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To Have and Have Not: Arts Education in American Public Schools

Before I start this entry, will everyone join me in wishing Jane Remer a VERY HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!!
A couple of years ago I was attending a conference on arts education,convened by the United States Department of Education for its AEMDD and Professional Development grantees.
One of the panel sessions involved arts education and trauma. In this particular case there were two presentations, one by Echo Olander, Executive Director of Kidsmart in New Orleans; the other by Carol Fineberg about the School Arts Rescue Initiative of the New York Times Company Foundation.

In a nutshell, the presentations looked at the positive role arts education played in the lives of children who had suffered significant trauma. Echo focused on Hurricane Katrina; Carol, on 9/11.

It was a remarkable presentation, that sadly enough was not all that well attended. Most attendees apparently preferred to attend more traditional presentation on instructional issues.

What became abundantly clear was that the arts provided a wide-range of vitally important experiences and pathways for students, teachers, parents, and medical professionals.

There were the psychologists and social workers who used the arts to help diagnose and connect to children.

There were the children who could not be adequately understood except through paintings, drawings, theater games, etc.

There was the role the arts played in providing a a form of therapy to help the children comprehend and process what had happened to their lives and world around them, and of course, the complex and difficult set of emotions and cognitive challenges they were dealing with.

There was the simple beauty and kindness that the gift of the arts provided for each child, helping them to see that someone cared for and about them.

And, I only wish I had the skills to adequately describe how obvious it was to everyone involved that the arts played an absolutely crucial role in all of this supporting these children and moving them forward through the trauma they had experienced.

In essence, the arts played a fundamental role, understood well by those charged to support these children.

As I was listening and watching on screen presentations (film, photography, etc.), I started to think that the core of what we being presented here was basically why I was in this field. It struck a very deep and profound chord as to what I believe the arts can bring to the table and why every child is entitled to a quality arts education as a human right.

That’s correct, no hyperbole: a human right.

Let me elaborate.

The arts are often denied those who are deemed to be in need of remediation. For those students in schools not making adequate progress (annual yearly progress, in NCLB terms), for those students in generally low performing schools, for those students in who are over age, or at risk of dropping out, or at risk of being left back, the arts are often denied in favor of extra work in reading and math.

But let’s think about it for a second. Must one suffer a cataclysmic event, a Hurricane Katrina or 9/11 to experience something traumatic? Are the wonderful pathways provided by Olander and Fineberg’s efforts only for those who have been subject to some sort of cataclysm?

How many children experience trauma through more ordinary events: divorce, death of a parent or sibling, poverty, bullying, mental illness, abuse, etc?.

I would argue that these children, in fact, all children need  the pathways that they arts can provide, and they need it on the basis of what is fundamental and purely basic. Thus, it is a human right.

And you have to wonder, for while we may not have the scientific proof that more arts education will increase graduation rates, if you consider the above, denying the arts to kids at risk, should strike many as a very, very bad way to go about educating our children.


  1. Hi Richard,
    Great post, I couldn’t agree more especially your thougths on arts education as a human rights issue. In addition I’ve shared below some findings from Arts Education in Oklahoma’s Alternative Schools and their results from arts education. I’m sending your post on to Shulamith Koenig- president of People’s movement for Human Rights Learning (and recipient of the 2003 United Nations Human Rights Award)
    Arts Education in Oklahoma’s Alterative Schools
    In October and November 2009 a non-empirical study was undertaken to determine the impact of OAC’s arts education program in alternative education. Interviews were conducted with education stakeholders (OTAC, State Department of Education, educators and arts instructors) and students at Ardmore Take Two, Canton Alternative Academy, Mustang Public School-Alternative Education, and Pauls Valley Alternative Academy. It was found a strong association existed between arts education and students’ increased 1) adaptability (willingness to learn); 2) creative decision-making and problem-solving skills; 3) interest in other core subjects and better grades; 4) service to others (family and community); 5) teamwork; 6) attendance; and 7) perceptions of relationships (life skills). Overall, students reported a decrease in anger and absenteeism as they were able to better visualize the process toward obtaining better outcomes. As one student stated “I left a friend behind…he chose a wrong path and I chose photography. Now, you will probably be supporting my friend for the rest of his life, however, I will be a productive citizen” (personal communication, Ozzy Hoffapurr). Consistently, students reported being connected to others that they had not found before.
    Full Report

  2. Nonsense, The Arts are an adult decision and should remain so.

  3. Some of these are just cherry-picking, like the airport with a garden in it. Big deal, we have nice airports. However, America is descending into a gray, lifeless society as we seek to always protect everyone at all times, never offend anyone, and never fire anyone. This has a cost.

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