Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Arts Education Blog Forum - Week 2, Day 2

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on..................................."

Week 2, Day 2:

Category: Fieldbuilding

Question: How is the field addressing barriers to arts education beyond budget decreases – the need for relevant assessment and accountability methods, lack of equity and access, high turnover of education and arts leadership, the unspoken territorial divide between arts education people and the general nonprofit arts sector, and the history of the arts education segment’s ability to organize itself? How do we get to innovation in the field?

Richard Kessler (Across a kaleidoscopic career, Richard Kessler has been a senior level arts administrator, professional musician and educator, teaching artist, consultant, and arts and education policy fanatic. A practioner involved in virtually every aspect of arts education, Kessler is departing The Center for Arts Education at the end of July, becoming as of September 1st, the Dean of The Mannes College New School for Music.)

Right out of the gate, I find myself stumbling on the definition of the term “field” (or “community” as is often used). Now, don’t get me wrong, I use these terms all the time, but I have felt for a very long time that the field is quite asynchronous. So, perhaps a term better than field might just be “ecology.” To play that out a bit, you’ve got all sorts of components in the ecology, that are ultimately connected to each other, but often behave in highly independent ways. Sometimes, parts of the ecology work together, creating something that might be a bit more healthy, but still independent of many other components and this independence ultimately inhibits the improvement of the overall ecology. It’s also possible that when those particular parts become stronger, others become weaker. Rarely does the ecology come together intentionally, by design.

Think about some of the components and how they might be classified: local, regional, national. Different types of teachers, administrators, parents, teaching artists, all in different schools, with different demographics and a variety of organizations/associations that claim to speak for their particular constituency. Then you have higher education, policy makers, districts, funders, and they have their associations too. Each school and each organization is part of its own sub-ecology, as well as part of the larger ecology. And let’s not forget the various disciplines, approaches, etc. Finally, new component can crop up at any given moment. It could be something that say Quincy Jones creates, or The White House giving the Creative Coalition a platform in setting context for policy and practice. And, these new components, emerging out of nowhere, might appear to be positive, but might also have either a negligible effect on the ecology, or sometime even a negative effect, no matter how well intended. And, when the ecology might be improved by a bit more care and attention paid to a long-standing component, it is unlikely to happen because the some of the more powerful parts of the ecology, or let’s say components that feed much of the ecology, tend to like things that are new.

Another way of looking at it could be as a giant jigsaw puzzle, that somehow or another, never quite comes together completely.

Let’s also imagine that some of the pieces of the puzzle are difficult to put together, because they don’t quite fit, and need adjustment or creation of new pieces that do fit. Let’s call that part of the puzzle the barriers.

So, some of the puzzle reworking may be the State Education Department of Washington, making the investment in a statewide assessment regimen for the arts. It may be The Ford and Wallace foundations having worked with local arts education ecologies to address key barriers such as coordination, extended day, system mapping, and more, and then brought those geographically disparate puzzle groupings together for some sharing, and even a formal report to the entire ecology, or whomever within the ecology is willing to give it all a moment’s notice.

In any smaller part of this ecology, you will find those are trying something new. It may be in the area of a new district program coordinating the provision of arts education. It may be those who are trying to advance the understanding of arts education within the greater ecology of K-12 education. It may be those focusing on leadership development, or the use of technology. There are those who are seeking to advance the role of the teaching artist, in training, certification, and via the social justice route. And, there are those who are pursuing what lobbying and coalition building might bring. And let’s not forget those who seek to develop new standards as their part in advancing some portion or all of the ecology.

Of course, there are tons of examples I have missed of how the ecology (or field as was used in the formal blog prompt) is addressing barriers, most often in ways that are disconnected and asynchronous. For all those who take issue with that statement, how about I assert that the exceptions prove the rule.

And then, there are the outliers in the ecology, the parts that have not quite been examined forthright. My one big example stems (pun intended), from the confluence of change in the ways the arts are created, disseminated, classified, and recorded, combined with the changes to the nature of delivery of instruction, meaning arts teachers, teaching artists, classroom teachers, or no one, all mixed together with the evolving and dynamic nature of the disciplines, including music, art, theater, dance, arts integration. And then just for fun, let’s think about the role of the arts in youth development programs or ESL. Put this all together, and you now have a menu of what the arts can be in many schools, no matter what the standards might dictate. A principal can spin the roulette wheel and land on any combination of the above, and in more schools than many would be willing to admit, that principal can make their program out of whatever the roulette wheel of arts education options brought them.

And if you want to talk about innovation, it is in this witches brew, as wonderful, beautiful, and frustrating as it is, that all sorts of innovations are ripe for understanding and development.

I hope I haven’t given anyone a headache…

Laura Zucker (Executive Director of the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, which provides leadership for Arts for All, the largest collaborative initiative in arts education in the country, restoring standards-based arts education into the public school core curriculum of 81 school districts. Ms. Zucker also directs the Masters in Arts Management program at Claremont Graduate University).

I’m glad you started this question by asking what the barriers are beyond budget decreases, because in our experience—currently working with 44 school districts—budget is not the primary barrier. Budgets in public school districts, even when they’re reduced, are still huge in comparison to the nonprofit arts sector: The collective budget of all 81 school districts in Los Angeles County is currently $14.56 billion, yes, that’s billion, serving 1.6 million students. Most school administrators don’t know which of their existing revenue streams can be used for arts education. Since No Child Left Behind made the arts a core subject, the answer is a lot! From general purpose funds to block grant to title funds (particularly Title I funds), the arts can be woven throughout budgets. (Arts for All has created a cheat sheet on funding sources for school districts on our publications page:

So how should school districts target their funding for arts education strategically? The reality is that most administrators don’t know how arts education is currently being delivered in their schools beyond anecdotal information.

I think for many of us toiling in the arts education trenches, the first focus tends to be on access-- we just want some kids to get some arts education. Then we start thinking about equity--shouldn’t all kids get arts education? Once we get to this point we realize that the primary delivery system has to be schools. When we (hopefully) have a lot of kids getting some arts education, we start to focus on quality. That’s where we are now in LA County. How do we define quality in arts education, how can we measure it, how can we implement programs of consistent high quality?
That’s why Arts for All developed a survey to measure access to, and quality of, arts instruction at the school site level. The results surprised us and even the superintendents: the delivery of quality arts education services varied widely even within the same school district. Having this information has enabled participating superintendents to make informed decisions about how to direct resources. Understanding what’s working in their schools--and what isn’t-- is key. (A summary of the findings from the first 100 schools surveyed in five school districts can be found here:

The quality conversation leads naturally to the importance of teacher professional development, both pre-service, which was discussed as part of the responses on higher education last week, and in-service. And that’s where the schools’ internal budgeting priorities become critical, because all schools have existing funding for in-service professional development. They just have to decide to spend it on professional development in arts education for their teachers. Arts for All incentivizes the districts to do so by providing tools, such as a handbook on creating and sustaining the arts through Professional Learning Communities ( and, starting this year, we will partner with school districts to develop and implement professional development plans through coaching and matching grants.

So who makes the decisions about where to invest budget dollars?
The average tenure for urban superintendents nationally is 3.64 years (according to the Council of the Great City Schools, a collation of 65 of the nation’s largest urban school systems)! Four out of the five superintendents who participated in our pilot leadership fellows program ( changed jobs during the year of the program or shortly thereafter. Luckily, superintendents often move to another school district within the region. In fact, the new superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, John Deasy, was the superintendent of one of our vanguard school districts, Santa Monica-Malibu USD, when we first started Arts for All in 2002. So arts education efforts are often not lost, just transferred.

But we all need to do a lot more to educate not just superintendents, but assistant superintendents as, in addition to managing the budget and hiring school principals, they often have lengthy tenure in their jobs. We’re focusing on assistant superintendents more and more in capacity training.
The good news is that in our region, at least, I don’t think there’s a territorial divide on how to address these issues strategically. That common sense of direction and focus is what’s made progress possible. Arts education service providers, school district leaders, and funders—we’re all in this together. I wish I could say the same about a national strategy…but hopefully, the bloggers next week will solve this!

Pedro Noguera (Professor of sociology in the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Development at NYU. He is also Exec Director of the Metropolitan Center for Urban Education.)

As a result of severe school budget cuts, high stakes testing and the subsequent narrowing of school curricula, arts education is under attack on a scale never seen before. In the name of raising student achievement schools across the country are eliminating arts programs. This is largely because schools are under considerable pressure to raise student test scores, and there is no state in the nation where the arts are included in student assessments.

Of course, the damage is most obvious and critical in schools serving poor children. In such schools it is not uncommon to find students languishing in test prep courses, while their need for enrichment in the arts, science and even history is neglected because these subjects are not included in state exams. Under the guise of raising standards, poor children are increasingly receiving an impoverished education. Ironically, almost none of our policymakers would support such an education for their own children. On the contrary, when our policymakers choose schools for their own children, arts, physical education and a rich array of extra-curricular programs are typically widely available. Yet, when it comes to educating poor children in urban and rural schools, concern for nurturing the physical and aesthetic talents of children is often lacking.

There are of course a few notable exceptions. For example, one "failing" middle school in Brooklyn, NY decided that it would increase student motivation and engagement by building a school-wide dance program into the academic plan. The principal, Dakota Keys, attributes the gradual improvement of her school to the improved morale that resulted from students being engaged in a program that "touched their hearts and souls". Similarly, Brockton High School in Massachusetts adopted a full inclusion arts curriculum to its course offerings and found that it contributed to significant improvements in student test scores. The fact that Brockton serves a student population that is over 75% low-income and minority, yet scores among the top 10% of high schools on state exams, should serve as a clear sign to policymakers that the arts should not be treated as an "extra" that can be cut when budgets are tight or test scores need to be raised.

What we need to see arts education children made available to children and schools on a larger scale is a total shift in the education policy agenda. For too long we've been emphasizing "basic skills" through high stakes testing. What we should be doing is emphasizing the development of higher order skills through an enriched curriculum, experiential learning and a holistic approach to child development. Without such a vision and policies to support it, we are likely to continue to see our children turn off to school because they are bored to death, while our schools continue to fail. We need a new approach!

Follow-up questions and wrap up tomorrow.

Don’t Quit.