Demography is not Destiny

By Richard Kessler
Leaving aside the debate as to whether or not our culture will suffer if we don't do more to teach the arts, as Eric and Jane have already raised some important points about how we define our culture, I think it's important to note that the debate about arts education on the access level really points towards questions of equity. I think it's important to be blunt about the "arts education gap."

Okay, it's an old saw, but, you will be hard pressed to find a private school that doesn't provide an arts education to its students, both in what it offers and participation rates. Suburban schools do a much better job than urban schools, and as we know well, in urban districts, those schools with greater access to external resources, often resources raised by parents, do a better job than those without.

So, in the New York region, the debate is whether or not there is time to teach the arts in light of the achievement gap. There are those within the education and politics (they go together nicely) who will argue that there is simply not time for the arts in the school day, particularly for those students trapped on the wrong side of the achievement gap. Not long ago, a senior education official said to me that students in low performing schools should not have to have the arts.

It's really a debate as to which children get the arts and which do not, and unfortunately, it often tracks to socio-economic circumstances.

In 2001, ruling in favor of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, which backed a lawsuit seeking to change the state formula for funding public schools, New York State Supreme Court Justice Leland DeGrasse stated that "demography is not destiny." When it comes to arts education, demography may be just that.

That's the real debate.

December 1, 2008 9:06 AM | | Comments (3) |


Hi Rob,

One point of I would like to make is that in all the states where we have completed statewide census evaluations of arts education ECONOMIC CONDITION OF A COMMUNITY WAS NOT A FACTOR. It has been a consistent and surprising finding across 3 different states.

It appears that the WILL of the school/parents/community is more important than the WEALTH.

That said... there does exist a real set of haves and have nots... it just doesn't show up along economic lines the way most people assume.

It goes beyond the cultural contexts, ways of thinking, understanding and expression nourished by the arts.

By denying children in our lower SES schools access to the cognitive skills the arts develop, these students are being denied entry points to learning critical for today. The arts use non-linguistic approaches to observing, interpreting, and creating critical to today's economy.

It is no longer adequate to read and write, but to interpret multiple modalities. So, while 4th grades in one school are creating digital stories with original soundtracks, in another school across town, students' music stands hold reading first textbooks designed to raise test scores.

We have an opportunity with our new administration and Congress to influence the reauthorization of NCLB. Acknowledgment of the real multimodal skills all students need to succeed within the state's educational accountability system would help move our debate from theory to reality.

I hope Richard's comments here aren't lost amidst the competing debates on this blog. There really is an arts education apartheid in our schools. To generalize (knowing there are many exceptions) the haves have it, and the have nots don't. That is, the children of the affluent are more likely to have some arts education, while the others must drill, drill, drill on their tests...don't read a book, or sing a song, or draw, or run around the schoolyard in recess, because every minute is precious if our scores are to go up and we are to compete: with the other schools, states, countries, continents.

So, yes, Jane Remer is so right to emphasize equity, access and quality. Without equity/access, borrowing from Seinfeld, no arts for you! And probably no social mobility, without the cultural contexts, ways of thinking, understanding and expression nourished by the arts.

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This Conversation For decades, as teaching of the arts has been cut back in our public schools, alarms have been raised about the dire consequences for American culture. Artists and arts organizations stepped in to try to... more

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