December 3, 2008 Archives
What's the problem? This is one of our most recurrent motifs. We all seem to agree that too few children and young adults are getting any meaningful education in the arts. But there are other problems to address. Bennett adds that what they are getting is too narrowly focused on performance. Eric says that we do not prioritize the individual's artistic experience; I emphasize that we are not developing the individual's aesthetic capacity; Bau and John point out that arts education ignores ethnic culture. Richard describes "the arts education gap"--children in higher-income schools get more arts education than those in low-performing urban schools.
What's at stake? This is a largely submerged chord that I think needs more attention. Jane touches on the importance of the arts in the cognitive, social, emotional, and physical development of the individual; Richard also comes back to the fundamental well-being of our children. Eric emphasizes that the arts release the creative potential of the individual. Kiff mentions that she rarely has time to talk about the value of the arts--it's all about the arts as a strategy to promote other goals that government supports, such as student achievement and socialization. But notice that's not what we're worried about losing. We keep coming back to intrinsic benefits.
In our recent report and a previous report, Gifts of the Muse, we argue that the main benefit of the arts is the cultivation of our humanity. Besides providing sheer pleasure, arts experiences develop in us the capacity to move imaginatively and emotionally into different worlds (as James Cuno has so aptly described), to broaden our field of reference beyond the confines of our immediate experience; to exercise our capacity for empathy; to develop our faculties of perception, interpretation, and judgment; and to form common bonds of humanity through some works of art that manage to convey what whole communities have experienced. The reason we bemoan the decline in arts participation among the young is that it narrows opportunities for individual and civic development and spells the deepening of cultural inequities.
What's the goal? Several of us have argued that we should make the arts a part of the basic education of every child. Jane emphasizes that our objectives should be access, equity, and quality in arts education. Midori reminds us that the music education requires a myriad of programs both inside and outside the schools and its objectives are reconsidered and redefined by every generation. John, Eric, and Bau want to see the field move beyond the canon and embrace many diverse art forms and cultures. Bennett and Sam point to models of strong education programs--good teachers of genuine comprehensive programs who are the core of our strength--and argue that these are the foundation we should build on.
What are the barriers to achieving that goal? Another strong chord. Moy describes California's disinvested public school systems, high dropout rates, and short school day; Jane refers to some good books that describe why it is so hard to change anything in our schools; Ed points out that advocates for the arts have been tagged as a special interest group; Sam elaborates on how difficult it is to make progress in a policy environment that is dominated by advocacy that has no specificity or substantive focus (several picked up on the eyes-glaze-over riff); Jane says that arts educators will not gain respect and acceptance until the field figures out how to assess arts learning. And many point to fissures in the field over the purpose and methods of arts education that make consensus elusive.
What's to be done? Nearly everyone has picked up on this motif in one way or another. Eric worries that the arts community will never be able to gather any force through coordinated action. Others strike more hopeful notes, and they are all about developing collaboration. Ed and Michael emphasize that you build movements locally, pointing to the success of vast collaborative networks formed in Dallas, L.A., and Alameda County. Bob Morrison describes what collaborations at the state level have done and are doing now to improve arts education. And despite the problems facing California, Moy spells out the kind of broad-based coordinated effort that could make the arts a part of every child's school day. Eric, in the same post where he despairs of change, tells us that the National Performing Arts Conference, the largest gathering of arts leaders ever, identified arts education as one of its three highest priorities. Could this be the beginning of the kind of collaboration between the arts community and the arts education community that we envision in our report?
Eric has asked us whether the four ideas suggested by Richard are the key ones to advance the cause of arts education. My response is I don't think so. Here's why:
Sam Hope has just written for us one of the most eloquent and poetic statements about the critical importance of being concrete, of not resorting to generalities or buzzwords when seeking to inspire others to join an effort toward change. Richard's four points are abstractions,or constructs that don't tell me what he's after. Let me share the lessons I learned when I was working with the John D. Rockefeller 3rd Fund in six different cities (Seattle, Hartford, LIttle Rock, Winston-Salem, New York, Minneapolis):
If you want to change schools/the status quo, you must set about changing teaching and learning; if you want to change teaching and learning in the arts, you must address the fundamentals of curriculum and instruction, existing standards and policies, and design how you will ingeniously provide arts instruction from say PreK to 12 in every school in your community or district. You must ask yourself what resources you need to do that, find what you don't already have, and working with a bewildering multitude of stakeholders including all the movers and shakers in the community, and with them invent structures that will provide time in the day and the school year to teach in, through and about the arts to every child. (Good luck).
You do all this mind-bending, highly political (but not policy drivern) work with teachers, supervisors, administrators, parents, state and local decision-makers, etc. Only when you have a sketch of this design, a rationale for it's significance to this community, and the backing of a few local champions, can you start to think about the infrastructure, the policy, the quality and accountability issues, the data collection and analysis to keep everyone honest, and the advocacy based on concrete programs in action. Only then can you begin to convince folks that this is valuable, good stuff and must be paid for, sustained and grown....across the system (and if you have a government grant, beyond.)
And then the really hard work of sustaining and surviving begins. It is a challenge, but I believe it can be done.
What makes people living in the most threatening of situations endow themnselves with beauty (think of Dafur in the midst of starvation and genocide)? The images of women nursing children draped (themselves and their children) in beautiful, brightly colored and richly patterened textiles are heart stopping. We have always ornamented our lives. Nothing we have, at least nothing we value, was made without thought given to how it looks. And that is the artistic quotient in our lives. And this is why art education not only matters but is inevitable. It defines who we are and what distinguishes us as people with a stake in our future. It is, in the face of desperation and even evil, a voice of confidence in the future.
I got a nicely distilled response from Richard Kessler this evening that I wanted to offer our blog. He bullet points the key priorities that he sees our field coalescing around. I will want to reflect on these to see if they comprise a net that capture the issues I hear most commonly argued to advance the cause of arts education, but they feel pretty resonant at first glance. Thank you, Richard. Do other bloggers feel these four are the key ones?
"I think there are some clear trends emerging from the field, some of it is still relatively nascent, some of it is much further along:
1. Policy work, including work in federal and state policies, as well
2. Advocacy, including grass roots organizing, including
coalition-building, and training of parents.
3. A focus on improving, defining, and understanding quality.
4. Expanded data gathering.
I think if you look at the work that Ford Foundation has been stressing with its grantees, you begin to see an interesting nucleus emerging that includes the above."
And let me second Kiff's note about the opportunity of artist national service as a real contribution to changing our persistent status quo. It is indeed being considered seriously. Imagine young artists (not just classical arts as I see it) supported (and well prepared as teaching artists) to work in communities across the country. Somewhere between the WPA and Affiliate Artists, for those with long memories. Perhaps we can change the image of what a successful career as a 21st century artist looks like. And begin to change a culture's view of what America represents--as the Peace Corps has done in other counties.
Sorry to be late to these very interesting blog comments. A quick thought: among all the things they do, the arts enhance our sense of place, of how we are part of not only where we live, the immediate community of which we are a part, but also the larger community of which equally a part, the human community of people struggling to make a life and enrich it here on earth and in interlocking and interdependent communities of individuals. For example, the Art institute is a museum in a large and diverse city. Its collections are encyclopedic, represenative of most of the world's artaistic cultures. We show them all, equally: one work of art from one culture next to another without prejudice. And by their presentation we introduce our visitors to the world distant from them/ourselvs in time and space. But since so many people are now living outside the country of their birth - Chicago has some 26 ethnic communities with more than 25,000 members each -- and thus much of the world is moving here, next door, through our collections we are introducing our visitors to their neighbors. All of a sudden, with the tragic news of the bombings in Mumbai and the sectarian violence in Nigeria, our South Asian and West African collections take on new meaning. And our sense of place has been both widened and deepened.
A friend and I were mixing a bass track. I was leaning back in the chair with my eyes closed, "it needs to be rounder, fatter but not too heavy, yada, yada." He said, "ya know, talking about music is like dancing about architecture." We both laughed...and I thought about the transcendent nature of art. If art fit neatly into standard English (French, Cantonese, whatever), what would be the point of it?
But as folks point out, the world of politics, policy and gov't funding is language driven. And we cannot avoid the catch-22 of trying to sell arts education without ever being able to really capture and sound-bite the public value and purpose of art. Tempting concepts like creativity and imagination may be equally difficult to pin down, as Sam says, and may or may not be the memes we need to close the deal.
Congrats to Sam Hope for his eloquent description of how buzz words fade, wraithlike, into irrelevance. I have to say that for all the deep intelligence, long experience and passionate commitment of most of the professional arts-education bloggers here, I glaze over. Too much bureaucratic insider baseball (hence my earlier reference to left field), too much abstraction, not enough practicality -- because, as several of you have pointed out, no one really knows how to foster meaningful change, at least on the K-12 level. Local initiatives make sense, given the lack of realistic hope for a national transformation. The politicians would have to get all aesthetical on us, and that's not likely to happen. The arts aren't manly.
So I will move on, shifting my attention to what I actually know something about, which is arts education for adults. Actually, I know precious little about that, too, except that just as I hated being dragged to concerts as a kid, so my hackles rise at most earnest sessions of music instruction before concerts (the "music-appreciation racket," Virgil Thomson called it). Lots of adult audiences like such lectures, though, with an cheerful, earnest expert tickling the ivories and leading them through a soon-to-be-heard score.
I prefer program notes: you can read them (or not) on your own time, and they can provide helpful background. Academically, I have my doctorate in cultural history (German, speaking of dead white European males), so I like historical context for the dreaded "aesthetic experience." Good program notes give you that, along with a formal anaylsis one hopes is not condescending yet not so technical that it sails over the humble heads of a musically illiterate audience.
As a critic, whether of classical music or dance or anything else, my tactic has always been to lead, but carefully. Express my taste, try to bring an audience along to appreciate a work I love, but not venture too far out in front of troops, cowering resentfully in the trenches.
Ultimately, be it in program notes or books or print or online criticism or even music appreciation, there is plenty that is helpful out there to fan the flames of an already kindled enthusiasm for an art form or a particular piece of art. The trick is how to initially kindle that enthusiasm, that nascent passion. Me, I don't really know how to do that, and I'm not convinced, so far, that many of our bloggers know either. To write eloquently is a start.
Maybe personal is better even than local -- the arts equivalent of the Jefferson family farm as the bedrock of democracy. If you love, say, a piece of music, find a friend who doesn't know it or doesn't even think he likes that kind of music in the first place, and play it for him. Maybe you'll see a spark, and can fan it.
I thank Eric Booth for his comment about my first post, his additional thought experiment, and his pioneering work in creativity across the curriculum. My post below provides an explanation and an example, not a critique of an approach he is developing. I applaud Jane Remer for her forthright comments about quality, another word that becomes empty if it is not connected to something specific, something more than a process--a testing system, a portfolio, an institutionalized yearning. Having conducted Eric's thought experiment and considered Jane's research proposal, I find comfort in being flexible about methodology or time patterns, because as long as the time, method, and expertise are sufficient to the task, many approaches work. If first decisions center on content and knowledge and skill development, the "what, " then the "how" questions seem to start answering themselves, even with the particular opportunities and constraints that are givens in virtually every local educational setting. Gratitude also goes to Bennett Reimer for giving a practical example in advance of this post of what I just wrote about the what/how relationship, to Richard Kessler for the Shankar quotes about the strategic importance of the public schools, and to Bau Graves and John Rockwell for urging bloggers to broaden their scope. Yes, P-12 schooling is just a part of a much larger whole. More on that later.
My response to Bob Morrison's thoughtful question is that
many different means can work if, and only if, all the conditions and resources
necessary to that means are present. Systems based on summative competency
testing have been successful at
If I were advising our colleagues in NJ, I would indicate that inexpensive, multiple choice examinations will not suffice as revealers of arts competencies of a creative or scholarly nature and that there is a need to avoid the unintended consequence of further privileging disciplines easily and cheaply tested. Given present cultural and values conditions, I would ask them to factor in concerns about relying heavily on every student's motivation to learn privately, and about the ability to maintain high levels of aspiration, especially if many students fail and parents start exerting political pressure. I would try to help policy makers remember that process alone is never enough and that pretending that it is usually leads to failure.
The question has been raised about why "eyes glaze over" at the mention of words like "arts," "creativity," and "innovation." Surely there are many reasons, but one stands out as worth considering in this discussion. These words and many others like "critical thinking," "transparency," and "accountability" lose communicative force when they become generic surrogates for goodness but are rarely connected to something concrete. The more ubiquitously they are used without such a connection, the worse the communication problem gets, and the more eyes glaze over when they are offered promotionally or in justification. Eventually, a given word wears out its welcome, and another one replaces it. The long-term result is a parade of ultimate emptiness where each word or slogan constitutes a float that at first seems brilliantly real, then a caricature of itself, and finally a ghostly apparition with all substance, value, and meaning leached away.
It is hard to sustain advances in educational achievement in a policy environment heavily influenced by this syndrome and its adverse impact on clarity and substantive focus.
To illustrate further, let's consider creativity. Building on what Bennett Reimer wrote mentioning Howard Gardner, creativity can be viewed across the spectrum of human action; it is not exclusive to the arts. Even though none of us would recommend it, student creativity can be encouraged without any arts references at all. It can be "taught" by teachers of many types and specializations in ways that do not lead to any residual learning or conceptual expansion in any aspect of the arts. Developing greater understanding of creativity is surely a good thing, but a school agenda that gives a high priority to creativity does not lead automatically to arts teaching and learning of any kind, or of any form, or in any time frame.
Creativity becomes noticeable, important, and real when someone makes or does something creative in some specific field or discipline. While developing a more "creative" environment in schools is to be applauded, eventually a strong connection must be made between creativity and one or more bodies of content if an individual is to mature in creative work through high school and beyond. Creative potential rises as capabilities grow in some particular thing.
As Midori points out so gracefully, all artists experience the deep symbiotic relationship among creativity, knowledge, and skills. Each of the three lifts the others toward ever higher achievement. Theoretical physicists, investment bankers, surgical pioneers, entrepreneurs, diplomats, historians, and other deep-knowledge professionals have the same experience. The writers for this blog could not communicate with the creativity and eloquence they exhibit without high levels of knowledge and skills in English and years of practice with the language. The same connections work at elementary through advanced to genius levels of competence in all disciplines and professions. But so much talk about arts education seems to minimize or avoid knowledge and skills development and practice as though they were in the way. Experiences and personal reflections about them are essential, affection for certain genres or artists is an important base from which to grow, but neither of these is a substitute for the daily study and work that leads to knowing more and being able to do more each day in one or more specific aspects of the arts.
"Diversity" appears in a lot of our postings here, but if we are not prepared to address the actual sources of diverse cultural activity, can this commitment be taken seriously? This is not a matter of high art vs the rest. Here in the upper Midwest polka is huge, and a lot of Mexican Chicagoans listen to banda all day (at least they manage to support multiple commercial radio stations) -- but that does nothing to diminish the relevance or importance of Mozart. We just need to expand our field of vision. There's a whole forest out there. Why are so many of our resources and this discussion limited to so few trees?
We've not discussed the economic impact of the creative sector. Perhaps legislators and policy makers who are not willing to give arts education its due value, will take a second look at hard numbers. The following quotes come from a poster I received from the Ringling College of Art and Design. Their sources for these stats come from the Bureau of Labor, U.S. Department of Labor, Americans for the Arts, Entertainment Software Association.
-1.25 million Americans work in the visual arts.
-One in 111 jobs is in art and design.
-The economic impact of art and design exceeds that of sports worldwide.
-Jobs in design have increased 43% in the past ten years.
-Yearly sales of art reach an estimated $10 billion in the U.S. alone.
-200,000 people are employed in the film industry.
-People spend approximately $55 billion annually on video games and related hardware.
-The computer animation industry generates $33 billion annually.
-America's nonprofit arts industry generates $134 billion in economic activity every year.
-Analyst John Hawkins estimates that the creative sector will be worth $6.1 trillion internationally in less than 15 years - the largest economy in the world.
....to create an environment in which they find themselves as beings artists in a bigger world. Where their own personality, their own capacity, their own learning ability is like a brush, and they can paint a new democracy if they really apply themselves to it."
Why do I continue when so much of what I've worked for seems threatened? To a large extent, because I believe that public education is the glue that has held this country together. Critics now say that the common school never really existed, that it's time to abandon this ideal in favor of schools that are designed to appeal to groups based on ethnicity, race, religion, class, or common interests of various kinds. But schools like these would foster divisions in our society; they would be like setting a time bomb.
A Martian who happened to be visiting Earth soon after the United States was founded would not have given this country much chance of surviving. He would have predicted that this new nation, whose inhabitants were of different races, who spoke different languages, and who followed different religions, wouldn't remain one nation for long. They would end up fighting and killing each other. Then, what was left of each group would set up its own country, just as has happened many other times and in many other places. But that didn't happen. Instead, we became a wealthy and powerful nation--the freest the world has ever known. Millions of people from around the world have risked their lives to come here, and they continue to do so today.
Public schools played a big role in holding our nation together. They brought together children of different races, languages, religions and cultures and gave them a common language and a sense of common purpose. We have not outgrown our need for this; far from it. Today, Americans come from more different countries and speak more different languages than ever before. Whenever the problems connected with school reform seem especially tough, I think about this. I think about what public education gave me--a kid who couldn't even speak English when I entered first grade. I think about what it has given me and can give to countless numbers of other kids like me. And I know that keeping public education together is worth whatever effort it takes.
Is it possible that the quality of arts learning experiences for kids will actually be improved, given the constraints others have pointedly noted? Well, in another important piece of news from the new Rand study Revitializing Arts Education Through Community-Wide Coordination, it's not only possible, it's happening - and in ways we can all learn from.
The cities in the Rand study, from Dallas, New York and Boston to Alameda County, Los Angeles and Chicago, are finding their own ways to build quality arts experiences for kids. What they have in common is their effort to make quality an explicit focus of arts learning - and that's crucial, because it opens up the discussion of what quality looks like and the different ways to get there.
- All six cities are using portfolio assessments and exhibitions to build quality and discuss what it looks like. For example, the Boston Public Schools partnered with the Mass Cultural Council to develop and initiate grade-level assessment experiences.
- Since many cities rely on arts organizations to enrich their arts offerings, cities are building quality by figuring out how to identify high-quality arts learning providers - so Los Angeles County's Arts for All has started asking applying arts organizations to submit streaming video of their work in schools, for review by other schools. In Boston, after-school programs that provide arts experiences are carefully vetted before they receive contracts.
- Peer review and modeling have stimulated and stretched arts organizations' approaches to serving kids - and they've deepened the local conversation about how to achieve high quality. Dallas's Arts Partners has used peer review for years, and the Alliance for Arts Learning Leadership in Alameda County hosts summer institutes for arts organizations and teachers to share and critique each others' ideas.
- The creation of new kinds of curriculum supports is building quality in many places. New York City's well-known Blueprints cover four arts disciplines and are full of ideas. Arts for All in Los Angeles uses an interactive website with host of practitioner input to share quality-building approaches (along with model budgets, job descriptions, surveys, and strategic planning tools!) - and provides a forum for asking questions to the whole arts learning community.
Building quality arts learning is a big challenge that lots of us shy away from - but the news is that across the country, it's a priority that local leaders are embracing and energetically pursuing. Please take a look at Rand's Revitalizing to see if there are any ideas you can run with!
Maybe I have become a selfish old frump, but I would like to see some real change in the status quo in my lifetime. I have been fortunate enough to see and participate in (most of us have) great experiments that show possibilities--thank heavens for those examples and models of what could be. Maybe that's the best we are going to get, more and more examples, some being at the classroom level, some at the school level, and some even at the district or community/city level. I have also heard ten plausible strategies for making that serious dent in the national status quo--a number of those strategies have appeared in our blog. Where I lose my innate optimism is in the sense that we as a field will never be able to gather our force in any kind of coordinated focus to work as a community. We are good at identifying twenty ways in which the arts and arts education are important; we are good at "should-ing" on people and institutions; but we are hopeless at agreeing upon one or three ways to create change. Perhaps it is counter to our essential nature to do so, but I don't see how we can ever escape the gravitational pull of cultural norms unless we do.
I was struck by the lesson of the National Performing Arts Conference in Denver this summer, the largest gathering of arts leaders ever. The design of the conference, guided by the group America Speaks, culminated in voting as a performing arts community on priorities for common actions that would positively impact the climate for all the arts. There was clear agreement about the three top arenas for common action: advocacy, arts education, and diversity. Not much agreement on the specifics--the conference leaders intend to keep the community-building process underway to bring consensus toward common action, but the process is incredibly slow. And it took huge amounts of money, and years of preparation, just to begin. Many at the conference had never seriously considered they were part of a functional community of the arts before. One idea I have heard resonate in this blog is to focus locally. Dallas certainly provides one example of how to do that, and that arts education can lead a change in the cultural community, not follow it--to connect with the original question of this blog. How do we get enough local agreement to break out of gravitational norms at the district and community/city level? And what other strategies might there be for getting effective agreement within the field as a whole?