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March 11, 2010

Arts education: "It's not a waste of time"

For a number of reasons, I've spent the last year immersed in education reporting, so it's nice to be back here thinking and talking about the arts. These two worlds intersect in critical ways, as today's kids are tomorrow's artists. I don't know about you, but my best school daze memories have nothing to do with the rote drills or the bubble tests. Chemistry? Feh. I only remember the teacher screaming at me when I picked up a pile of lye pellets because I thought they were pretty. But I do remember field trips to Lincoln Center, where we worked backstage with a director I would later interview. Physics is fuzzy, but I fondly recall finger painting in kindergarten and writing angst-ridden poetry in a class led by a teacher who didn't make fun of my adolescent musings.

I was reminded of this the other night during the Oscars when Michael Ciacchino won for his original score for "Up." He skipped the usual shout-outs to agents and higher powers and, instead, went right back to the beginning.

I was nine and I asked my dad, "Can I have your movie camera? That old, wind-up 8 millimeter camera that was in your drawer?" And he goes, "Sure, take it." And I took it and I started making movies with it and I started being as creative as I could, and never once in my life did my parents ever say, "What you're doing is a waste of time." Never. And I grew up, I had teachers, I had colleagues, I had people that I worked with all through my life who always told me what you're doing is not a waste of time. So that was normal to me that it was OK to do that. I know there are kids out there that don't have that support system so if you're out there and you're listening, listen to me: If you want to be creative, get out there and do it. It's not a waste of time. Do it. OK?
Imagine that. He had teachers who told him what he was doing wasn't a waste of time. All aspiring young artists should have teachers like that. I'm not saying that teachers who foster creativity aren't out there, but they're either fleeing the profession or drowning in a mad "reform" race that threatens to drive the arts out of public schools. And frankly, I'm worried.

Ever since the No Child Left Behind act, the national discussion about failing schools has been all about "accountability" and "standards." Now, nobody in his or her right mind is against standards and accountability: We all want our kids to learn and to develop and to grow. But the "standards" movement is imposing a corporate, one-size-fits-all model on schools, focusing on high-stakes standardized tests that measure rote facts rather than the ability to think independently. Just yesterday, the National Governors Association released national core common standards that have been embraced by 48 states. The standards focus on  language arts, science, and math, and they outline specific benchmarks each child has to meet in each grade. Not a word about the arts or about the value of multiple intelligences.

States that adopt the standards will have a better chance of winning funding in President Obama's Race to the Top Initiative, a $5 billion program that treats education like a reality show. Whatever state can get through all the hurdles wins the cash. But what happens when you ask people to do the impossible -- that is, improve failing schools overnight and get all students to pass the same test? They resort to desperate measures.

They cheat. They teach to the test, aka drill and kill. And they narrow the curriculum. If it ain't on the test, it's a waste of time. Out goes music. Out goes visual art. Out goes drama. This is happening all over the place, despite the fact that studies show that graduation rates are higher when students have access to arts education.

Imagine the young composer in this environment, where his teachers actually did tell him that his obsession with his father's wind-up 8 millimeter camera was a waste of time. Imagine the would-be architect, who is told in kindergarten that building with blocks is a waste of time. Imagine the future actress, who is told there's no time to play in the dress-up area because she has to learn all her letters and memorize 25 sight words at the age of five. Imagine the up-and-coming Picasso who is chastised for turning in a picture of a blue cat eating a potato when the assignment had been to draw a self-portrait. Not realistic enough! Follow directions! 

A waste of time.

Again, there's nothing inherently wrong with standards if they are developmentally appropriate and flexible. But I fear we are raising a bunch of automatons who are being instructed to memorize facts and fill out bubble tests rather than teaching children to think creatively and outside of the so-called box.

The sad thing is, this reform is all being done in the name of educating young people to develop "21st century skills." But what precisely are these skills? Here's what Daniel Pink had to say in "A Whole New Mind." "Typically these are things we associate with
the right side of the brain, with artistic and empathetic and playful sorts of abilities."

Instead, schools are racing to focus on something called STEM -- science, technology, engineering and mathematics. In a recent article in Education Week, Joseph Piro suggested the term be changed to STEAM -- with the A standing for arts. Makes perfect sense to me and you, but unfortunately, we're not in charge.

And sadly, this isn't just happening here. And it's not just happening in K-12. It's infecting universities, too. Last month, an A-list of arts and education luminaries in England penned a passionate letter to the Observer protesting cuts to arts programs in higher education.

The challenges facing the country and the world cannot be addressed without the arts and humanities. People's complexity comes from their language, identities, histories, faiths and cultures. Without understanding that complexity we cannot address these challenges. Subjects such as literature, philosophy and history teach students to look at the world from a different perspective, to challenge ideas and to communicate effectively, to bring the flexibility and imagination that employers need and welcome.

We fear for the future of the arts and humanities. Our cultural capital is in danger of decline if the government fails to protect them.

The letter was signed by leaders from the National Gallery, the Barbican and Opera North, among others. They fear for the future and so should we. Reform efforts with even the best of intentions can have unintended consequences. The fear is real and it's potent and it's urgent.

Somewhere there's some kid typing away on a script or making a brilliant music video or building sculptures out of found objects. These kids need the same encouragement that Michael Giacchino received so many years ago. They need to hear it at school as well as at home. "It's not a waste of time. Do it. OK?"
March 11, 2010 5:50 AM | | Comments (9)

9 Comments

Educational System is test based, the better the test, the better rating, means more funding for schools...results are manipulated...culture without education in art, without physical activity is going nowhere, except down the drain...immigrants educated in foreign countries are keeping this country competitive....think about it...reform is not enough, it takes creative minds.but then...where are they..?

If there is going to be tight control on standards, then the standards should include all of the Howard Gardner's Multiple Intelligences. Not just the math and language. It should include music, art, kinesthetics, intra-personal, and inter-personal intelligences. The idea of standards is not wrong. The limiting of standards to such a narrow field is what is wrong.

I spent years as a machinist, was president of the local for 18 years. I was a Commissioner on the State Arts Commission and never used by pencil and paper any form of math. That is what hand held machines are for. In-put the right figures and out comes the right answer but you can't in-put art into a machine. I remember concerts but not why I was supposed to know algebra or geometry.

Portfolio assessments were dropped when schools realized that they needed to hire someone that could manage the portfolios, such as, photographs and digital reproductions, as well as, provide time for an assessment team. Instead, schools are putting more money into State Standard poster production, training and retraining teams, revising already revised tests and much, much more that depletes funds for student supplies.
It all stops at what is motivating each child to learn and feel confident in their quest. Portfolios would have regional sensitivities, as well as, personal sensitivities. If portfolio records were done with an understanding of what standards the students were working with, then teachers could identify which ones each student was excelling at. Students could identify their own successes better, and Special Needs students could provide evidence of their skills, as well.

I am a teacher and I want to reassure you that I always encourage my students to be creative!

No kid goes to school because he loves Math and can't get enough of Science (well, most kids anyway).

How are we to develop the next generation of creative thinkers if we do not teach them the language of the arts?

In James Catterall's study Doing Well and Doing Good by Doing Art, the results strongly connect arts learning with both general academic success and pro-social outcomes. This study provides important evidence of the significant role that the arts play in preparing young people for success, both in academia and in life.

Its implications for the education of underserved and English Language Learners are particularly significant, given the compelling need to improve the educational opportunities available to urban inner-city and ELL students. AEP has summarized the findings in the latest edition of its Wire.

Thanks for including the remarks from the Oscars when Michael Ciacchino won. I was another person who was lucky for support in that way. I was 2 years into studying theatre in college before I realized that some of my classmates had parents who totally disapproved of their choice. Mine were proud of my accomplishments and helped me make it through school. My studies and my work in theatre for years after taught me more about life and about myself than I think any other way of life could. Early support can make a huge difference.

It's incredibly refreshing to read articles like this one. It seems there are many people who feel the same way and yet nothing changes because the people who have the power to change it are caught up in the current flawed system (which as you pointed out seems to be getting worse). It's all about money and art, music, and P.E. don't make schools any money.

Teacher's Professional Development

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