Revitalizing Arts Education Provokes Distress Signals from the Classroom

by Janet Eilber

July 30, 2007

Good news can pose a fresh challenge, as a current example in arts education demonstrates.

The curricula, courses, institutes and workshops that Dana funds are for in-school arts specialists (school staff who teach the performing arts as their primary area of instruction) and professional performing artists who teach in the public schools. These arts educators learn to facilitate their teaching of the arts to pre-K through 12th-grade students in public schools or schoollike settings.

We receive more worthy requests that fit this specific description than we can fund, and as we review proposals, we often spot new trends through the needs described by our diverse applicants. In the most recent round of granting, it was the high number of proposals that did not fit this description that was troubling.

These were applications that requested funds to instruct not artist-teachers, but classroom teachers. They represent a distress signal coming from teachers and schools across the country.

The need for training in the arts for classroom teachers is a looming issue that has been spurred by good news: Advocates for arts education have been getting their message across. There is growing interest on the part of parents and school boards to include the arts in the curriculum.

New national, state and local arts education standards are emerging. A growing number of states now require arts credits for a high school diploma. The No Child Left Behind Act, though much criticized, does insist that the arts be part of the K-12 core curriculum. [The issue of funding and measuring that requirement is another matter. Check out one teacher’s opinion of measurement in “Bubble Music.” (Teacher Magazine, registration required) ]

The New York Times article “Bloomberg Announces Plan to Shore Up Arts in Schools” captures this dynamic. It reports that the New York City Department of Education “will require all schools to maintain arts programs” (emphasis mine). Each school’s principal will be held accountable at his or her performance review; pay bonuses could be affected.

Arts advocates are encouraged but are “taking a wait and see approach.” The article doesn’t mention what the principals think.

Schools and teachers are scrambling to meet these new requirements. Too many teachers and administrators in the schools, and others in the pipeline—the schools of education across the country—have not been trained to meet the new arts requirements. In fact, for many of them, arts education was not even part of their own K-12 education.

The answer cannot be to slow down the return of the arts to the schools until teacher training can catch up. The SOS from schools and teachers is actually a sign of hope for arts education. The systems and organizations they are turning to for rescue need to ramp up their response.

There are some great models out there:
• Dana will release a publication in the fall with best practices in arts teacher training coming out of higher education.
• The Ford Foundation is supporting a large effort to re-envision urban schools, in part by integrating the arts into classroom instruction.
• Arts organizations such as the Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center Institute and Young Audiences have developed arts resources for classroom teachers that they distribute nationally, with onsite instruction for teachers.
• The National Endowment for the Arts has given substantial support to expand and replicate exemplary model programs in professional development in the arts for classroom teachers nationwide. The Chairman of the Endowment, Dana Gioia, is responsible for a major shift of public focus and funds towards arts education. His speech “The Impoverishment of American Culture,” reprinted in condensed form in the Wall Street Journal, is a clarion call for a new emphasis on arts education.
• For an example of the myriad of local efforts available, check out this arts training course for classroom teachers hosted by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.

Public and private funders, large and small arts organizations, all divisions of higher education (both schools of the arts and schools of education)—and did I mention funders?—can and must do more, and soon. Arts advocates and policy makers can’t insist that schools and teachers jump in with both feet and then stand back and say, “Sink or swim.” We need to offer a quick and strong response. We’ve come too far to let success defeat us now.

Janet Eilber, artistic director of the Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance, serves as advisor for Arts Education in the News.