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Guest Blog, Jane Remer: If We’re Not At the Table, We’re On the Menu: Will the Arts Survive This Time as Education in Our Schools?

Jane Remer’s Cliff Notes: March 10, 2011

 If We’re Not At the Table, We’re On the Menu: Will the Arts Survive This Time as Education in Our Schools?

 At the Face to Face Conference at the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in Queens a few weeks ago, some of my colleagues and I engaged in a panel presentation and discussion with an attentive and thoughtful audience. We had several guiding questions that boiled down to what concrete actions we might take to secure a place for the arts in the general curriculum. I focus here on only one aspect of our discussion: the table.

Richard Kessler (The Center for Arts Education) stressed the importance of being at the table when and where the arts, teaching and learning are at stake. Hollis Headrick (former CAE director and current consultant) reinforced Kessler’s point with the witticism in this blog’s title — if we’re not out there making the irrefutable case for the arts for all the kids, we’ll be “eaten alive.” Kyle Haver (Associate Director of Leadership and Organizational Learning, NYC Dept. of Education) suggested we seize the opportunity to develop specific steps and a strategy to connect the arts as content and context to the ELA and other subject areas in the Common Core State Standards.

Distilled, the message was simple: if those of us who have championed the arts for years don’t figure out how to ally ourselves with other arts, education and community forces and insist on being at power breakfasts, lunches, dinners, meetings, and political venues, given the current climate and circumstances, we will continue to be ignored, and risk slipping entirely off the educational radar screen.

During the question and answer period, my longtime friend and colleague, Carol Fineberg, raised several questions, one of which galvanized a flurry of responses: where is the table and how do we get access to it? Some brief, bulleted thoughts for you to “chew on”, (to keep up the culinary metaphor):

• There is no one table. And, certainly no one table of power “at the top.” Power is slippery so it is crucial for us to gather together to create our own local tables, school by school, district by district and work at the grass roots level where there is a shred of possibility of having influence, confidence and sustained impact.

• We must come prepared to design plans of action at the local level, to collaborate with both the usual and unusual suspects; it is time to move outside the box and tap varied forces.

• The unit of change is one school at a time, perhaps one network at a time, and with difficulty, one district, only of the entry points are open and there is flexible dedication.

• Working with and within the Common Core State Standards is, at the moment, a strong and compelling idea. But as I remember what American history tells us, especially since 1983 Nation At Risk bombshell, standards come and go (at least three sets since then – National, Naep and various states), and standardized high stakes testing in English and Math remain the gold coin of the realm. There is no guarantee that the money, energy, or infrastructure (professional development, assessment and evaluation smarts, and the constraints of time and enthusiasm) required for success will emerge or last in our current fragile economy and divided nation.

• Whatever we do takes time, money, focus, patience, and persistence. Do we have it? Is this the time? How do we organize and work from the ground up. Can we achieve solidarity?

• Speaking of leadership, who is the we?

Let me know your thoughts. Meanwhile, what counts for me is working with those schools, communities and cultural organizations that are steadfast in their beliefs that the arts are education.
JANE REMER’S CLIFFNOTES We are at another rocky precipice in our history that threatens the survival of the arts in our social fabric and our school systems. The timing and magnitude of the challenges have prompted me to speak out about some of the most persistent issues in the arts education field during the last forty-plus years. My credo is simple: The arts are a moral imperative. They are fundamental to the cognitive, affective, physical, and intellectual development of all our children and youth. They belong on a par with the 3 R’s, science, and social studies in all of our elementary and secondary schools. These schools will grow to treasure good quality instruction that develops curious, informed, resilient young citizens to participate fully in a democratic society that is in constant flux. I have chosen the title Cliff Notes for this forum. It serves as metaphor and double entendre: first, as short takes on long-standing and complicated issues, and second, as a verbal image of the perpetually perilous state of the arts as an essential part of general public education. I plan to focus on possible solutions and hope to stimulate thoughtful dialogue on-line or locally.
*************************************************************************************************************** Jane Remer.jpgJane Remer has worked nationally for over forty years as an author, educator, researcher, foundation director and consultant. She was an Associate Director of the John D. Rockefeller 3rd Fund’s Arts in Education Program and has taught at Teachers College, Columbia University and New York University. Ms. Remer works directly in and with the public schools and cultural organizations, spending significant time on curriculum, instruction and collaborative action research with administrators, teachers , students and artists. She directs the Capezio/Ballet Makers Dance Foundation, and her publications include Changing Schools Through the Arts and Beyond Enrichment: Building Arts Partnerships with Schools and Your Community. She is currently writing Beyond Survival: Reflections On The Challenge to the Arts As General Education. A graduate of Oberlin College, she attended Yale Law School and earned a masters in education from Yale Graduate School.


  1. “The unit of change is one school at a time, perhaps one network at a time, and with difficulty, one district, only of the entry points are open and there is flexible dedication. ”
    Yes it is! Too often as arts advocates we aim too high, thinking broader strokes will help more kids. We should remember to focus where we can do the most good, which is one district at a time. Let’s take our cue from a famous conservative: “All politics is local.”

  2. I admire the clarity and force of Jane Remer’s thinking on this critical issue.
    I’m one of no doubt many people who can’t be at the table (work constraints, family commitments, and so on).
    But I can do my part in other ways and so can others like me. I consider myself in large measure responsible for the arts education of the two of my four grandchildren who live near me in NYC and attend its public schools. (Their schools do try, but can only do so much and will, it seems, be able to do less.)
    Since my NYC “grands” were pre-schoolers they now have two numbers to their age), I’ve taken each of them to museums and theaters of all kinds, with lots of preparation about what they’re going to see and lots of talk once they’ve seen it. With research, one can find opportunities to visit museums and theaters that are free or discounted.
    The kids have always done lots of art work when they visit my place–which abounds with raw materials for different mediums. Needless to say, I give them complete freedom to use their imagination when they paint, collage, or give new meaning to “mixed media.” Their results are amazing; I’m constantly astonished, and display their work throughout the house.
    So . . . pick a child, add that child’s best friend if you like, and get on the case of bringing art to the young, since our present government seems to think it is non-essential. Write these benighted officials and tell them what Martha Graham said of a long-ago powerful culture that collapsed: “They had no poets, and so they died.”

  3. Liz Norman says

    Ah, Jane, wise once again.
    You make me think about:
    – Where are the various “tables”, to whom do they belong, and who gets invited?
    – How do the conversations get shared, and with whom?
    – How do we as a community a) accumulate information from those conversations, b)filter the information into “actionable” topics, and c)organize ourselves to take meaningful action?
    Just wondering.

  4. I too compliment Jane on her passion and wit. However, I would like to play devil’s advocate on this one. It seems to me that muscling our way to the table has been a goal of arts education advocates for decades. To this end, our past and present leaders have consistently failed us. But let’s turn that failure to receive a glowing invitation to dinner into a new opportunity. Never mind the K-12 public education table, let’s set our own table.
    Rather than struggle for recognition from an education system that isn’t interested, what if arts education finally took the hint and set up on its own? What if being part of the “general curriculum” is not where the arts operate at their best effect? I would argue that no one knows how to design and implement quality arts teaching and learning experiences better than arts educators. So rather than fight to be a mere side dish in a meal that’s meant to serve a different meat, why not establish a new dining experience where the arts are the main course?

  5. You are welcome to eat at the Universal Design for Learning table.
    Please comment on how the arts can provide rich, engaging, and meaningful options for learners to demonstrate what they understand, know, and are able to do:

    A little background: I’m currently a Leadership Fellow at Boston College in residency at CAST which is a non-profit education organization that is interested in supporting educators and curriculum designers in removing barriers from curriculum and supporting expert learning. Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a set of subject-neutral principles to guide curricular decision-making. UDL is grounded in neuro-science and theory on expert learning.
    Universal Design for Learning is part of the Higher Education Opportunities Act and the Race to the Top guidelines. UDL is featured prominently in the National Educational Technology Plan, and will most likely be in the re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Schools Act.
    There is definitely room AND interest at this table to feature the arts as a learning strategy.

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