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Arts Education Should Align with School Reform. Really?

Among advocates and wannabe advocates, I have lately been hearing that arts education must align with school reform. I heard this the other day at a splendid presentation by Narric Rome of Americans for the Arts and Najean Lee of the League of American Orchestras, at the NYC Arts Education Roundtable’s annual meeting. I have also come across this recently through discussions of the National Performing Arts Convention (NPAC) Arts Education working group.

And certainly, it is something that’s been bandied about for years. I authored and co-authored a report or two, or three, that asserted this very same notion.

Fifteen years ago, I think it made a lot of sense, although I think the field wasn’t ready to take on what the assertion meant at that time, which was really about becoming more closely aligned with teaching and learning in other subject areas, united by the desire to improve public education.

School Reform.

Reform School.

Interesting what happens when transposed?

Think about that for a little while.

Anyhow, today, school reform is basically about injecting market driven forces into a school system, and providing district designed indicators to drive the market. The idea here is that as one big city mayor proclaimed: “show me competition, and I will show you improvement.”

Just as competition is purported to improve access and cost of health care, so it goes for public schools.

The market force/lever is the standardized test scores, and to some degree graduation rates. Higher test scores equal a better product, which will be desired by people who are given choice, as the zoned school concept is eradicated. Conversely, lower test scores will produce a worse produce, which will go out of business because people won’t choose that product, or the pressure to compete will force improvement. Also, if you get rid of the unionized labor, a real market can drive the teaching and administrative workforce. And of course, the charter schools and vouchers are connected to this as well.

What is more, teachers will receive bonuses based on these tests, which will also be used to determine tenure, if there is tenure, and will be used to determine dismissal/termination of low performing teachers.. Likewise for principals. Ultimately, although this doesn’t appear to be in the accountability offerings, school superintendents and others “accountable” for the school system would be fired too, based on performance.

(Interesting is that when faced with this issues back in the 70’s and 80’s, Al Shanker used to ask how the child would be held accountable?)

But, as we’ve seen in the corporate world, often the CEO’s get rewarded for poor performance. The golden parachute doesn’t change its atomic structure upon the company’s poor performance.

This entry isn’t a debate on the purported merits of taking the free market that gave us sub prime mortgages, an abominable state of health care, etc., and reforming schools through the injection of a free market theory into such schools and their related systems.

Instead, it’s an open question as to whether or not the arts education advocates calling for arts education to be part of school reform, as it is defined today, are calling for the right approach, as well as the question of whether or not those making this call know what they’re asking us to get into.

Of course, there are and will be arts organizations that create charter schools, just as there were arts organizations that were core partners creating small schools, through Gates and Carnegie Corporation funded small school initiatives. But is that really aligning with school reform today?

School improvement. I can buy that term.

School reform/reform school, I think some questions need to be asked, and asked again.



  1. Carol Fineberg says

    Once again, you have set the argument in its proper context. Those of us who work very hard to both advocate arts education as every student’s right and to make sure that the quality of arts education measures up to its promise are perplexed about this new-ish round of school reform and the need to tie the arts to it. We know that some schools work better than others, and we know that there are two variables that never fail to be present in the most effective schools: great leaders and great teachers! We know also that great teachers do their best work when great leaders recognize the work and encourage it. We also know that greatness is not a cheap or ubiquitous commodity, And no amount of Wall Street rhetoric about market forces is going to transform poor performance on a number of measures into good performance, much less great performance. The old adage that we get what we pay for continues to strike a responsive chord (bad pun). And it’s not just about salaries. It’s about using money to buy time for acquiring deeper backgrounds in new knowledge, for training to acquire new skills needed for teaching in the 21st century. It’s about encouraging strong, ideosincratic leaders to enter and stay in the school systems long enough to create their own posses of ideosincratic next generation of leaders.
    So where does this leave arts education as a partner in school reform (good grief, I used that in the title of my last book!). First, I think that there are still a lot of people who think that school reform and school improvement are interchangeable terms. Some think that systemic improvement is school reform. And some people think that systemic improvement just means rearranging the chairs around the conference table. Shades of the Titanic.
    That said, the best arts education practices are almost always found in schools that are self consciously striving to be the best, regardless of the socio economic strata of the enrolled students. De facto, good arts education is found where the agents of school improvement/reform understand the non negotiable elements of a good education.
    Maybe what advocates of arts education need to shout for is quality arts education for all students everywhere! As this is achieved, schools can’t help but “change,” and voila, we have genuine school reform, I mean improvement!

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