Monday, November 9, 2015

Unreality in Our Goals and Objectives

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

When you are trying to motivate and inspire a lot of people to join together for some lofty common purpose, which is the better approach:  To shoot for the moon so as to keep the big picture vision in mind of what you really want to happen?; or to acknowledge the on-the-ground reality and approach the objective from a more practical perspective?

That is the conundrum that we face in the arts on multiple levels.  On the one hand, it can be argued that we are unrealistic, perhaps even in denial, in our continually approaching big challenges as though what we have been doing that isn't working, somehow will soon turn the corner and change will come. Those on this side of the fence argue that it is not only a waste of precious resources, including time, but a disservice to forever act as though our big picture plans are obtainable, when they may, in fact, not be attainable in anywhere near the form and format that we preach is the gospel.  These people take the position that we need to temper our actions towards shorter term goals that are possible.  And that doing otherwise, in the long run, is discouraging and draining.   Others believe that even though we make only marginal progress, those steps are moving us forward, and that we need to have a vision of what we ultimately want and that helps us to move towards that ultimate goal.  Little steps don't inspire as many people, including our stakeholders, and the public to stay the course and commit the resources necessary to keep trying.

Arts Education falls into this dichotomy.   We know what we want.  We want standards based, curriculum integrated, sequential arts instruction K-12 by qualified and trained teachers / instructors, augmented by exposure to extant societal arts by professional artists.  And we want that available to every single student in the country in at least the visual, music, dance and theater areas.

And while that is available in some districts that are wealthy and can afford it (though not all), it has been, and continues to be, unavailable across much of the country in poorer districts - resulting in a glaring inequity that in many instances is arguably structural racism, and in other cases, the rule, not the exception, that the arts are not simply undervalued, but not valued at all.  And it comes down to money.

Take California as an example.  When I was at the California Arts Council, we had an annual ten million dollar arts educations grants budget to try to launch initiatives that could get us closer to that lofty goal of universal arts education.  And, with the economy doing well back then, there were successful attempts in several metro areas of the state - most notably in Los Angeles's Unified School District - to finally get closer to offering arts education to every student; an effort that united the city and county's educational, civic and political leadership in moving the dime forward.  Universal arts education - K-12 - as per the goal above, wasn't achieved, but we were on our way to moving in that direction.

And today?   The 2008 recession made funding cuts a reality.  And as always, with less money available, the arts are first in line to feel the pinch.

According to a L.A. Times article this week, detailing the fall of arts education in L.A. schools:

"The Los Angeles Unified School District is discovering the extent of those cuts as it seeks to regain the vibrancy that once made it a leader in arts education. For the first time, L.A. Unified in September completed a detailed accounting of arts programs at its campuses that shows stark disparities in class offerings, the number of teachers and help provided by outside groups.
Arts programs at a vast majority of schools are inadequate, according to district data. Classrooms lack basic supplies. Some orchestra classes don't have enough instruments. And thousands of elementary and middle school children are not getting any arts instruction.
A Los Angeles Times analysis that used L.A. Unified's data to assign letter grades to arts programs shows that only 35 out of more than 700 schools would get an "A." Those high-performing schools offered additional instruction through community donations, had more teachers and a greater variety of arts programs than most of the district's campuses."

And this despite the fact that the arts are mandated in state law - the equal of math, science, reading et. al.  It's the law - a law ignored as the rule, not the exception.  But even had the cuts not been necessary, was the goal of universal arts education ever realistic?  And moreover, is our approach and strategy for getting to our goal realistic?  And is realism necessary or even advisable in either our goal setting or our strategies for realizing the goals?

Indeed, in a response to the L.A. schools arts in education demise, another article in the L.A. Times, it was suggested:

“How do we really make the case to our school boards and to our superintendents that this is an important part of code?” Allen said. “We’re going to help them put in place good programs, but it’s got to be a non-negotiable portion of the curriculum.”

Non-negotiable.  The article suggested the possibility of a lawsuit to force the issue.  Good strategy?  I don't know, but the very suggestion recognizes, at least, the reality that what we have been doing is simply unrealistic.    Then too, to prevail in a lawsuit wouldn't necessarily change the reality either.

There are some 10,000 public schools - K-12 - in California.  If you had a visual, dance, theater and music teacher in each school, that's 40,000 teachers.  Assuming the cost of each in terms of salary and required benefits packages of $35,000 per year per teacher (on the low side I think) and your annual cost is $1.4 billion.  Billion.  Ok, so assume each teacher could handle four schools, and you're down to 10,000 teachers and only $350 million a year.  And let's say, teaching artists could fill many of those slots as an adjunct to their careers, and maybe then your outlay would only be $20,000 each or a paltry $200 million a year.  Only $200 million.  But even with a healthy economy where would that money come from in California?  Again, the rich districts could fare better than the poor ones, but it wouldn't be easy for any district.

So despite the law requiring arts education K-12 in the four fields, despite our continued attempts to do whatever we might to facilitate that reality, that's arguably unrealistic.  There simply isn't the political will to allocate that kind of funding.  Highly unlikely it will happen no matter what we can put together - including winning federal support, private support and districts willing to do almost anything to find the money.

Clearly we don't abandon the goal of a meaningful arts education for every student K-12.  We don't give up.  But are the relentless plans put forth to achieve the ultimate goal doing us any good?

Should we continue to press for that ideal as our strategy?  Or should we revamp our objectives to be more aligned with a step by step approach?  Which approach will work the best long term?  What are the factors to consider when trying to make a judgment?  Does a radical change in tactics directly address the unreality on the ground and by so doing make the goal more realistic - or possibly so?

The Arts Education Partnership recently released a 2020 Action Agenda for Advancing the Arts in Education - an excellent setting forth of what we want.  The goal of universal arts education by 2020 is ambitious. The question is:  Is it realistic?  The priorities set forth in the paper and the things that must be done to realize the goals of the priorities are clear and concise.  What is missing is exactly how we get those things that are necessary to do, done.

(Now, at this point I want to state categorically that I have the highest respect and admiration for the AEP people and for all those working so hard, so tirelessly, so selflessly in the arts education field to try to move us towards out goal.  In no way do I wish to diminish their work or their contributions, let alone their commitment and dedication.  This isn't meant to criticize or disparage their current plan, but rather to raise the issue of the wisdom of a tactic that frames our approach in such a way that flies in the face of reality.  I am merely using their plan to illustrate a larger point).

The AEP blueprint is flawed; flawed in the sense that it is unrealistic, and that it fails to even offer a roadmap as to how we might achieve the steps that it correctly lists as things we need to do to move towards universal arts education in the schools.  And even if it had laid out a step by step process to move forward, there is the question of how realistic that would be.  And to do it all in five years - by 2020 - when we have been struggling for five decades and have lost as much ground as we have gained; five decades and the result has been two or more generations who have gotten zero arts education in school.  Now a report that suggests we do it all in five years - Really?

To be fair, this agenda is aspirational.  The question isn't whether or not we are unrealistic in positing as our five year goal, a reality that has eluded us for decades and the cost of which is simply so high that there isn't any realistic path that would lead us to such a victory, but whether or not, it still serves a real purpose to frame and pursue the final goal as the ultimate vision, despite that vision being beyond our reach.  That is a legitimate issue we ought to debate.  We ought to be talking about reality and how reality should impact our vision, and our strategies.  The high cost of having enough trained arts teachers in California's schools to provide arts education to every student is a reality.  One that cannot be ignored, and will not go away.  We can do all kinds of things to find the money to pay for the arts education we want, but in the short term that is likely a goal we will not attain.  Give up?  No.  That's not the question.   The issue is framing the actions we will take as aligned with the reality - or not.

It breaks my heart and doubtless those of everyone else that we have lost ground in the struggle to achieve universal arts education K-12 in the Los Angeles schools.  But that's the fact.  Now what?

This conundrum exists not just in our approach to arts education, but to any number of challenges we face - from funding to leadership, from equity to capitalization.  We have spent some time framing what we want, and even time formulating strategies. But we have spent precious little time aligning those 'wants' and those strategies with reality and asking the question whether staying the course with unrealistic goals is the best approach.

If we retool our approaches to better reflect reality, do we, in the process, run the risk of losing sight of the ultimate goal?  By compromising with reality, are we jeopardizing mass support and confusing a clear agenda?  Do we appear willing to settle for less than what we know is necessary? Or are we gaining converts because the goal becomes more realistic to attain?  Should we settle?  Might we gain credibility if we are more realistic, or might that very act make it harder to get to where we need to get to.

I think we ought to talk about it more.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit