagues, is not in our stars, but in ourselves." --Bruce D. Taylor, Author, Common Sense Arts Standards.

Deborah Meier responds: "BD Taylor, don't beat yourself up. Parents are being propelled by the argument that their children's future rests on getting good test scores--and that this requires a focus on what the test covers and how it expects respondents to respond. And they are hearing this from many sources that they either believe or fear the consequences of being skeptical. I've long been an advocate of a weighted voting system for school boards--in support of more family members of current students on boards. Various systems of voting would make school boards more representative of the community the school directly serves. One could have half and half, for example.

Joe Nathan responds:  Mr. Taylor, I agree that decisions about funding priorities often are made by school boards, rather than educators and families in schools. This is one of the reasons I've suggested more school-level decisionmaking on how to spend funds. I'm also puzzled about what appears to be much more advocacy by parents whose youngsters participate in sports, compared with those whose kids participate in the arts. Many school board members and journalists have shared this with me. I have not done a systematic study, but I have urged families valuing the arts to be more active in sharing their stories with decisionmakers.

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BD Taylor wrote: My son spent his entire journey in public schools playing in every band, every orchestra, sang in every chorus in every grade, even played the bass in the pit for high school musicals. Now that he is a 24-year-old adult, I asked him, "In all those years, what did you learn about music?" To which he replied, "I learned to play the notes." That's it? That's all? That is not learning, that is remembering, and remembering is what often passes for arts education, whether it's in music, theatre, dance, or visual art. We pay lip service to "critical thinking," "social skills," "raising self-esteem," and other nebulous benefits that are rarely addressed by design, but occur as ancillary byproducts to self-expression in performance and product. It is ironic, however, that we now live in an increasingly arts-infused society that requires more and more artistic skills in order to achieve success. In addition, the very cognitive processes necessary for overall student achievement within the common-core paradigm are inherent in artistic process, such as analysis, evaluation, interpretation, drawing inferences when focused on such things as theme, main idea, key details, structure, meaning and purpose. In the [earlier blog post on this topic], neither party could cite tangible benefits of arts education that can be supported by actionable evidence, but rather implied "good feelings" engendered by the accomplishments of great artists such as Bessie Smith. The purpose of education is for students to develop the skills and acquire the necessary knowledge that will equip them to become capable adults in an increasingly complex world that necessitates the ability to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances. The reality is that this has always been thus through the arts, but you wouldn't know it from this discussion.

Deborah responded: Yes, as in all the other disciplines, too much was learned by rote--reading the notes.  Sad--although why in the world did your son take all of that music if he wasn't getting something out of it?  My own kids were luckier--and still play instruments, listen to music, go to hear it, and have passed the love on to their kids, my grandchildren. In my experience music was taught better than math and history--and has had a greater impact--although there were occasionally exceptions of kids who fell in love with and intrigued by and determined to pursue mathematical problems, ditto for history, foreign language study, science, etc.  Come to a Central Park East school concert someday and you'll see what it can be.

But your son still intrigues me--maybe his concept of what "learning" means is too narrow. When I ask people what they learned in school--or after 4 years in college--they often give me such "dumb" answers. But I fault myself for wording it perhaps in a way that suggests I want a concrete factual answer.

Joe responds: Like Deb, I'm also puzzled that a young man would report the major thing learned from singing and being in orchestra and band was how to "play the notes." I hope that he, like so many others, learned that we often accomplish much more by working with others. I hope he was proud of at least some of the performances.  But I've found sometimes adults have to help young people understand what they have learned. That's because sometimes youngsters get the impression that "learning" is only what's measured on a traditional test.  So sometimes we have to help expand what they think is "learning.

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ReInvent Ed wrote: The empirical research surrounding music/arts and learning outcomes has been established for several years now. As a founder of the Atlanta Music Project (the first El Sistema-based music program in Georgia), I know full well the non-cognitive skills that music and arts programs can strengthen, not to mention the correlation with math proficiency. Despite the importance of STEAM and teaching to the whole child, our public schools continue to reform by "addition through subtraction" policies. I was deeply saddened to read about the Atlanta Public Schools' decision to eliminate band and orchestra programs from elementary schools.

I truly hope that our schools understand that you improve by how we invest in education, not by how much we spend on it. Shame on Atlanta and other school districts that  feel compelled to cut music programs to save money!

Deborah responds: All your points are good ones, but there are times I feel outraged at the idea that we have to prove that the arts matter. I can see the point of wondering whether calculus does, but the arts have served humanity since our inception (as far as we can tell). Some form of math--seeking patterns, awareness of more and less, etc. -- probably has too. The arts may be part of our make-up as humans but they also need to be nourished valued, expanded. I think we need new language to describe the goals of education. Or we'll soon be calling childhood play "self-initiated cognitive activity" --which is perhaps accurate but silly. (I've been using it lately, mostly in fun but amazingly some take it seriously.)  Must we find new names for the arts?

Joe responds: ReInventEd, I strongly agree that music and other art programs should be a priority.  Today I visited Global Academy, a K-8 school in Columbia Heights, Minn. It's a terrific school serving primarily recent East Africa immigrants and students from low-income families. Art and creativity are strongly promoted as part of the Early Years International Baccalaureate program that they use. The school has strong test scores.  It's not art or academic achievement.  Both are strong at this school.

The questions I'm struggling with are: Short-term, how to convince more policymakers that arts funding should be a priority? How to help educators and policy-makers understand that the arts have value both in and of themselves, and as part of an overall strategy to improve achievement, increase high school graduation rates, and prepare young people for active, contributing citizenship.

Short and medium term: How do we refine some arts programs so that the experiences youngsters have make them strong advocates of continuing them?

Medium/long-term: How do we put more budget decisions at the local school level?

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