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The USDOE Consults with the Arts Education Field on NCLB

Okay, we’re not using the name NCLB anymore, and you might think this is a bait and switch, but if I used its formal name, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), you might not know what this blog is all about.

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about an invitation that was extended to arts education leaders across the nation to meet with the USDOE about ways in which arts education could be supported in the reauthorization of what was formerly know as NCLB.

If you want to know more about the history of ESEA, click here.

Essentially, ESEA is a program dating back to the Johnson-era that has focused on children in need. ESEA was and still is intended to level the playing field for kids from low socioeconomic environments. Unfortunately, that fact is often lost on people.

Okay, I promised to report back and that’s what I am doing today.

The meeting took place in the auditorium at the USDOE, and the turnout by USDOE leadership and staff was very, very impressive. In particular, there was Carmel Martin, Assistant Secretary for Planning, Evaluation, and Policy, and James Shelton III, Assistant Deputy Secretary for Innovation.  In total, there must have been about 20 staff members there from the USDOE, including those well known to the arts field like Doug Herbert. The staff could not have been friendlier. I got there early and was greeted by Edith Harvey, Director of Improvement Programs. The USDOE staff went out of its way to offer a friendly hello.

Most of the attendees from the arts education field came from DC-based organizations, including Arts Education Partnership, The League of American Orchestras, DanceUSA, Opera America, MENC, VSA Arts, The Kennedy Center, NAEA, Americans for the Arts, and others.

Additionally, there were representatives from some state departments of education, including Connecticut and New Jersey, The Cleveland Public School District, and from VH1 Save the Music Foundation, NAMM, The Guild of Community Schools of the Arts, and other individuals like my friend and colleague Carol Fineberg.

Perhaps the most interesting and unusual attendee was David Sherman from the American Federation of Teachers. A lot of heads turned when he began his remarks, for it is very unusual for either the AFT or the NEA (National Education Association) to attend an arts focused meeting such as this. The presence of one of the two national teacher unions gave expanded reach and representation to this meeting in a rather extraordinary way.

Finally, there were various congressional staff members, as well as everyone’s favorite program director, Sarah Cunningham, from the National Endowment for the Arts (the other NEA!).

The format of the meeting was simple: some opening remarks by Shelton and Martin, and then on to prepared statements from about a dozen or so members of the audience. Take note: Shelton and Martin are key officials at the USDOE. Their presence sent the right signal.

In essence, the USDOE officials stated up front that the Arne Duncan is a strong supporter of arts education, as evidenced by numerous public statements, and that they wanted to hear from the arts education community about ways in which the reauthorization of ESEA could help support arts education. They spoke a bit about the concerns of the narrowing of the curriculum, and the fact that some districts did not understand all the ways in which ESEA funding, in particular Title I could be used to support arts education. Then they opened up the meeting to comments from the arts education field.

At this point, the most important thing about this meeting is that the USDOE officials were listening carefully and taking copious notes, in addition to recording the proceeding. I have been to many similar meetings, with school district officials, where the level of serious attention was often lacking. I have been to meetings like this where the senior district official was on his Blackberry for much of the time!

This was different. It was impressive and heartening.

Additionally, they asked that more detailed comments be provided by email, of a more instructive nature, so they “could know exactly what to do.”

As to the comments from the audience, there was a wide range of messages, from the typical “arts are important” flag waving variety, to extremely detailed comments on legislative language.

I thought the best comments of the day came from Scott Schuler, who is arts education specialist at the Connecticut State Department of Education, and David Sherman, of the American Federation of Teachers.

Sherman, for whom I must disclose is on The Center for Arts Education’s Board of Directors, really helped provide the context for what ESEA means and how it must ultimately be put to best use as an engine of equity, in this instance equity related to access to high quality arts education. It doesn’t hurt that his union represents more than one million members.

Finally, I thought that Narric Rome, from Americans for the Arts gave a very thoughtful and candid presentation that did not shy away from pointing out the lost opportunity and disappointment many people feel about Race to the Top. Ultimately, he was asking that this not happen again with ESEA. It was an interesting moment, for it’s always a tough call as to whether or not you want to offer any public criticism. Government officials can be touchy about some things. That being said, I thought that Rome offered some very candid comments on RttT, and that the USDOE officials took it at face value, rather than getting defensive.

Bravo all around.

For those that have come to view my posts as being more skeptical than optimistic, you might be surprised by my rather chipper report. Well, I am somewhat  surprised myself!

So, a good meeting was had, one that hopefully will open the door to real progress in the vitally important ESEA. Will I be surprised if the arts end up with the short end of the stick? No, I won’t. But, I remain much more hopeful as a result of this good meeting.
Shuler Testimony USDOE Arts Stakeholders Mtg 1-20-10

Here is my testimony:
1.10 ESEA Remarks Final

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