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Arts Education and School Reform: An Unlikely Duo

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.

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  1. Stan Hutton says

    I could not agree more, Richard.
    Another useful book for understanding the history (and the cyclical nature) of school reform is “Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform” by David Tyack and Larry Cuban.
    How much longer will this “tinkering toward privatization” cycle last, I wonder?

  2. Thanks Stan!!
    That book is terrific. I just think the world of both Tyack and Cuban.
    Here’s a link to the book on Amazon:

  3. Kristen Engebretsen says

    Thanks for the reminder that perhaps we should not be asking for a seat at the table, but rather carrying a torch to light a path to a new type of school reform. One that involves educating the whole child. One that puts teaching and learning (not school choice, accountability, and tenure) at the forefront. The field of arts ed has many excellent examples of great curriculum, instruction, and assessment. Instead of fighting to justify our existence in this current broken system, we could celebrate our ability to lead the way to a new, brighter existence. This is what I imagine when I discuss “school reform.”

  4. Laurence Siegel says

    Your article is a great starting point for those of us who are interested in using the arts to help[ young people ex;lore themselves and their communities. Arts education has two foci: learning through the arts and learning about the arts. Too often it’s about putting on a show, displaying a gallery of drawing, parading out the band to blow a horn about the school at a civic event. This might, but only by chance, have anything to do with the child.
    I had the good fortune to work for the most part with administrators and colleagues who “get it”. And many of them kept their sanity by playing their cards close to their vests trusting their co-workers to do their jobs – knowing we were on the same wave length.
    And they did the same with the arts program. They set us in place and stood back and let us do our jobs. They watched, but they let us and we let the kids.
    So, I’d some to “table” with some reservations and certainly, after a career of teaching in the classroom in both a well supported high school and a magnate school for the arts, an agenda. The agenda consists of being with people whose time I would not waste and who would be open to listening and doing.
    And I do think we can include the much feared issues of removal of teacher tenure (elementary, secondary and yes post- secondary – (let’s get it all out there)) Good educators will rise to the top.
    There…I’ve said it and I feel better. Let me know if anything happens. I’ll be waiting.
    Laurence Siegel

  5. How about school reform starting with individual schools? Loud picket signs aren’t going to cut it anymore (as witnessed with the Wisconsin teachers’ union protests). How are legislators supposed to support arts programs if the community which they serve don’t have any interaction with their school arts programs? As arts educators, we need to work to develop the relationships and engagement of our whole school community: teachers, students, administrators, and parents in the arts classrooms. These relationships foster personal connections to the arts which in turn provide a platform for the community to step up and speak out for the arts.

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