Curriculum

Arts Education Touted as Key to U.S. Innovation Agenda

By Andrew Trotter — January 24, 2008 3 min read
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A majority of U.S. voters agree that building students’ imaginations to equip young people with the ability to innovate is as important as teaching them the academic basics, according to a poll commissioned by an advocacy coalition for education in the arts.

The Washington-based Arts Education Partnership cited the results, released today, in urging that the arts not be overlooked as policymakers emphasize the so-called STEM disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics as the keys to boosting innovation and U.S. competitiveness in the world economy.

“We’re finding that the public is seeing that if you don’t have a capacity to imagine, you’re not going to make anything anyway,” said Richard J. Deasy, the director of the partnership, a coalition of about 140 organizations, including the U.S. Department of Education and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Nearly nine out of 10 respondents in the telephone poll of 1,000 “likely” adult voters, conducted for the partnership by Lake Research Partners, a Democratic polling firm based in Washington, said an education in and through the arts is essential for cultivating the imagination.

And a similar number said that using the imagination is important to innovation and for success in the knowledge-based global economy of the 21st century. Funding for the AEP poll came from the 3.2 million-member National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union.

The partnership also launched a new Web site last week that offers information and resources to support the arts in education, including case studies from several U.S. cities and states.

Development of the Web site, www.theimaginenation.net, was supported by the George Gund Foundation, based in Cleveland.

Some prominent business leaders have touted the importance of STEM and innovation to the nation’s economic fortunes, but not the arts and the imagination, Mr. Deasy said.

In the poll, which had an overall margin of error of 3.1 percentage points, 57 percent of the respondents said they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who supported building the capacities of the imagination among students in public schools. What’s more, a majority said they would vote a candidate out of office if he or she did not respond to that message.

‘Imagine Nation’

The pollster Celinda Lake, the president of Lake Research Partners, helped define and popularize the notion of the “soccer mom” in the 1990s. Ms. Lake and the sponsors of the new poll argue that the findings reveal the existence of an “Imagine Nation,” a voter constituency that supports a renewed emphasis on the arts.

According to the poll, that constituency makes up 30 percent of voters. A diverse group by gender and geography, more than half consists of “swing voters” who do not identify strongly as Republican or Democrat.

In the poll, fewer than half the voters said schools are teaching students imagination and creative skills well, with many respondents worried that such skills have decreased in the past decade. The findings suggest that 56 percent of voters believe that standardized testing discourages students’ imaginations and creative skills.

Poll respondents said they are likely not to favor a candidate who has voted to cut funding for building capacities of the imagination in schools.

On hand for the Jan. 24 release of the poll results were representatives of model projects: the Dallas Arts Learning Initiative, a partnership in that Texas city to elevate the role of the arts in students’ lives; the Ohio Department of Education’s initiative to promote the arts and “innovative thinking” in schools; and the Oklahoma Creativity Project, a statewide partnership to promote more creative approaches to education, among other activities.

Mr. Deasy, who plans to retire in June after leading the 12-year-old partnership since its establishment, called the poll’s results a “surprising affirmation” that the public wants schools to teach more than academic skills.

“They want the schools to inculcate values, and one of these values is imaginative capacity,” he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 30, 2008 edition of Education Week

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