Effort to revive arts programs in schools gains momentum

Instruction in visual and performing arts has was severely cut in California schools during the recession. Credit: Steven Bollman for Oakland School for the ArtsIn an attempt to reverse the impact of years of budget cuts and a state and national emphasis on math and English test results, some 70 education officials, arts advocates, teachers and principals will unveil in June a blueprint designed to renew California’s battered K-12 arts education system.
“This is an opportunity to bring arts back into the curriculum,” State Superintendent of Schools Tom Torlakson told EdSource. “For the last several years such an emphasis has been put on math and English test scores that arts education went by the wayside as a priority.”
Perhaps more than any other segment of school curriculum, the arts – whether in music, dance, drama or the visual arts, such as photography or painting – were hit hard by the state’s budget crisis. The cuts came against the backdrop of the decade-long emphasis on math and reading as mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind law and the state’s own Public School Accountability Act.
In fact, in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the state’s largest, one-third of the district’s 345 arts teachers were let go between 2008 and 2012 and arts offerings for half of K-5 students were reduced to zero.
Not unpredictably, the decline of arts education has been felt most severely in low-performing, low-income schools as administrators moved resources out of the arts and into remedial math and English in an effort to avoid being placed into program improvement status, one potential penalty for schools that didn’t hit achievement benchmarks on standardized tests. Ironically, these are the very schools that stand to benefit most from strong arts curriculums.
The decline of arts education also raised equity and access issues as cuts fell along economic lines. Independent schools and other schools with access to private resources have generally been able to withstand budget cuts by raising private dollars to fill the gap.
New plan
The new plan, titled “Blueprint for Creative Schools: How the Arts and Creative Education Can Transform California’s Classrooms,” is written by CREATE CA, a statewide consortium of groups promoting arts education. The acronym stands for Core Reforms Engaging Arts to Educate.
Research suggests that students who receive intensive art instruction fare better academically than other students. Credit: Steven Bollman for Oakland School for the ArtsThe blueprint, three years in the making, is being designed as large-scale change is washing over public education. With Proposition 30, a temporary tax increase approved by voters in November 2012, providing a large infusion of new money; the Local Control and Funding Formula revamping school budgets and placing greater autonomy and accountability on school districts; and new Common Core State Standards triggering curriculum reassessments, arts advocates inside and outside schools are using the opportunity not only to plan ways to rebuild arts education but also to reassess its importance and rethink how it can be sustained.
Blueprint supporters point to research indicating that arts education creates value for students that reaches far beyond drawing and painting. For instance, students from low-income backgrounds who had “arts-rich” instruction in school were less likely to drop out of school, more likely to get a bachelor’s degree, and showed higher levels of civic engagement than similar students who did not have intensive art instruction, according to a 2012 study from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Furthermore, advocates note, demand for good arts education instruction is on the rise.
At Oakland School for the Arts, a well-regarded performing arts charter school in Oakland, enrollment is at capacity. The school has a long waiting list, and Executive Director Donn Harris is looking at ways to expand.
The school has actually benefitted from the general K-12 decline in the arts, Harris said, because talented teachers let go by other public schools have come knocking at his door.
Alignment with Common Core
Although the blueprint will not be released until June, CREATE CA members agreed to preview some of it to EdSource. Foremost among its objectives is to avoid a repeat of the pummeling arts education took between 2000 and 2010 by making the arts more resistant to future budget cuts.
One key recommendation calls for districts to “develop arts curriculum modules aligned to the Common Core standards and make them available to all districts and schools throughout the state.” The new standards emphasize problem-solving and hands-on instruction and favor an interdisciplinary approach to show the interconnectedness of subjects.
Although arts are not a part of the Common Core Standards, CREATE CA members argue that its value reaches far beyond mere painting and drawing.
“Part of our goal is to integrate arts with other subject matters and make it an essential part of Common Core,” Torlakson said.
Examples of that, he said, might be studying ancient terra cotta figurines from China as part of a literature class, or drawing an image of a character as an assignment accompanying a reading of “The Hunger Games” novel.
“Math, English, social studies and science are the four cores, but we want art to be the fifth core,” said Oakland School of the Arts’ Harris, who is also a member of CREATE CA.
Low-income students who had “arts-rich” instruction graduated from high school at higher rates than similar students who did not have the instruction, according to a 2012 study. (Click to enlarge) Source: The Arts and Achievement in At-Risk Youth, National Endowment for the ArtsCREATE CA member Craig Watson, who also serves as director of the California Arts Council, the state agency that promotes the arts, said this can be done by forging stronger connections to visual and performing arts experts in local communities who can bring their expertise to classrooms. This effort is already under way through a program called Creativity at the Core that the arts council developed in partnership with the California County Superintendents Educational Services Association.
Jack Mitchell, secondary arts consultant at the California Department of Education and a CREATE CA member, also agrees that arts can play a valuable role in Common Core.
“In the theater world where I come from, multi-literacy is what we do,” he said. “You can’t construct a stage set without knowing math. You can’t act a part without understanding the social context. Arts teachers can take the lead in taking students from siloed work to broader literacy.”
Academic, economic benefits
Watson cites the 2012 NEA report, prepared by Professor James Catterall at the University of California, Los Angeles, who studies the arts, as among the body of research that identifies the benefits of robust arts programs.
“Socially and economically disadvantaged children and teenagers who have high levels of arts engagement or arts learning show more positive outcomes in a variety of areas than their low-arts-engaged peers,” the NEA report said.
A 2013 progress report on the Turnaround Arts initiative started in 2011 by President Barack Obama to bring arts into low-income schools argues that arts education is an effective tool in reversing the slide of low-performing schools, citing research that says students participating in the programs improved in reading and math.
The arts also have an economic benefit, CREATE CA members said. Creative industries in the state account for a $273 billion annual input into the California economy and support one out of every 10 jobs, according to a 2013 “creative economy” report prepared by the Otis College of Design in Los Angeles.
Whether the policy recommendations of the blueprint live or die will rest in the hands of parents and local school district officials who under the new Local Control Funding Formula have the greatest say in how they choose to allocate their funding. This in itself may be a difficult hurdle as competition will arise as to just what kinds of arts should be funded.
Still, arts advocates are applauding the direction the blueprint takes and are looking forward to it being implemented as quickly as possible.
“Whatever disagreements I had with No Child Left Behind, it got into the system quickly,” Harris said. “I’d like to see that same kind of energy go into making CREATE CA work.”
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