There is a great deal of discussion about the role of the arts in schools these days. Are the arts just frills that add spice and beauty to the otherwise “real work” of school? Should we pursue “art for art’s sake” or “arts integration”? Some would say both, but I submit that the right answer is neither.
What we really need is art for children’s sake, and for the sake of offering many ways to connect learning across content so that schools reflect real life and help prepare all children for their next successful steps.
Having spent more than 30 years in the trenches of school reform and helping schools energize learning across all grade levels, in all kinds of communities, and in places across the country, I believe strongly that it is possible to help students achieve, engage, and enjoy learning more when the arts are a fundamental piece of the school experience.
Education Week Commentary asked leading educators and advocates to discuss the arts in K-12 education. Some of the contributors assert that the arts are a bridge between traditional academic subjects and the creative skills necessary to thrive in a global, 21st-century economy. Others argue for the critical part the arts play in child development.
This special section is supported by a grant from The Wallace Foundation. Education Week retained sole editorial control over the content of this package; the opinions expressed are the authors’ own, however.
Before I continue, please note that I said the arts are a piece of the experience, and not the whole answer. Schools are complex, multifaceted systems. If we’ve learned nothing else in the narrowed-curriculum craze from which we are blessedly emerging, we have learned that there are no silver bullets, be they in the form of phonics, arts, or STEM.
But to take the arts—a suite of tools for human expression that has defined us as a species—off the table for school reform is as morally reprehensible as it is ineffective. That’s why this story is, in part, about A+ Schools, a systematic approach to schooling that values the role of arts as fundamental to learning, but understands the essential commitments beyond the arts that schools must embrace if they are to teach all children effectively. How does this look in the real world?
In June of 1999, I drove to my newly assigned school for the coming year. I was moving from a six-year assignment as the principal in a high-end, suburban school in Oklahoma City to an elementary school in the same district where 98 percent of the students qualified for free or reduced-price lunches.
My charge was to take some of the successful strategies we had used at Quail Creek Elementary to struggling Mark Twain Elementary to reinvigorate a demoralized staff and a disengaged community, and to help a chronically at-risk student body achieve at an acceptable level. At the same time, I hoped to bridge the school’s fractious relationship with the community.
As I approached my new campus, I was struck by the privation surrounding it. Once on the school grounds, the scene was even more unsettling. The building had graffiti on every vertical surface. There were waist-high weeds in the school’s parking lot. With no welcoming signage, it was difficult to know which door to enter. The school’s playground looked abandoned, with missing boards on the aged “big toy” and no swings on most of the loose-hanging chains. Inside, more signs of neglect. Missing tiles from the ceilings, broken desks, graffiti, and trash.
But my six years at Quail Creek showed me that children could be supported by the community and parents when the district’s resources weren’t sufficient, and that it was possible to use the arts as vehicles of expression, learning, and deeper connection to curriculum. So I came to Mark Twain armed with a strong personal philosophy that all children, everywhere, are entitled to a rich, full educational experience that equips them to take their rightful place in the world. In my book, that includes instruction in and through the arts.
To take the arts ... off the table for school reform is as morally reprehensible as it is ineffective."
At Mark Twain, where more than half the students did not learn English as their first language, it would be vitally important to connect to their education entry points, providing means of expression where the kids could understand content, be able to contribute, and be motivated to continue to learn.
Contrary to a prevailing narrative that the parents were the problem, I found the families were actually pretty desperate to connect with the school, to be taken seriously as partners, and to see their children valued as individuals. It was also clear to me that the challenges were not going to be solved by, for example, adopting a strong phonics program.
The school exhibited physical neglect, instructional malaise, parental disengagement, community bewilderment, and an exhausted staff. Mark Twain had 250 students, but the PTA had just 35 members, and only two of them were parents. (Most PTA members were teachers, school staff, and a few community residents.) A run-down half-day preschool for 4-year-olds attracted fewer than 15 children, and parents were rarely seen in the school unless their children were in trouble.
How did we move from that condition to a school that, four years later, won an education award from Oklahoma City Beautiful; claimed a PTA with 100 percent membership; saw its music and art time doubled; boasted a thriving Parent Resource Room; attracted standing-room-only audiences to its assembly programs; and had a full-time, wait-listed preschool?
It did not happen overnight or through just one person or program. It took a multi-pronged approach that included the arts in learning and in the context of what children were expected to know and be able to do. It included a commitment to teaching about the arts and through the arts, along with ongoing professional development for teachers and partnerships with cultural organizations. That formula transformed our school, and now dozens of others, into the kind of school we would want for our own children.
Having the arts as part of the daily expectation of learning in schools forms the premise for A+ Schools, a national organization with which I have a long association. Mark Twain Elementary became one of the founding members of the Oklahoma A+ Schools network in 2002. Quail Creek Elementary joined the network in 2006. A+ Schools have shown the positive results we want when compared with other schools in the state: higher student achievement, fewer disciplinary referrals, better attendance for students and their teachers, higher levels of parental involvement, and more evidence of creativity and what we call “the joy factor.” (See test-score data and more on the Oklahoma A+ Schools website, at www.okaplus.org/okaresearch.)
The A+ Schools program began in North Carolina in 1995. Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana subsequently adopted the model and adapted it to their states’ contexts. All of these states participate in a national consortium because it is important to regularly share what they have learned.
The diverse group has signed on to a set of shared commitments called the “A+ Essentials.” Each state supports networking, ongoing professional development, and research to follow the outcomes of a strategy where the arts are part of the daily life of each student; where curriculum is connected; and where hands-on, active learning is the norm. In Oklahoma, there is no charge to join the A+ program. (There is a fee in some other states.) In all participating states, schools must commit to the program standards and to staff travel for training and professional development.
The work is challenging and ongoing. Without a systematic approach to weave the arts into the very fabric of the school, we risk marginalizing their role. But when the arts become part of the framework for student success, they provide avenues for learning otherwise unavailable to students, helping us to create the schools we want for the children we love.
A version of this article appeared in the December 03, 2014 edition of Education Week as Why Not Art for Children’s Sake?