In today's edition of The Answer Sheet blog on the Washington Post's website, Valerie Strauss highlights the importance of arts education by featuring a piece by New York Times Magazine writer, Michael Sokolove.
His expose about the "emergency-room approach" to education in the poor inner-cities of the United States made me reflect sadly on the majority of schools in Tanzania. Particularly the paragraphs about children living in relatively close proximity to paragons of the arts (or in my students' case, sites of natural beauty), but not having the opportunity to experience them. How many of my Msarangans have seen lions in the Serengeti, swam in the ocean off the coast of Zanzibar, or climbed the heights of Mt. Kilimanjaro? As Sokolove says, "Children already living in a narrowed world
need more access to the arts, not less."
But I was able to buck up kidogo, envisioning Vumi and our little team of teachers leading the weekly Furahi-days at Msaranga Primary with paper-bag puppets, duckpin bowling, and of course, the Macarena.... I guess I can be proud that I've helped resuscitate arts ed in at least one public primary school in Kilimanjaro....
Though the benefits of arts education are very real, it is one of the big, unfortunate casualties of the high-stakes testing
era, with its laser focus on math and English Language Arts - especially in schools with big populations of students who live in
poverty. Just how effective a good arts program can be was shown by
Michael Sokolove, a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine,
in his book titled "Drama High: The Incredible True Story of a Brilliant Teacher, a Struggling Town, and the Magic of Theater," about an elite high school theater program in a blue-collar
Pennsylvania town. The book will be issued in paperback on October 7th. Here's a piece by Sokolove on saving arts education.
Arts instruction in America's schools is something that almost
everyone agrees is a great idea. Just, apparently, not for all children.
say that you are thinking about enrolling your child in an exclusive
private school and you visit several before making a choice. At each
one, you're likely to tour the music room, the visual arts studio, the
well-appointed theater decorated with posters from previous years'
musicals. It's a good bet someone will tell you, with great earnestness,
that these facilities exist because the school cares deeply about
educating "the whole child," which can't happen without teaching the
arts. Which, of course, is true.
But it is also true that as America has cleaved apart into haves and
have nots over the last couple of decades, serious arts education - taught by certified, in-school instructors - has receded in many
communities or even disappeared entirely. We've got some whole children
that need nurturing, and then some half-children.
Students in private schools and comfortable suburban districts still get
the whole robust menu - staples like foreign languages and social
studies along with an opportunity, to learn to play the French horn or
win a part in "The Crucible" or "Beauty and the Beast." Less fortunate
children have been on the receiving end of what I'd call an
emergency-room approach to education - one that addresses only the parts
of a child thought to be in most dire need of attention. Their
curriculum may consist solely of reading, writing, and mathematics - the
subjects tested on high-stakes exams.
The shame of this is we know it's wrong, and we do it anyway. Longitudinal studies have shown that students who receive sustained
in-school arts instruction have better attendance, better grades, and
higher graduation rates. Neurological research suggests that immersion
in the arts can cause an actual change in the structure of neurons and
make the brain more receptive to other kinds of learning.
The anecdotal evidence of how arts education benefits children is
every bit as powerful as the stories of how participation in scholastic
sports "saves" certain kids. When I was researching a book on an elite
high school theater program in the blue-collar town of Levittown, Pennsylvania, I
met a student who was taking special education courses - remedial math
and English, life skills - because high doses of chemotherapy she
received to treat childhood leukemia were thought to have damaged her
ability to retain and sort large batches of information. But she was
able to memorize long scripts - and win statewide awards for her acting - because the narrative through line of plays came clear to her. Theater
animated her as nothing else ever had.
Elsewhere, the children most in need of arts instruction have been
the least likely to have access to it. Anyone who has spent time in
America's poorest inner-city neighborhoods knows that they are virtual
islands, with no bridge to the mainland. A child deep in Brooklyn or
Queens may never have set foot in Manhattan, let alone inside a Broadway
theater. A child in Los Angeles might live three miles from the beach
but has never felt the sand on her bare feet or dipped a toe in the
Pacific. One in Washington D.C. may have never been inside one of the
Smithsonian's free museums.
Arts transport. It's often said they are an an essential part of what
makes us human - and an element of that is the ability to imagine
another reality, apart from the one we are living, a skill essential to
resilience and ambition. Children already living in a narrowed world
need more access to the arts, not less. But that has not been the trend.
The reason is no great mystery: the accountability movement in
education - from President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind
initiative up through President Obama's Race to the Top - has resulted
in a zero-sum equation in America's schools. Time spent on anything
other than the essential mission of elevating test scores is too often
perceived as time wasted.
Thoughtful educators know that practicing for upcoming tests - at the
expense of lighting up children's mind and imaginations - is
destructive. But they have been incentivized, to use a favorite active
verb of corporate America, to act against their better judgment because
their salaries and career prospects have been set by how students score
on tests. In extreme cases, schools can be shuttered as a penalty for
bad scores, and who wants that on their resume?
A report issued last spring by Scott Stringer, New York City's comptroller, found that 28%
of the city's schools did not have a single full-time arts teacher - and
42% were without one in lower income neighborhoods. Some
principals who received "supplemental arts funding" used it for non-arts
purposes, including test preparation.
Not just the arts - but arts spaces within schools - were being
disrespected and often used for other purposes. Suzy Myers Jackson,
executive director of the nonprofit Opening Act, which brings
after-school theater to some of the city's lowest performing schools,
told me of discovering "this amazing theater" at a high school in
Queens. "It was almost like a black box but when we got there you could
hardly see the stage. It was used for storage. Our kids cleaned it up."
We are at a juncture right now, with a possibility to set a new
course. In July, New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio announced that the city
would spend an additional $23 million for arts education, some of which
would go to hiring 120 new arts teachers in underserved schools. Chicago
and Los Angeles also have recently announced plans to bolster arts
education in their public schools.
But will these initiatives take hold and will they last? Some arts
advocates are encouraged because David Coleman, the architect of the
Common Core and now president of the College Board, has spoken
eloquently about the centrality of arts education.
But the Common Core is an idea more than a program (with details to
be filled in by the states), and it does not change the incentives for
educators. Its focus is on mathematics and what it calls English
Language Arts. "To me, the Common Core is a wolf in sheep's clothing," says James Catterall, a professor emeritus at UCLA and founder of the
Centers for Research on Creativity at the California Institute of the
Arts. "If you look at it closely, the tests that flow out of it and will
be high stakes will be basically in language arts and math. The arts
will not be tested."
So let's test the arts, without ruining them, instead of abandoning
them once pre-kindergarten teachers assure that every student can
identify their colors. And let's study, support, and expand these
fledgling initiatives to put arts teachers back into public schools.
Perhaps that can be a bridge to a true national consensus that arts
education is not just for privileged kids. It's not an extra or a frill,
no matter how desperately some students may struggle to grasp the
basics of reading and math. For some of those very children, it's a
lifeline, and the pathway to mastering those other subjects.