Arts Ed Reform – draft

As an artist, and the Chair of the DC Advocates for the Arts, I see the benefits of art specifically, and generally. When we talk about arts education, and why we need the arts as part of the daily instruction of every student, it’s important to remember both of these ways of measuring benefit. For some grade school students, arts exposure and practice will support their future careers. For others the arts a way to support development of critical character assets.

The John Hopkins School of Education Neuro-Education Initiative (NEI) is focused on studying how the brain learns so that new methods to deliver student services can be developed, and defended. With support from the Dana Foundation, the NEI hosted the 2009 National Summit on Learning, Arts and the Brain. (The proceedings, offered free of charge to the public, are published under the title Neuro-Education: Learning Arts, and the Brain.) The Executive Summary states, “The emerging field of neuro-education explores how children learn and what practices promote and sustain the learning process.”

The 2009 conference proceedings offer a window into the world of the modern educational specialist; issues of methodology and measurement remain uncertain. The executive summary from the conference noted, “Which outcomes [of arts education] are measurable, and how are they measured? Do the arts demonstrably improve scores on standardized tests? Can we keep separate the effects of the arts-learning process form the evaluation of the finished product? How much time is required for arts learning and arts integration to show an effect, and does this effect last?” Research presented at the conference suggests that the arts can enhance brain development, and executive function. The keynote address by Jerome Kagan, Ph.D. asserted that the arts offer an opportunity, “to provide all American youth with some values they feel warrant consistent loyalty”, and that they, “provide opportunities for all children to experience and express feeling and conflicts that are no yet fully conscious and cannot be expressed coherently in words.”

LAB_050509_kagan2_sIn his address, Kagan reflected on “why the high school drop out rate is excessively high among youth from poor and working class families” and stated that the arts impacts students depending on their socio-economic status. Kagan argued, “the main source of evidence that elementary school children rely on to decide if they able to master reading and arithmetic is the performance of the other children in the classroom. This brute fact means that, in most American classrooms led by teachers of average skill, many children who score in the bottom third of the distribution on these skills decide by the third or fourth grade that this assignment is too difficult.” Kagan goes on to discuss that, “an excellent predictor of juvenile crime in a town or city is the magnitude of the difference between the top and bottom quartiles. Moreover, the size of this difference is also an excellent predictor of the incidence of adult criminality, depression, and addition to alcohol or drugs.” Providing meaningful opportunities for success within the educational system may help diverse populations stay engaged in the pursuit of success within all aspects of that system. Such non-traditional ideas, once out of favor among hard line skills theorists, are now gaining momentum as school administrators try anything to maintain student investment. Just one example is the Capital Gains initiative in some DC Public Schools, which provides students with cash payments based on attendance, and classroom achievement.

A quick glance at local private schools shows that those schools offer a broad and inclusive diversity of both immersive and ongoing arts experiences. One might be tempted to assert that ‘they can afford to’ both in budget and because those children learn the other subjects more quickly. However, perhaps it’s simply that private educators realize that they can’t afford not to include arts education for the same reasons that Kagan suggests. Tina Beveridge, in her article No Child Left Behind and Fine Arts Classes, argues, “If we marginalize all non-tested subjects, we create a system in which only the affluent members of our society have access to the most comprehensive and well-rounded educations, which widens the achievement gap rather than closes it.”

Shinichi Suzuki, founder of the Suzuki method of music instruction, wrote, “We are born with the natural ability to learn… Many children grow up in an environment that stunts and damages them, and it is assumed that they were born that way; they themselves believe it too. But they are wrong… In my opinion the child who cannot do arithmetic is not below average in intelligence; it is the educational system that is wrong. His ability or talent simply has not been developed properly.” Education reform support must go hand in hand with a plan, and a budget, that adequately supports expected outcomes.

The principles with which we design and support arts education should take into account that the outcomes to measure include not only test scores on other subjects, but drop-out rates. When entire classes, and schools, are treated as lesser than other classes, and schools, those students have less of a chance to develop their independent will to perform.

Author: Robert Bettmann

Founder of Day Eight, and the DC Arts Writing Fellowship.