"And the beat goes on.............................."
Week 3, Day 1:
Question #1: What opportunities are there for developing a national arts education policy that can inform state and local policy? How important is it that the arts are part of Common Core Standards and the reauthorization of ESEA (Elementary and Secondary Education Act)?
Janet Brown (Executive Director of Grantmakers in the Arts is past executive director of the South Dakota Alliance for Arts Education, Chair of the Augustana College Performing and Visual Arts Department, an arts lobbyist and a drama teacher. She has a BA in Theatre Education and a Masters in Public Administration).
Sometimes the very ingredients that offered success in one political and economic climate become liabilities or less successful when politics and economics change. That’s what’s happened in the arts at the federal policy level. Fifty years ago, America was feeling pretty damn good about itself, post WWII boom had occurred, industry was skyrocketing and we were going to the moon. If we could do that, we, as a society, could do anything. This was the federal political outlook on American life in the early 60s. In reality, there was great discrimination towards anybody who wasn’t white both in law and in societal mores, women weren’t in politics or the workforce, poverty in inner cities and rural areas was acute and schools were segregated. But, the perception was that we were “Camelot” economically and socially on the rise. It was into this environment that the National Endowment for the Arts was born to give us world-class institutions that could compete with the great museums, operas, ballets and symphonies of Europe and Asia.
We built an industry based on this premise with the help of major foundations like Ford who supported infrastructure and gave form and organizational structure to institutions. We focused on specialization, creating training programs for administrators and artists to fill the jobs and carry us forward. We did the same thing in education developing associations for arts teachers with standards and credentials and an entire industry of teaching artists. This was all good. This was professionalizing the field. It was necessary.
But politics and politicians are fickle. Politics follows the rules of physics and the pendulum having swung in one direction, returns to swing equally in the opposite direction. In the 80s, the “arts” no longer were viewed as an opportunity for Americans to rise to a higher level of intellectualism but as elitist, something the average American didn’t participate in. (Remember this is perception, not reality.) We had separated “artists” from those individuals in our communities who were making art but not making a living at making art. The arts were no longer bi-partisan but perceived by conservative Republicans, for their own political purposes, as liberal and a waste of taxpayer dollars. Politicians competed with each other about who was most “like the average guy or gal.” Populism became a plus, even as economic policies under Reagan began to whittle away at the strength of the American middle class.
In education policy, we became one more special interest group vying for the attention and resources with all other curriculum areas. If I were giving an advocacy lecture, I’d say we focused too much on the “top down” supporters and not enough on the “bottom up” supporters. We never made the case with the US Department of Education or Congress that the arts were as important to an education of a child as learning to read or write. This is where our own battles within the arts community of integration and arts instruction did not serve us well with policy makers. As one Congressional staffer told me recently, “ arts people seem to not be able to come into the policy arena with any clear objectives.” Part of that is that we couldn’t agree among ourselves and there was no clear leadership placing the education agenda above the inside politics of the arts.
Perception and reality get all confused in the political arena. There is a perception that education is a local issue; that policies are determined locally and funds come primarily from local property taxes and state funds. This is also the reality. Well, sort of. The reality is that the federal government through the US Department of Education (DOE) designs education policies and programs that have a huge impact on state and local education decision-makers. Because any attempts to have a real education policy with a national curriculum and control are so unpopular, the USDOE doesn’t have the authority granted by Congress, to dictate educational policies. Instead, as with many federal programs, they use the money carrot. The federal government can’t force local schools to act a certain way but it can withhold funding if they don’t. Or the feds can create new programs and provide huge sums of money for them to incentivize actions at the local level. If No Child Left Behind (NCLB, the Elementary and Secondary School Act) didn’t include any funding from the feds to state education departments, do you think anyone would care what the bill had to say?
Where does all this leave us in arts education? We know that we’ve seen a steady decline since the mid 80s in the numbers of students receiving at least one class in the arts per week. (Read Nick Rabkin’s blog posted earlier). We’ve seen local districts scramble to “teach to the test” as a result of NCLB. Since we have no test to find out how your music class enhanced your math skills, the arts are out in the cold. We now have a new administration that seems to have no greater creative solutions to education than the one that created NCLB. There are no arts incentives for major USDOE
I am convinced that a successful national arts education policy will be one that meets the goals and objectives of the Department of Education and Congressional education committee leadership. In this sense, it’s not really a national arts education policy but it is a policy where the arts are an integral part of a national education policy. The argument that every student needs to have art for art sake hasn’t and isn’t going to work in this climate. Going back to the research of Howard Gardner about how children learn and what keeps kids in school come closer to arguments that policy makers understand. Using the arts as a tool to teach other subjects and experience the world around us in the lower grades and moving into specific arts instruction as a student matures and has developed artistic interest are strategies that have been, and again could be, successful.
Advocacy at the federal level is paramount just as state and local arts advocates must work on the local level. We have to make the arts part of the carrot. To do this, we have to give up industry infighting, play at the 30,000 feet level and change our language from arts education to education. Our partners need to be math, science, physical education, social studies, other curriculum advocates, child advocates and school reformers. Our reach needs to extend to national associations of chief school officers, superintendents, school boards, teachers’ unions, associations and accreditation entities.
This is a big and full-time job that will take strategic planning, resources, lobbying efforts and a willingness on the part of all the arts community to say, “we’ll give up our special interest to get our foot in the door.” We, the arts people, might not even be the right people to do this work. We’ve never played that game at the federal level. Until we do, arts at the local level remain vulnerable, with policies changing every time a supportive administrator or school board member leaves their post.
Bob Lynch (President / CEO Americans for the Arts):
At Americans for the Arts, we see an opportunity to advance national arts education policy by working in a very specific way.
We focus on forging strategic alliances with key leaders in the public and private sectors and on working alongside these allies to educate the decision-makers who have leverage in the national policy arena. We concentrate on giving those decision-makers meaningful research and specific information about the benefits of arts education in an effort to impact and inform future decisions about education policy.
This work is informed by the best practice examples surfaced by our national network of state and local advocates and the specific stories they share about the impact of arts education programs on the ground. It is further shaped by the opportunities we create for high-level corporate, philanthropic, and thought leaders to take action personally and speak publicly about the value they see in arts education before new audiences.
All of this work builds the clout that is critical to the success of our decision maker education effort. Without the clout, there will be no change.
At the Federal Level Arts Education Policy
In terms of investment, we advocate for resources to support the arts in the broader education agenda, including issues of equity, improving college and career-readiness, and workforce development. This work includes encouraging the U.S. Department of Education to focus on state and school district fulfillment of regulations already in place that support arts education, as well as working to ensure that the guidelines for new grant programs (e.g., Investing in Innovation, School Improvement Grants, and Promise Neighborhoods) allow the funds to support arts education programs and services.
Among federal policy issues, no other issue stands out as more important than reversing the narrowing of the curriculum that has taken place since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Americans for the Arts began working to prepare for NCLB reauthorization over five years ago, and we have continued throughout each Congress to work to inform decision-makers about the importance of 1) language in the legislation that would increase the role of the arts as a core academic subject; and 2) appropriations that would allow funds, such as Title I or federal grant programs, to be used for arts instruction and/or professional development. We developed these recommendations through a collaborative planning process, a process through which we have consistently engaged over 80 national organizations. In my view, this process represents the best mechanism for debating, refining, and uniting behind shared policy objectives.
To be truly effective, we need many more organizations to join us in this process and commit to working with the group. This is critical to our future success, and one of my chief areas of focus right now is doing whatever I can to help build this larger national coalition.
Building National Clout for Arts Education
We deliberately collaborate with leaders from many different arts and culture, education, and public and private sector organizations to advance education reform at the national level and in local communities. We interface with a complex web of national, state, and local support entities that advocate for arts education to help develop the leadership that is necessary to strengthen policies and expand resources for arts education.
These efforts focus in three areas: (1) Supporting an advocacy network comprised of national service organizations, state arts and education advocacy organizations, and over 100,000 citizen activists through our Arts Action Fund; (2) Cultivating more than 50 strategic partnerships with organizations representing arts and culture, elected officials, businesses, and policy and funding decision makers; and (3) Engaging in national visibility for the cause of arts education, through efforts such as Art. Ask for More, and the Keep the Arts in Public Schools Facebook Cause with its more than 1.2 million member network.
The combination creates the capacity of powerful outcomes. Consider, for example, our 2010 National Arts Policy Roundtable at the Sundance Institute. The dialogue at this meeting, which included officials from the President's Committee on the Arts & Humanities (PCAH) and the U.S. Department of Education, helped to inform the landmark report released by PCAH, Reinvesting in Arts Education. At our annual convention, we hosted a special session on the PCAH report and began what will be an ongoing discussion in the field as to how some of the objectives outlined in this report can be realized at the local level.
We take strategic data and case making information like the PCAH report out to decision makers through our broader network of strategic alliances and leadership venues ranging just this summer from the Chautauqua Institute, Aspen Institute, Sundance Institute, U.S. Conference of Mayors, National Association of Counties, League of Cities, National Lieutenant Governors Association, National Conference of State Legislatures, and many others focused on variously the national, state, and local levels. Relentless messaging and a large army of messengers are the keys.
Together, these advocacy efforts (influencing federal policy and building national clout) will help create a strong voice for arts education and a platform for action that engages the many layers of decision-makers, stakeholders and advocates in making sure that the arts are a robust and vital component of education in every community in America.
I think that the issue of “opportunity” for a national arts education policy is ultimately connected to the larger question of who will lead it, how it will become purely child/student focused, and who will fund it.
I would wager, that at first blush, the notion of a national arts education policy conjures the sort of static, sort of declarative statement of philosophy and principles that have been bouncing around for years. At The Center for Arts Education, we created an Arts Education Bill of Rights. And yes, there’s policy in there, but it’s more in the realm of the credo document many have come to view as the sum total of policy.
What I would really love to see, would be a living, substantive policy agenda that includes key principles and guiding statements, but is ultimately anchored by a policy platform that is dynamic: a significant series of policy goals that are calibrated and recalibrated to the rapidly changing environment. For many, standards are enough, and lord knows, they are more than enough when it comes to the work required to assemble. But, standards, on their own, are often created from a political perspective, or in other words, overly influenced by one group of practitioners or stakeholders, over another. Even worse, too many districts and educators give lip service to standards, so practically speaking, standards should remain in the realm of instructional practice. Let’s not conflate them with an actionable policy agenda.
The opportunity for a national agenda is really to be found in the development of a powerful platform that has teeth: one that means what it says and says what it means. I have often found arts and arts education policy writing to be overly friendly, soft, and all too often crafted without connection to other key education organizations, such as the school boards association, teacher unions, national funders, and key think tanks.
When I look at the ESEA platforms coming from the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, ASCD, the National Council of the Churches of Christ, just to name a few, I see the types of policy agendas that we should be aiming for. These are agendas that not only speak with power, clarity, and great meaning, but also serve as rallying documents for constituencies.
And in order for this sort of agenda to be living, breathing, vital, it needs the best strategic thinking we can apply to it and not just in its creation, but in making it that living document, designed with critical strategic questions in mind: what goals are short-term, mid-term, long-term? How do you turn a loss into a win? How does the agenda shift to respond to changing environment? How to move to action? And, how does the agenda avoid becoming purely responsive. (N.B, the last two items are ultimately in conflict, a point that speaks to the complexity of this work.)
Without question, ESEA must be part of this agenda. We need much more out of ESEA than we have gotten traditionally. It’s great to be listed as a core subject, but in the end, the engine of ESEA must include the arts, and ultimately, ESEA is a categorical funding program for students below the poverty line. We’re talking money here folks.
To be happy with a letter from the education secretary reminding principals that the arts are a core subject is the most minimal of starting points.
In all this there is always the question of reach. How much is too much? How is credibility established through the framing of the ask/goal? The opportunity here, I think, is to ask for more. Not less, but more. If the arts education field doesn’t frame what’s best for kids, without hedging our bets, who will do this for us?
The opportunity is to be bold.
Is the work tough? You bet. Do we have a lot to learn? You bet. Should be we grateful to the leaders like Narric Rome and Heather Noonan who have advanced this work light years beyond where it once was? Absolutely. Does that mean we should be satisfied with where things stand today? I should think not.
I like to think about the work that moved STEM to the forefront of education policy, real policy with real money behind it.
Let’s not forget that much of this work was advanced through a broad-based coalition that did not include the arts. And, what happened? The STEM train left the station, with its bags of money and STEM- friendly policy, ultimately stranding the arts at the station, hoping to catch a connection to a train called STEAM.
What could have been different? Well, a place at the table of that STEM coalition and ultimately all we would have wanted would have been a simple clause, not even a full sentence mind you, but a simple clause that opened the door to the arts in the Federal STEM initiatives. Something like: “ including the arts.”
The opportunities? They are all around us. Look to the Common Core, look to the Opportunity to Learn Movement, look to early childhood, digital learning, and more.
The one thing I learned in creating and working in broad-based coalitions during my tenure at The Center for Arts Education, is that you have to know who you are and what you want, and be willing to let go of some of it in order to be a part of the coalition. These things are fundamental. And naturally you have to be interested and willing in coalition work. It should be part of your identity.
For us in the arts, too often the coalitions are internal to the arts education field. The opportunity is for us to get ourselves together as a field, and begin to make greater headway outside of our field. There’s the opportunity.
Anyone want to join?