I cannot tell you how many times I have heard people from the arts education field say that arts ed needs to become part of school reform. And, this is not a new chorus, but a rather old one, going back at least 15 years.
Granted, 15 years ago, when people spoke of school reform, they meant something along the lines of school improvement, which could mean improvement of environment, attendance rates, parent engagement, and more.
Today, I am more and more inclined to think that those in the arts ed field who wish to become a central part of the school reform movement have little idea of the tree they are barking up.
It’s almost as if the term “school reform” is a vague place holder that is less about the specifics of what makes for school reform, and more about it as an locus of activity. I think what folks are saying is that they want to be where the action is. Fair enough.
In other words, they want a seat at the table. But, as my friend Diane Ravitch once advised me, a seat at the table is sometimes overrated. In essence, she said to look at the teacher unions, who have a seat at the table, but often find out that they are being served as dinner.
I also see the term school reform on practically every foundation website involved in education. It’s almost as if there might be some sort of public castigation should one fail to use the term “school reform.” It reminds me a bit of the preemptive use of the term “quality,” when communicating about arts education, as if the absence of the term denotes a lack of, well, quality!
It’s a form of political correctness, don’t you think?
Back to the question: do we really want to be part of school reform, as it is today?
And, what does it mean today?
Before I get into that, it’s a good time to pitch a book that will lend some nice historical context: Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform, by Diane Ravitch. Let’s just say if you want a touch of past is prologue, then this is the book for you.
Now, let’s get back to where the action is. The action, well, for the most part it’s about school choice (charters and vouchers), eliminating teacher and principal tenure or elimination of teacher unions entirely, high stakes accountability in ELA and math, merit pay, closing of low performing schools, and occasional issues related to standards, curriculum, and assessment. If there’s an overall theme to it all, think privatization of public school systems.
I know, it’s a bit of an oversimplification.
Or is it?
I shall withhold judgment on these elements of school reform (or school deform, as it is called by some more cynical than I) and simply ask those in the arts education field if they really want to be at that table.
What is more, is there really room at the table for arts education and this particular wave of school reform? Without a doubt, arts ed is a non-starter for these school reformers. And believe me, I have been at some of the tables, not many, but a few, including the NYS Task Force on Teacher and Principal Accountability, which was tasked with coming up with the evaluations to determine whether teachers keep their jobs or not (another oversimplification), and well, let’s just say there wasn’t very much on my plate at that table. Was I served for dinner at the table? I am not sure yet!
And there have been other tables, where getting the arts to fit into a policy agenda was pretty much impossible.
Yes, getting to the table is a start, but let’s remember it for that, meaning a start, rather than an end in and of itself. And let’s also be clear about what school reform means today and the great difficulty of getting arts on the agenda, if it’s even possible.
For me, well, what I want would be to help change the school reform agenda, in and through the arts. But that’s a tough one, something that will certainly not come about solely through the arts education field, but if at all possible, through new alliances and partnerships well beyond the field we generally view as being that of arts education.