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Here’s the Good News: Arts in Education

Joel Shatzky
April 17, 2013

Tableau-1by Joel Shatzky

After attending my fiftieth reunion of the High School of Music and Art (now LaGuardia High) last autumn, I wrote an article for the Huffington Post about the joys I had experienced there, learning through the arts. "Each of us at M & A had a share of a 'personalized' curriculum," I noted, "which took our passion for the arts and focused us toward a lifelong romance with what is beautiful and meaningful for us. This is the direction that the future of our educational system must go . . . "

This was more than nostalgic sentiment. The fact is that high schools in the top third of graduation rates, nationally, have almost 40 percent more certified arts teachers per student than schools in the bottom third — and almost 40 percent more physical spaces dedicated to arts education. High schools in the top third also have 35 percent more graduates completing three or more arts courses than schools in the bottom third.

Some of these figures can be explained by student demographics: those attending the top schools tend to come from more privileged homes and environments, where the importance of learning a musical instrument or becoming literate about visual and performing arts is often emphasized. Young learners from such backgrounds are also more likely than less advantaged students to visit museums, attend concerts, go on culturally enriched holidays, and enroll in summer camps and enrichment programs when school is not in session.

Even with such disparities taken into account, however, there is strong empirical evidence that arts-based instruction enhances the learning experience for nearly all students ­— and there are encouraging signs that educators across the country are becoming more and more attuned to the importance of the arts as a teaching tool and a key ingredient of a successful education.

Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts has an off-campus Master’s degree program in arts-in-education, geared to classroom teachers, K-12. The program is over thirty-five years old and has seventy satellite locations in twenty-three states, with over ten thousand graduates. The degree program comprises six studio art courses (poetry, music, visual art, storytelling, drama, and creative movement) and five additional courses in curriculum theory, arts integration theory, arts-based technology, connecting education with community, and thesis writing. In a survey of the program, over 90 percent of the enrolled teachers report that being introduced to new theories of learning styles, and learning to teach to the individual student, were most helpful in improving their practices. Developing their use of the arts as "languages that open multiple pathways" in the classroom has helped them establish a learning community, engage in hands-on experiential learning, and give their students an increased "sense of ownership" about what they learn. Their students "found ways to make content more relevant to their lives," connected the arts to their own sense of identity, and "developed sensitivity to and acceptance of the perspectives of others . . ."

In the survey, 88 percent of participating teachers noted that their students were able to access content in new ways; 81 percent noted increased self-expression; 81 percent reported break-through moments in students' learning. At a time of serious attrition in the teaching profession, 67 percent of the teachers in the survey indicated that they had decided to stay in their field and felt "rejuvenated" and "reconnected" to teaching.

It is striking that the Lesley University program includes a creative movement component. Susan Griss, who teaches for Lesley as well as Bank Street College of Education, has developed over the past twenty-five years a technique of "kinesthetic teaching" that applies creative movement to curricular subjects as diverse as science, math, literature, and history. Griss is the author of Minds in Motion: A Kinesthetic Approach to Teaching Elementary Curriculum, as well as several articles about the use of creative movement in the classroom. She recently shared with me the manuscript of a forthcoming article in which she described elementary school students working "together creatively on . . . constructing a tableau (a group body sculpture or frozen scene). . ." to capture key elements of a book they were reading. Griss broke out some of the benefits of what she calls "embodying learning":

They are acquiring many skills they will need to be successful adults. They are learning about communication and teamwork, giving and taking, leading and following, taking risks, being accountable, and giving and receiving affirmation. They are learning about their individual responsibility for a successful group effort, and the role the group must play in supporting the needs of individuals. This type of experience also helps to build a genuine learning community, as students become invested in the process and the product. In short, people who create and perform together simply feel a stronger bond than individuals who sit in separate seats facing a teacher.

Griss can cite many successful learning experiences in reading, writing, and even punctuation through her inventive and insightful applications of movement. She also notes that kinesthetic teaching provides instructors with powerful assessment tools: With every child standing and participating, a teacher can instantly see who is getting the material and who is not. Students, she writes, also "get immediate feedback by observing their peers. . . . Rather than having a correction/explanation come from someone higher on the hierarchy (the teacher), a student is given the opportunity to learn from other classmates, the way scientists and artists learn from their peers as they are working on a project. This is a democratization of learning, a chance for students to think about their response in comparison with others’ and to decide whether or not to change it." How different this social approach is from the pressurized, privatized world of standardized testing!

Griss knows that her instructional techniques encourage and empower students who are not conventional "sit-in-your seats" learners, and also sharpen basic literacy skills in nearly all students. She has trained hundreds of teachers in the use of creative movement in the classroom, and she dreams of being able to prove what she knows through some controlled classroom studies. Instead, she told me, "my teachers are all under incredible pressure because of standardized testing, and it's harder and harder for them even to make time for a teaching artist to come into the classroom, let alone with a researcher." If doors are being closed even for teaching artists like her who apply their arts to the curriculum itself and can train teachers in the use of their techniques, instruction in the arts "for art’s sake" is surely not faring better.

In fact, the arts are being crowded out not only by testing pressures but by a serious shortage of funding in school systems throughout the country. According to a recent Education Department report, "fewer public elementary schools are offering visual arts, dance and drama classes than a decade ago, a decline many attribute to budget cuts and an increased focus on math and reading. The percentage of elementary schools with a visual arts class declined from 87 to 83 percent. In drama, the drop was larger: From 20 percent to 4 percent in the 2009-10 school year."

In the New York City school system, spending on artists and cultural vendors has declined by 50 percent, and spending on arts equipment by 81 percent, over the past five years. Although there have been a few privately funded initiatives to improve arts instruction, the percentage of city elementary schools not even meeting the state instructional requirements for the arts remained flat at 46 percent. In 2011, 22 percent of New York’s eighth-grade students were promoted from middle school even though they had not successfully completed the required two courses in the arts over 7th and 8th grade — reflecting not the ambition or achievement of the students, but the limited opportunities that many of them experience. Indeed, the total number of arts teachers at the middle school level in New York dropped from 639 in the 2004-05 school year to 522 last year.

"While the economic downturn and cuts to school budgets," observes Eric Pryor, executive director of the Center for Arts Education,

have certainly had an impact on the delivery of arts instruction at many schools across the city . . . the current school accountability system, driven largely by the mandates of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, has placed a heavy emphasis on measuring accountability and achievement based on state assessments in just two key subject areas — English language arts and math — and thus largely ignores the contribution that the arts, and other core subjects such as foreign language, health and physical education provide to the overall quality of education in our public schools.

Diana Senechal, the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture, recently pleaded in American Educator for greater appreciation for the arts in today’s overly vocationally-oriented educational system:

To attain anything of value in education, you need a strong sense of what is valuable; you must see beyond the immediate goal. A student of a musical instrument must learn to play scales well, but she is not learning them so she can play scales in order to play scales. She is learning them so that she can play those pieces that amaze and move her — and perhaps compose pieces of her own. It is precisely for the sake of these pieces that she will persevere, if she has the will and the proper instruction. If we devote ourselves narrowly to outcomes, we will lose our sense of beauty.

The lifelong learning benefits that we Music and Art grads enjoyed — with our days in school filled with experiences that we would treasure and lessons that we would cultivate throughout our lives — are being short-circuited by the corporate model of education that is being promoted at both the state and federal levels in the U.S. The noted humanistic educator Ken Robinson calls it a "fast-food model of education," with its emphasis on standardized tests and "linear curricula." He urges a change in the paradigm of education toward models that nurture, rather than undermine, creativity. "My contention," says Robinson, "is that creativity now is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status."

Joel Shatzky writes regularly on educational issues for the Huffington Post and Jewish Currents. He is the author of Option Three: A Novel of the University, published by Blue Thread and available at our Marketplace.