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Reflections on Arts Education and the USDOE

It’s interesting to see the fairly predictable responses to Arne Duncan’s letter and web conference, where he articulated support for arts education on behalf of the USDOE and the White House.

There is and should be a fair amount of gratitude across the field when a US Secretary of Education affirms the importance of the arts, even if the affirmation may at first blush appear to be more talk than walk.

And in light of his comments about the central importance of parents to ensuring arts education, well, it was indeed newsworthy.

I think the USDOE is in a bit of a bind. I have come to pretty much believe that Duncan supports the arts. Same for our President. That being said, they have focused their efforts on school “reform” that is heavily weighted towards levers that have little to do with subject matter, save what is measured by ELA/ math standardized tests and graduation rates. In terms of major themes, the USDOE is about data, charter school development, merit pay, etc. Outside of that, there isn’t much room to focus on content areas.

Yes there are both the model development and the professional development grant programs, as well NAEP and the Fast Track Survey. In particular, I am a big fan of the grant programs, which are great, really great, believe me, the organization I work for is a current grant recipient. But, when you look at where the real weight of the USDOE is leaning, it’s not in this area.

Nevertheless, the rhetorical does have meaning. The bully pulpit does help remind educators of the importance of the arts. Symbolism counts. To a point.

Will a principal take time from test prep because we brandished Arne Duncan’s letter reminding them that the arts are a core subject in what we used to call NCLB, but is actually the Elementary and Secondary Education Act?

Probably not, but that’s a bit of what is already being proposed by advocates.

If the arts or any other subject for that matter is to be a part of these public themes coming out of the USDOE, it’s going to be up to us to find the way in. And yes, that includes the Race to the Top Fund. Who will be able to construct an appropriate arts education project within their state’s RTTF application? The state education departments aren’t going to do it for us, we have to do it, find a way to bring them on board. Duncan has said as much, a couple of times.

In all fairness, what I am describing is in many ways the very state of arts education in the US. It is up to us to find the openings, to make new alliances, to bring the arts into policy and practice that loom large in education, but have often overlooked and misunderstood arts education.

So, there is it. The Secretary says the right things, but essentially leaves it to us to make his words come true. Perhaps that is the way it should be.

an ArtsJournal blog