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Do the Arts Count in Education? How Policy can Bludgeon Practice

Here’s my very first repost, the blog having originally appeared late last week:

While I have misgivings about posting this blog during the traditionally quiet week before Labor Day, I just couldn’t resist. I may repost it next week, just to make sure it isn’t missed.

This blog post is central to those who wonder how policy can have a direct effect on practice. In this particular case, it’s a horribly depressing prime example.

The New York City Department of Education released its School Progress Reports this week, which essentially consist of a single grade score that each school is given to signal how they did in the all important Progress Report, which is the centerpiece of the NYCDOE’s accountability program.
Schools get A, B, C, D or F. With a D or F, it can mean closure, firing of principal, reorganization of the school, etc. When first created, the NYCDOE was able to tell us approximately what percentage of schools would receive each one of the five letter grades. The reports were primarily based upon a growth model, and compared each school to cohorts of other schools with similar demographics and performance. 
For middle and elementary schools, the vast majority of what comprises the grade score is derived from how the schools fares on standardized New York State Math and ELA tests. The scores on these tests are up all across the state, a fact that has not gone unnoticed by the New York State Board of Regents.
This year, just two New York City public schools out of almost 1500 received an F. Eighty-four percent of elementary and middle schools earned A’s, up from 38 percent last year.
Let’s revisit he last time arts education was surveyed in New York City public schools,where it was revealed that less than half of all middle school students were provided with the minimum arts education required by law, which is basically one year of arts education, or about 110 hours.
The previous year’s report had that measure at 29%. That’s right: 29% of middle school students were provided with the minimum of one year of arts, in the arts capital of the world. Many questioned the jump from 29% to 46%, considering that there were fewer middle school certified arts specialists in service at 46% than there were at 29%. Nice inverse ratio…Makes you wonder…
And, when it comes to the elementary schools, at last count, only 8% were even in the position to satisfy the New York State Standards.
Still with me?
While there is a new arts report to be released next month, no one expects the picture to be any better. So, this brings me to the question: how is it possible that so many schools, in particular, middle schools, receive such high School Progress Report grades when they are so out of line with the minimum New York State Standards for Arts Education?? 
Is it possible that the arts simply don’t count, and that the policy of giving the highest grades to schools that are not providing a sound and basic education, including the arts, is actually sending the wrong message to everyone concerned? 
Is it possible that the School Progress Report is the single most dangerous education policy in terms of arts education, and any other subject for that matter except math and ELA?
While New York City may have one of the most advanced programs in surveying arts education in any school district, unfortunately the disconnect between the School Progress Reports and the arts survey is deeply disturbing. It disturbed many when it began a few years ago; with these new results, well, it is downright crushing. 
And, let’s not forget, that the year that the Progress Reports were unveiled was the very same year that Project Arts, the superbly successful categorical funding line for arts education was eliminated. In the words of one of our former Presidents, we got the “double whammy.”
Which brings me to back to the question of whether or not the arts really count. 
What do you think?
Beyond the question of whether or not the arts count, I will leave this post with the thought that the measuring of arts education in New York City and State public schools should be taken over by the New York State. Let’s have a complete school census, all 7,000 public schools in New York State, where the focus of the census is the the State Standards, and designed in such a way so as to make the results transparent and understandable by the school community, including parents.
The design should go a step further in helping to guide or push a school community or towards a high quality, equitable arts education that meets or exceed the New York State minimum requirements. 
Let’s look at a design that counterbalances the terrible message being delivered to the public about what counts and what doesn’t count in the New York City Public Schools. It would be an important piece of the puzzle, that and bringing back categorical funding for the arts, a topic I will return to shortly.
The response of a close colleague speaks volumes:

“As to the report itself, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Or maybe the appropriate response is a shrug…except that we’re talking about kids’s lives.”

Technically speaking, the photo below is a truncheon…



  1. I’m glad you re-posted this blog – I missed it last week.
    Lillian Hellman, the marvelous playwright (The Little Foxes, Toys in the Attic, Petrified Forest, et al) wrote several powerful memoirs, one of which was “Scoundrel Time” – that one was about the McCarthy era witchhunts (she was the one who said she would not cut her conscience to fit this year’s fashion — (I paraphrase) when she refused to name names)…We are in the 21st Century replay of scoundrel time, only now it is with investment and other banks, insurance companies, ponzi artists, and of course, the mayors and other folks in charge of our cities and our schools.
    In answer to your question of whether the arts count as education, no, they don’t – and probably never will in a free enterprise system whose values are power, money and redemption of the very scoundrels who have caused so much of our society’s dysfunction in the first place.
    In one of the Time’s articles last week, a principal summed it all up when she said that while her school got an A, (up from last year), she knows it’s not a “real” A and that next year she wants an A that’s a Real A, but doubts she’ll get it…because once you get an A, how can you make progress to another A? Real or unreal?
    It’s not only scoundrel time, it’s all Orwellian…
    I wish you would analyze the “reasoning” and the methodology behind the report card system and explain what if any relationship they have to scores on Standardized Tests, here or elsewhere….
    Thanks, as always, Richard

  2. Trenchant analysis, as always, Richard. I think it’s quite clear from the facts you present that no matter what the Mayor and Chancellor say, the arts are essentially window dressing when it comes to school improvement or meaningful teaching.
    What I find most confounding is the strange metaphor of grading schools as if they are students. Are any students give only 1 grade for their work during an entire year? No, they receive different grades in multiple subjects: ELA, math, science, global studies, and art (if they’re lucky enough to get an art class). Once again, the system has promulgated high stakes testing by limiting the assessment to one solitary measure. ugh.
    Now, as an administrator with some evaluation experience, I understand that the more dimensions there are to any assessment process, the more time it takes. I also know that you’re more likely to get a deeper, richer and potentially more accurate reflection of the subject’s (i.e. the school or the student in question) achievement and capability. In the possible interest of efficiency (and monetary savings?), the system is ultimately cheating the students, teachers and administrators of NYC schools by presenting inaccurate information.

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