Classroom Renaissance

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — May 10, 2000 | Corrected: February 23, 2019 16 min read
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Corrected: This article incorrectly identified Hollis Headrick and the Center for Arts Education, of which he is the executive director. The New York City-based center has granted $21.5 million to assist arts programs at 81 public schools in the city.

Art specialists, once believed a near-extinct species, have been brought back in force at this Brooklyn school.

The unskilled notes that squeak from shiny, miniature violins float a blissful tune through the hallways of PS 314, breaking the silence that began to stifle arts education here more than two decades ago. Striking their best musician’s stance as they cradle the treasured instruments under chubby chins, the anxious kindergartners are tuning up for what many hope will be a classroom renaissance.

The broad-brush effort to restore arts in the classroom is evident throughout the school in this eclectic Brooklyn neighborhood. Colorful student-made murals line the halls, and artwork dangles from ceilings; a steady rhythm pulses through the walls of music rooms; students can often be found working on movement or dance or even learning theatrical skills for an elementary operetta. Art specialists, once believed a near-extinct species, have been brought back in force as critical members of the school staff, and local artists, musicians, and thespians are among the most loyal of visitors.

Fifth graders at PS 261 design their own name glyphs as part of a lesson on Mayan civilization.

A few years ago, the scene at this school, and at most others throughout the nation’s largest school system, was far less vibrant. In the city that has long flaunted its reputation as the cultural capital of the world, art, music, dance, and theater were strangely absent from the educational experiences of most of its 1.1 million students.

Both in New York City and elsewhere, a generation of budget cuts, conflicting curricular priorities, and classroom crowding had forced the arts—often viewed as a frill with little academic value—onto the sidelines or the chopping block.

But the educators and advocates staging the comeback for arts education have been slowly making their case to recast their subjects with an updated script. The arts, they say, can play a larger part in improving instruction and furthering student achievement, but only if they are brought out of the shadows and given supporting roles.

After decades of neglect, New York is taking extraordinary steps to resuscitate the creative life of its arts-poor schools as part of its larger school-improvement strategy.

The reawakening has spread beyond Gotham. Throughout the country, arts education is again becoming a regular feature of the classroom. Other urban districts—Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis among them—as well as those in suburbia and rural areas are dusting off easels and music stands and devoting more time and resources to arts instruction. Statewide programs in California, Missouri, Ohio, and elsewhere have also heralded the return of arts classes.

“In virtually every state, you will find school districts that ... are working aggressively to restore the arts,” says Richard J. Deasy, the director of the Washington-based Arts Education Partnership, a coalition of 140 national organizations that promote an essential role for arts education. “I think there’s a fundamental deepening of both public understanding as well as understanding on the part of policymakers for education on what the benefits of learning in the arts are to students.”

New York’s Project Arts initiative is trying to prove that through intensive professional development for teachers, partnerships with arts organizations, and a full palette of new classroom resources, the arts can help students measure up to rigorous academic standards in all subjects.

While the young students at Public School 314 are learning to coax notes from their violins, teachers say they are also incorporating their new skills into reading lessons or counting exercises. In other classrooms, teachers use the arts to prompt the K-5 school’s 1,900 students to write poems and stories or to tackle mathematical and scientific concepts.

Handmade “poetry frogs” adorn 1st graders’ prose at PS 261.

It is a strategy being embraced by dozens of New York schools. A couple of miles away at PS 261, also in Brooklyn, 1st graders are making “poetry frogs” in art class, matching their rhymes with the paper amphibians they created. A local botanist is simultaneously teaching students about plant life and landscape design as they create an urban garden. And 3rd graders are studying architecture as part of a social studies unit on the Brooklyn Bridge. The pupils each design and construct 3-foot versions of the bridge, using their math and science skills to understand the complexities of arches and suspension and to calculate weights and measures to make the models to scale. They then offer their own suggestions for remodeling and modernizing the historic structure that connects their borough to Manhattan.

“Before, art was an add-on,” says Judi Aronson, who pressed to make her elementary school an arts magnet school when she became principal three years ago, a move that she says couldn’t have happened without the district’s renewed arts focus. “Now, art activities really support our curriculum.”

That support, Aronson and others here say, has helped students improve reading scores and allowed teachers to make other subjects more interesting and relevant for their students.

“Some of the schools have said that because of this unifying theme and the excitement the project has generated, there’s been an increase in reading scores, attendance has improved, and the motivation of teachers has been rejuvenated,” says Hollis Hedrick, the executive director of the Center for Arts in the Schools, a Manhattan-based organization that helped fuel the city’s arts push with a five-year, $36 million grant from the Annenberg Foundation. The center intends to conduct a thorough study of those claims in the fall.

“This is not an enrichment project, it’s a whole-school-reform program,” Hedrick adds. “In the past, the arts had no sticking power. This is an effort to have arts-centered curriculum, with the arts having as equal a value as math, science, or social studies.”

The campaign has won over some influential sponsors, including Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and former Schools Chancellor Rudolph F. Crew. Thanks to what has grown to a $75 million-a-year budget allocation, many more students are getting a healthy dose of arts instruction, and most schools in the city’s five boroughs are making strides in restoring long-abandoned programs.

The arts have traditionally suffered a roller-coaster existence, alternately a celebrated curricular enhancement and a victim of back-to-basics swings and financial constraints. but the movement to make the arts integral to the curriculum has been gaining momentum, observers say, thanks to clear academic and teaching standards that promote a more substantive approach to the subject area. in the midst of the wider movement toward high academic standards and high-stakes accountability for student performance, few schools are willing to continue to allot valuable class time to unconnected arts-and-crafts projects or isolated music-appreciation classes.

National and state standards in the arts outline systematic steps students should take toward performing, creating, analyzing, and understanding various art forms, and the themes they explore.

Research identifying the so-called “Mozart effect” has raised the profile of music education over the past few years.

Perhaps even more persuasive has been well-publicized research that suggests significant benefits to students’ understanding of other subjects when their education is strongly grounded in the arts. Research by Gordon Shaw at the University of California, Irvine, that yielded the so-called “Mozart effect,” and his subsequent studies of the potential to improve mathematical reasoning through piano instruction, have raised the profile of music education over the past few years.

“The notion that listening to classical music had a positive effect on the brain spread like wildfire,” says James S. Catterall, a professor of education and prominent arts researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles. “That got parents’ groups asking why their schools weren’t offering music education for their children.”

Catterall’s own analysis of data on more than 25,000 students from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Educational Longitudinal Study found that those with high levels of arts participation outperformed their “arts poor” peers on several academic measures, regardless of the students’ socio-economic status. His research, outlined in “Champions of Change: The Impact of the Arts on Learning,” a 1999 report by the Arts Education Partnership and the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, also found that sustained involvement in music and theater correlated strongly with success in math and reading.

The research on the topic is still thin, however, and critics say that educators and advocates are premature in their enthusiasm for arts-learning research.

Using natural materials, 1st and 2nd graders at PS 261 depict how plants grow.

In addition, with more public and private money available for enhancing curriculum and instruction, many of the barriers that thwarted arts education in the past have been removed.

In Los Angeles, new money has helped produce a 10-year plan for institutionalizing arts education. So far, the 700,000-student district has spent nearly $5 million to write new standards, purchase supplies, add new art and music teachers who are shared by several schools, and weave the arts throughout the curriculum.

“We’re not talking about asking kids to sing the times tables,” says Don Doyle, the district’s fine-arts coordinator. “We are taking a more in-depth and more rigorous approach to arts instruction.”

More than 50 of the district’s 540 elementary schools have signed on to the voluntary program, with some 50 more expected to begin a standards-based arts program next school year.

Nearly 40 of the 127 public schools in Minneapolis have implemented arts-related strategies to improve teaching and learning, and the district has hired nearly three dozen new arts specialists over the past five years from its existing personnel budget.

And the Boston school system has hired 65 new arts specialists, sponsored curriculum workshops, and built its first arts high school as part of a long-term plan to provide arts instruction to all its 63,000 students.

What makes proponents most optimistic is what they say are signs that the arts education renewal has wide enough support to sustain momentum through the thick and thin of changing fiscal and political environments.

“It’s supported by policy, and there is leadership from the board and the superintendent right down to the building level,” says David O’Fallon, the director of the Perpich Center for Arts Education, a nonprofit organization in Minneapolis that has been administering a $3.2 million grant from the Annenberg Foundation to improve arts education in the city.

Such grants from the private sector have been the catalyst for many of the new programs. The Annenberg Foundation, J. Paul Getty Trust, and other organizations have pumped millions of dollars into programs that promote public awareness of the value of arts education and encourage educators to develop arts-based curricula and professional-development programs. Many have required districts to find money in their own budgets to match the grants dollar for dollar, as well as solicit donations and services from the local community and arts groups in the hope that the programs will become self-sustaining.

The Annenberg money was the initial motivator in New York City, along with complaints from higher education leaders. They lamented that few public school graduates could qualify for admission to the city’s renowned arts colleges because they lacked a basic foundation in arts disciplines.

In its first year in 1997, some 430 of the city’s 1,100 public schools aggressively pursued the grants, which sent a signal to Crew and Giuliani that the arts were in demand.

Despite such positive indicators, the resurgence has not been universal. in many places, the arts have not been elevated to a curricular necessity.

Within the past couple of months, school officials from Petaluma, Calif., to Mishawka, Ind., and Palm Beach, Fla., as well as other places, have proposed cutting art and music programs as a buffer for budget cuts or to free up money for higher- profile initiatives, such as class-size reduction. And, oddly enough, the push for academic standards that has been a boon for the arts in some districts has driven them out of classrooms in others.

“Talk is still cheap,” says John Mahlmann, the executive director of the National Association for Music Education, based in Reston, Va. “Nobody is an enemy of the arts, but then there is always a question of whether you want a new music teacher or new tires on the school buses, or a new math teacher.”

Budget limitations, pressure to improve student performance in reading and math, and additional time spent on technology skills and increasing curricular requirements in other subjects are working against restoration efforts in many schools.

‘Nobody is an enemy of the arts, but then there is always a question of whether you want a new music teacher or new tires on the school buses, or a new math teacher.’

John Mahlmann,
Executive Director,
National Association for Music Education

National reports on the standards movement, particularly those from the National Education Goals Panel, still mention the arts only in passing. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, which periodically tests a random sample of students in various subjects, has measured achievement in the arts only once over the past 20 years and will not do so again until 2007.

School leaders often view arts programs as a painless place to cut time and money. And in districts turning their focus to basic-skills development and testing, paints and colored paper have been replaced with No. 2 pencils and test grids.

“People mouth that the arts are important, but they’ve got to pass these reading and math tests,” says Joan L. Davidson, an art teacher in the South Bronx who serves as the president of the New York State Art Teachers Association. “What is valued is what is measured.”

Arts advocates have heeded that message and have prodded states to measure students’ arts proficiency. More than a dozen states, including New York, are creating arts assessments, a move proponents hope will up the ante for the arts in schools. Education researchers have also taken up the issue and undertaken more studies on the academic effects of arts instruction.

In New York City, the effort is still inadequate in the view of most proponents. some elementary school principals and arts educators say that there is still resistance among district administrators to commit sufficient energy, staff, and space to subjects other than reading and math.

“It sounds really good that we have all this money, but we’re losing space, and art teachers are losing their rooms,” Davidson says. “In many classrooms, art teachers don’t have access to water. Kids are sitting at little desks trying to do an art project.”

Moreover, she says, there are still schools that do not employ full-time art and music teachers. Most high schools have yet to devise solid sequences of courses in the visual and performing arts, thereby limiting courses to little more than the basics needed to fulfill the state graduation requirement of one semester each of introductory art and music.

New York City school officials say some of those problems will be remedied as the initiative takes hold. Once administrators begin to see results from their efforts, they will become more loyal advocates for arts education, predicts Sharon Dunn, the chancellor’s special assistant for the arts.

“We found that in years we didn’t have the arts, our schools were not very successful: Our graduation rates were very low and dropout rates high. Test scores were not very good, and morale was awful,” says Dunn, who acknowledges that the arts initiative has not been adequate to make up for all the years when schools abandoned the arts. “All of these things are on the upswing, and the arts have had an influence.”

Those results are no surprise to the districts and schools around the country that have fought to sustain arts education throughout lean times and academic-accountability pressures.

For example, in Florida’s Miami-Dade County system, the arts have been a staple in schools for years. The district recently won acclaim from the Getty Foundation as the most supportive in the nation in arts education. That backing has not resulted from complacency, says Lilia Garcia, the administrative director of the life-skills division, which oversees arts education for the 353,000-student district.

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Years ago, district arts specialists—who now number more than 1,200— launched their own promotional campaign to enlist community support for arts education and raise awareness of the district’s arts standards. The arts are now shielded from targeted budget cuts and are sheared down only when other subjects are, too. The district operates its own art gallery that is popular with the public, and arts teachers are viewed as equal players in schools.

“It’s nice to know that arts are important, but that’s not going to cut it,” Garcia says. “All our arts teachers are politically active—they’ve supported [arts-friendly] board members who run for office.”

When the district began its intensive focus on literacy several years ago, Garcia adds, arts specialists worked with classroom teachers to use the arts to enhance reading programs and promised to devote one arts class a week to reading activities.

“We know that the arts are important for art’s sake, but we can be part of any district initiative,” Garcia says. “Sometimes, we just have to take a back seat and help the cause.”

Districts that have been the most successful at maintaining the arts, like Miami-Dade, are those in which administrators, teachers, and community members have become convinced the programs provide benefits that go beyond arts education, says Doug Herbert, the director of school programs for the National Endowment for the Arts. The federal agency spends $10 million each year in direct support of school arts programs, and millions more promoting arts education and partnerships between local arts councils and schools.

Some arts advocates worry that theories and research findings proclaiming such benefits could ultimately alter the primary purposes of arts programs.

Some arts advocates worry, however, that theories and research findings proclaiming such benefits could ultimately alter the primary purposes of arts programs. All the focus on research and integration makes some arts education proponents fearful that schools will lose sight of the inherent value of the arts.

“The double-edged sword is if we get policy change predicated on the idea that other things will happen when you put the arts in, and the results are not [significant enough], then the arts might be seen as useless,” Herbert warns. “The trick in advocacy in the arts is to stay firm about the intrinsic value and the cognitive- and affective- learning benefits of the arts.”

Jook M. Leung, a 3rd grade teacher at PS 261 here, needs no convincing. Leung incorporates arts activities into most of his lessons, including the Brooklyn Bridge project.

“I do not consider it going out of my way to include the arts,” says Leung, who likes to show off for visitors the giant paper dragon his class made for Chinese New Year, the journals of students’ writing and drawings that were the basis of a social studies lesson, or the art-adorned research papers his students produced after a trip to the opera.

“To me, it is a natural process to integrate art into my teaching,” he adds. “I find that art is the primary tool that children need in order for them to weave their prior skills and knowledge into what we are learning.”

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A version of this article appeared in the May 10, 2000 edition of Education Week as Classroom Renaissance


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