July 2013
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Executive Director's Column
The Tripping Point for the Arts in Education
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Executive Director's Column
The Tripping Point for the Arts in Education
Jonathan Katz

The basket of concepts referred to as creative economy can be said to have tipped into the mainstream of economic development theory and practice. The "tipping point" process Malcolm Gladwell described focused on "how little things can make a big difference" in the acceptance of ideas.  I question whether a generation's worth of economic impact studies; the accumulated experiential impact of example after example of urban and rural revitalization; the leadership development of mayors, governors and state legislators; research by the Travel Industry Association of America; global competition from other countries for tourists; and the rigorous demand for return on investment from government expenditures qualify as "little" influences—but the economic value of the arts and cultural activities is well established in theory and practice.

In contrast, arts in education has not yet become part of America’s policy consensus. Despite the cumulative theory, evidence and advocacy advanced by educators and education administrators, social scientists, researchers, political leaders, business leaders, policymakers, neuroscientists, parents and students demonstrating the unique skills and understandings that arts students gain; the role of the arts in improving learning in other subjects; and the social, motivational, developmental, school-environment and democratic public benefits that arts learning provides, decision makers choose to limit and reduce arts education resources with remarkable frequency and consistency. Recessionary economies have created fiscal challenges for school systems that continue to impact the availability and quality of arts education. Certainly, the inclusion of the arts as a core subject area in the federal Goals 2000 Educate America Act of 1994 was a watershed event. (The National Governors Association in its own definition of core subject areas had not included the arts.) But even though we see great achievements for arts education in the proliferation of A+ school programs and other state arts agency arts education initiatives, in the famous example of the Orchard Gardens K-8 "turnaround school" in Roxbury, Massachusetts, that fired security guards in favor of hiring arts teachers, and in the opening of Hamilton County, Tennessee's new magnet school integrating science, technology, engineering, the arts, mathematics and medicine (STEAM2), these are far from indicating a "tipping point."*

In fact, arts education now faces what I will call a "tripping point": a circumstance in which major policy decisions will either significantly advance or significantly harm a cause. The Common Core Standards in mathematics and in English language arts (ELA) being implemented by 45 states, the District of Columbia, four territories and the Department of Defense Education Activity include many artistic skills. Arts Education Partnership Executive Director Sandra Ruppert has identified 75 in the ELA standards alone. If arts teachers are available and prepared as resources for the teaching of these artistic skills in the new curricular context, and if the math and English teachers receive the necessary professional development to be responsible for this learning, the result could be a tremendous advance for arts education. Wherever this investment is not made and its implementation not purposefully coordinated, however, the potential exists for arts learning to be further marginalized and for the new standards to be ineffectively and incompletely implemented.

The STEM and STEAM context poses a similar opportunity and threat to arts education and curricular effectiveness. Arts and design skills are integral to the scientific method (which begins with observation and includes experiment design), to mastering technologies (including visual, music, motion and media applications), to engineering (including imaginative problem-solving, drafting and product design), and to mathematics (including geometry, graphics and the visual representation of data). When the curriculum recognizes and integrates these artistic and design skills; when sufficient time, staffing, equipment and materials are available; and when teachers in the technical as well as the artistic competencies are well prepared for a STEAM instructional strategy, holistic and other effective learning outcomes can be greatly advanced. In the absence of this investment or a failure to integrate the artistic and design skills, the likelihood is high that the arts get further marginalized and many students do not effectively develop the desired STEM competencies.

A third policy context will affect arts education as well. This is the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, whose Senate draft is called the Strengthening America's Schools Act of 2013. NASAA will be at the forefront of advocacy efforts working to ensure that:

  • the arts are named as core academic subjects for all students,
  • Title I provisions allow for the inclusion of arts activities in underserved schools,
  • the U.S. Department of Education continues its programs promoting successful arts education models, and
  • other federal agencies supporting educational programs—especially those emphasizing science, technology, engineering and math—include the arts in their definitions and policies.

If we and our colleagues are successful at the national level, state and local advocacy can focus on making sure that arts learning is integral to instructional and program proposals. If we are not, state and local efforts to make arts learning basic in American education will be much more difficult.

The point of this analysis is to emphasize the importance of mobilizing right now at every policy-making level of government to ensure that quality arts learning is available to every student. The decisions being made now in American education will affect a generation. It is critical for education decision makers who affect policy and resource allocation to be informed about and committed to the value of learning in the arts. It is critical that these decision makers be aware of the constituency for whom arts education is a key concern. Whatever research, policy development and advocacy it takes to accomplish this must be organized as a top priority. At the federal level, this includes focus from the Arts Education Partnership, as the nation's primary arts education policy forum, and from the Cultural Advocacy Group, as the primary advocacy network. What is required in each state will vary depending on the strength of the arts education policy and advocacy infrastructure. The level of effort needs to be sufficient to affect the implementation of the Common Core Standards and STEM initiatives. Now is the time to invest in whatever alliance, network, task force, campaign, team, staff or initiative it takes. We are at a "tripping point" for learning in the arts.

* The census reports that the number of employed arts teachers declined by 50% between 1970 and 1990. This would help explain the 2011 observation cited in Reinvesting in Arts Education that "some statistics suggest that fewer than half of adults report having participated in arts lessons or classes in school—a decline from about 65% in the 1980s." In California, a 2004 report found that student enrollment in arts education between the 1999-2000 school year and the 2003-2004 school year declined by 24.4% or 461,806 students. From the enactment of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in the 2001-2002 school year, indications were that the new policies would not benefit arts education. A national survey in 2004 by the Council for Basic Education reported that "25% of principals had cut arts education and 33% anticipated further reductions. In high minority schools, the numbers were higher at 36% reporting decreases and 42% anticipating more cuts in the near future." An Arts Education Partnership review of a 2010 national poll of more than 3,000 visual arts educators about the effects of NCLB on their programs noted, "While just over half of the respondents (53%) reported that funding had stayed the same, 43% reported that funding had decreased in all or some areas of their programs, particularly in the area of funding for studio materials." The Center for Arts Education calculated in 2011 that in the 2009-2010 school year, budgeting for arts personnel in New York City decreased by $11.6 million, 135 certified arts instructors exited the system leaving 23% of all public schools without certified arts instructors, and budgets for arts education services and for arts supplies and equipment each declined by more than a million dollars.

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