George Lucas Educational Foundation

Arts: Wherefore Art?

The arts vacuum in public education is filled by locals who come to the rescue.
Sara Bernard
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Credit: Rob Colvin/Getty Images

PREDICTION: After-school and off-site programs using community expertise will take on the bulk of arts teaching.

Here's the good news for art educators: Though an unintended consequence of NCLB has been a slow stripping from the school day of anything that smacks of "extracurricular," the national tide is turning. Case in point: The 2007 National Teacher of the Year, Andrea Peterson, is a music teacher.

As America begins to recognize (or recognize again) that the arts are essential, not peripheral, to true education, arts programs will become part of the solution to the very underachievement that NCLB targets. This year, beleaguered champions of arts education will find their visions finally -- if gradually -- realized, as the growing conversation about art education's intrinsic value plays out in partnerships between community arts organizations and schools. Beyond simply filling in the gaps, this fruitful connection to expertise will offer students rich, meaningful experiences that will likely improve on traditional models for art class.

Take for instance, Big Thought, an umbrella organization managing multiple partnerships between schools and cultural centers in Dallas, Texas. The organization promotes initiatives such as Dallas ArtsPartners, providing access to cultural institutions for students and tools for teachers. "In Dallas, we're seeing an increase in arts and music education," says Gina Thorsen, Big Thought's vice president of research and development.

Though she concedes this trend is atypical for a large, urban school district, she and Big Thought's executive director, Giselle Antoni, travel the country coaching other communities to pool their resources and follow suit. "Arts and cultural organizations have resources that our schools don't have and that can be used to great benefit in the classroom," Thorsen says.

John Abodeely, arts-education manager at the Washington, DC, nonprofit organization Americans for the Arts, has seen a distinct rise in these types of partnerships in recent years. Rather than the old alliances between professional artists and classrooms, which took the form of an occasional artist-in-residence, he says, "the depth of service is much greater." Arts organizations are working side-by-side with teachers and principals to develop arts-integrated curricula that tap into the flexibility and innovation possible in after-school time.

ArtLinks, in Napa, California, is just such a program. Leslie Medine, executive director of its parent organization, On the Move, recounts an after-school mural project ArtLinks made possible. When students at the local Salvador Elementary School discussed the content of their mural (with the theme "School as community"), they discovered that if they were to paint a flag for every nationality represented at the school, there would be twenty-one flags. "That's not necessarily something that would have happened in social studies class," Medine says.

Granted, it's a paradoxical time for arts education, with cutbacks on the one hand and a growing amount of support on the other. But therein lies the hope -- and the challenge, explains Deborah Reeve, executive director of the National Art Education Association. Though times have been tough, she says, "there's a change in the air."

Gina Thorsen, in Dallas, concurs. "Perhaps a pendulum swung too far in one direction," she muses. "Now it's swinging back."

What's Next > NCLB

Sara Bernard is a former staff writer and multimedia producer for Edutopia.

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Ethan Hay's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Great article.

I am an educational consultant living in Sausalito, California. As a former director of a community nonprofit art center, school counselor, corporate trainer and curriculum developer who now specializes in arts education in the schools, it is gratifying to see increasing interest in arts programming in the schools.

During several years of dramatic cutbacks in arts programming, I found parents coming forward, again and again, to fund private afterschool classes and ongoing art groups for their children. I have met with children in private homes, studios, community rec centers and churches when adequate space for the arts has not been available in the schools. Finding adequate accomodations has been challenging, but interest in the arts and performances has never been stronger.

In 2007 especially, there has been a definitive turnaround in offering arts in afterschool programs and through artist-in-the-schools residencies. For example, Marin Youth in Arts, a nonprofit arts education agency, places artists within the Marin County school system. They are now developing comprehensive arts enrichment programs within the schools and offer an expanding variety of artistic media through the services of local artists.

It will be an achievement when the arts are integrated fully within the academic curriculum at the lower grades, and not seen as a once a week "special" activity or a once-a-year project.

Special activities and single projects such as murals are an important feature in schools and should continue. They offer intrinsic benefits that extend well beyond the immediate activity. But as one who has lectured and consulted on the impact of art as necessary for building visual literacy, developing essential personal and social skills, providing outlets for growth and public service, it is important that the arts become recognized as an essential part of school curricula, and indeed, a life well lived.

-- Ethan

Ethan Hay, MA

New Xings - creative solutions
PO Box 1867
Sausalito, CA 94966
(415) 332-1430

Joyce Jackson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Certified art specialists have tremendous extensive training in art and art education. Nothing can substitute for the art specialists and nothing can replace their training in the public schools. They have art history and studio experience that is valuable to the students.

L H Chapman's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

In my community, major arts organizations said nothing while arts programs were cut in our public schools. Arts patrons have poured resources into a new magnet arts school advertised as world-class, offering pre-professional and professionla training for talented kids, with a strong focus on the performing arts. In the meantime, arts patrons, civic and educational leaders seem to have little concern for the quality and quantity of arts education in all of the other public schools.
School matter because community arts organizations do not always have "education for all" as a primary focus, and few could offer arts education to every student in a district. Even so, most non-profit arts organizaions do need in-school and after-school programs to justify their public purposes, and to garner finacial support for their general operating budgets. Our annual campaign for the fine arts fund drive makes a lot of noise about programs for students, but it earmarks none of those funds for schools.
Savvy community arts education agencies and underemployed artists tend to use schools for their own purposes. One purpose is to earn income from schools by offering them short-term, episodic "exposure" programs. Performing arts groups do this under the banner of long-term audience development. Museums tend to call this activity "outreach." Schools can contract with "arts service providers" through a central booking agency, which insists on getting a lot of publicity for "saving" the arts in schools, and doing "partnerships" with schools. These arrangements have been promoted by the National Endowment for the Arts and state arts agencies for more than five decades. The income generated is marginal, but they can often leverage more than direct programming without something "for the kids."
In my opinion, many in the local arts community have no idea what systematic, comprehensive, and coherent instruction in the arts might look like pre-kindergarten through grade 12 in schools. In this relatively rare scheme, community programs enrich the curriculum in schools. What we have instead is widespread aceptance of little or no studies of the arts in schools, and acceptance of a mishmash of short-term "gigs" masquerading as suffiecient if not generous education (whether in or out of school).
Schools, of course, are eager to outsource arts education to save money. But there is a cost. National studies show that the kids with the best access to arts instruction in school, as well as after-school arts programs, have parents who earn above average income and have a college degree.
In theory, public school art programs should be giving all students an opportunity to learn, irrespective of preconceptions about talent, initial interest, social class, gender and all the rest. On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, 30% of nine year olds report they have not had art or music classes in school, this rises to 60% by age thirteen, and 80% by age seventeen. Naivete in the arts is widely accepted as a perfectly normal outcome of public education. If you attend college, almost all course work in the arts is remedial. In the meantime, securing public investmetns in the non-profit arts is troubled by the fact that the strongest supporters of the arts actually have graduate degrees and higher than average incomes. Securing coherent, substantial and sustained arts instruction in all schools, for every student, is also difficult, especially if the arts community elects not to make this job one.

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