Thursday, September 13, 2012

Chattanooga, TN

I was last with you in April, when I got to introduce you to Ayanna Hudson as the NEA's new director of arts education. Even though that was a mere five months ago -- and even though Ayanna did not start with us at the NEA until July -- I didn't think that was any reason not to be able to talk about a refined vision and direction for the NEA's arts education on September 13.

But before I get to that, let me remind you a little bit about my own, personal history with arts education. I grew up at a time (the 1950s and 60s) and in a place (Clayton, Missouri) where it was assumed that the arts would be a part of every student's daily experience. 

In my case, I was propelled forward to a degree in theater criticism from Yale and a job producing plays and running five Broadway theaters. Along the way, I never particularly thought about arts education. My three sons went to good schools, and --between their set designer mother, jazz lyricist aunt, and Art Forum-publishing uncle --had plenty of arts engagement. If pressed, I would have confessed to holding the radical position that I thought that arts education was "good." (Which I know is the intellectual equivalent of believing that cancer is "bad.")

But then I arrived at the NEA. I began traveling the country and meeting with artists, teachers, and arts organizations. And I discovered that for far too many of our country's public school students, it cannot be assumed that the arts are a part of their daily lives.  And -- because the diminution of arts education started some 40 years ago -- we are now dealing with a generation of young people whose parents and teachers are also likely not to have had a solid arts education. So I began paying attention to arts education and our public schools in a new way. I ended up learning a lot, and I would like to share some of those lessons with you.

As many of you know, my focus over the past three years has been around the notion of "creative placemaking" -- the ways that cities and towns literally change when you bring the arts into the center of them.

It will be no surprise to anyone here today that I discovered the exact same thing is true of schools: I learned that schools also literally change when you bring the arts into the center of them.

One of my very first trips as NEA Chairman was to the Lusher School in New Orleans. This is not an arts school, per se. But every morning begins with an all-school assembly that features the principal playing Fats Domino on an electric guitar. The arts infuse every room and corridor of the school. And they inform teaching and learning throughout the day.

That school has been changed by the arts: it has a diverse and integrated student body; low violence and truancy; and high achievement and graduation rates. The arts are central to all of those accomplishments, and it hit me that Lusher should be the goal, not an exception. 

Too many of us are fighting incrementally: begging for the arts to be allowed to creep back quietly and unnoticed into one small corner of the school week. Too often, we set our expectations low -- and even then, fall short.

I learned that we need to be bolder.

The arts need to be front and center as part of every school reform strategy. We cannot just focus on a few, select subjects and expect students and teachers to succeed. We need to invest holistically and completely.  As Alan Brinkley wrote inNewsweek, "half a mind is a terrible thing to waste."

Our colleagues on the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities (PCAH) -- working with AEP -- have made some important strides in this effort with their Turnaround Arts initiative that marries the arts into the Department of Education's School Improvement Grant program. No quiet creeping here. PCAH set out to "[work] in some of the nation’s lowest-performing elementary and middle schools" in order to "test the hypothesis that high-quality and integrated arts education [boost] academic achievement, [motivate] student learning and [improve] school culture in the context of overall school reform." In other words, the arts are not something you address after you solve your big problems; the arts are part of the first-order solutions.

I learned that we have plenty of examples of programs that work. 

Human beings have the tendency to chase the next new thing. And we each fall into the trap of thinking we know better and more than anyone who came before us. I have gone to more philanthropy convenings over the past three years than any human being should have to endure, and I keep noticing the same thing: foundation executives call out for the need to fund to scale in order to really tackle problems. And then they each, inevitably, introduce a new, boutique program of which they have become enamored. There is a total disconnect.

In no way am I saying that we need to stop innovating, and I have no interest in stifling creativity. But if we want to actually change the state of arts education in this country, we need to grow the infrastructure that is already in place and expand it to the places it has not yet reached.

I just received an invitation to the celebration of Studio in a School's 35th anniversary. There is a program that works. We convened a White House briefing with the A+ Schools. They work in North Carolina. They work in Oklahoma. And they work in Arkansas. Ayanna comes to us from Los Angeles County. The Arts for All collaborative works. I could keep going, using examples from each of you here today. But the point is this: there are lots of things already in place that work! 

No, there is not one silver bullet that works for all communities under all circumstances. But there is enough happening in this country that whatever your particular needs are, I am guessing that I can find three programs that address them. It may be time to stop investing as much effort in figuring out what else works, and start doubling down on what already works. We need to do a better job of backing the folks who already have proven track records of succeeding.

The NEA is uniquely positioned to know the full range of exemplary arts education programs that exist. We are already a national funder of arts education; we now need to expand our work and become a national clearinghouse for schools and school leaders.

And finally I learned that if the arts are to be taken as seriously as other subjects, the arts need to start behaving like other subjects. Standards and assessment are the mainstays of teaching and learning across all subjects. We need to stop pretending that they do not have anything to do with the arts. Yes, the arts are about idiosyncrasy. They are about inspiration. And they are about breaking the rules.

But before I can break the rules, I have to know what the rules are. There is discrete knowledge and skills that have to be conveyed to students. 

Before I could give my convention-defying, break-out performance as the dentist in the Clayton High production of The Diary of Anne Frank, I needed to know what a proscenium was, what "cheating out" meant, what dialogue was. Before Picasso was able to get all cubist, he had to understand perspective.

Standards and assessment -- when done properly -- do not stifle the artistic impulse.  They build the foundation from which to launch it.

Last February, the NEA hosted a day-long convening about assessment, and the Arts Education Partnership panel up next will give the current state of play with the Common Core State Standards.

So my lessons over the past three years are that schools change when the arts are brought into their centers; that we need to be bolder; that we know what works; and that we need to start behaving like other subjects if we want to become as central as other subjects.

So what do these lessons mean for the Arts Endowment?  Well, we are in the process of refining our formal strategy documents, but I have never been one to wait for the wordsmiths to finish their work. In short:

You are going to see an Arts Endowment that works to ensure that every student is engaged and empowered through exemplary arts education. 

And you will see us positioning arts education as a driver for transforming students, schools, and communities.

There is an embedded point in those two sentences that is worth making explicit: our arts education work is going to be student-centric. Arts education absolutely needs to take place in schools, in out-of-school-time settings, and in communities. But the individual student is the common denominator.

It is a core responsibility of the schools in this country to provide arts education as part of every public education. That means that arts education is a core responsibility of every board and department of education in this country. The NEA should not be driving the conversation. School leaders need to drive the conversation. We in the arts community should be there to help begin conversations and then to support and expand the work. The NEA's work will be to first ensure that public schools take ownership of this responsibility, and then to help organize the community to support them and invest in the programs that work.

Standards and assessment are important elements in teaching and learning, but they also serve as the basis of a common language so that school leaders, classroom teachers, arts specialists, teaching artists, and arts organizations can all be working in an additive way. We need to work collectively in order to succeed. The arts community will not be able to make systemic change alone: we need the leadership of our education colleagues, and we need alliances with community organizations. 

We also need a national agreement about arts education data collection. Yes, we are all surveyed to death.  Yes, we are all tired of reporting different inputs, outputs, outcomes, and impacts to every imaginable stakeholder. And, yes, we are all especially sick of not being able to aggregate data sets because each collected different information in a different way.

We do not know in any kind of holistic way which kids in this country are receiving how much arts education, how often, and from whom. We don't know what resources are being used to deliver it. And we do not know about the quality of the teaching or whether, in fact, Dick and Jane are actually learning anything at all. We need to collect standardized data about arts education across all fifty states and the District of Columbia that can tell us about resources, frequency, content, and quality.

I am not sure if Paul King is here, but New York City introduced an "Arts Count" initiative that tracks exactly these sort of data in order to understand what interventions to implement where.

We have begun a conversation with the National Center for Educational Statistics to help us frame how to think about this work and move it forward. We already have an initial meeting scheduled for next week to discuss next steps.

And, in addition to gathering the data, we need the next generation of arts education research. Many of you have heard me go on about the most recent research that we commissioned from James Catterall. In reviewing four longitudinal databases maintained by the Departments of Education and Labor, he found that low-socioeconomic students with high arts exposure had higher GPAs, graduation rates, and were more likely to enroll in professionally oriented majors than their overall school peers.

I was knocked out by these findings -- even I know that low-SES kids never outperform the general population.  So I asked Ayanna and our research colleagues why every school wouldn't read this work and instantly implement the arts as part of any school reform strategy.

Well, as compelling as the work is, it is looks at correlation. Not causality. In order to take this work to the next level, we need a randomized, controlled "experiment." In other words, we need to find a population of students who are not receiving any arts education; randomly assign half of them to receive a quality arts education; and then compare the differences between the two groups. 

We have begun talking about this sort of study with some key colleagues, and I am confident enough that we will be able to do it that our research office has included this study design in their five-year plan.

We will be introducing our evolving vision and mission in greater depth throughout the fall, and -- more importantly -- we will also be moving it forward. We are building on tremendous strength and history, and I know that we can make a real and lasting difference.

Art works.  And it's our job to make sure it works for our nation's students, too.

Thanks so much!


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