A New Vision for Arts Education

by Ayanna Hudson
NEA Arts Education Director Ayanna Hudson
NEA Director of Arts Education Ayanna Hudson. Photo by Gregory Gilmer
The Arts Endowment’s vision is that every student is engaged and empowered through an excellent arts education. This statement reflects a fundamental belief that all students should have the opportunity to participate in the arts, both in school and out of school. It also acknowledges the very real benefits of an arts education—students participating in the arts are engaged in life and are empowered to be fulfilled, responsible citizens who make a profound, positive impact on this world. I'd like to share with you how we are going to move this vision forward. In May 2011, a six-member California team lead by Malissa Shiver, who at the time was chair of the California Arts Council, and Craig Cheslog, principal advisor to California State Superintendent of Public Instruction, had just returned from the NEA's sixth Education Leaders Institute (ELI). (We inaugurated the program in 2008 with teams from Alaska, Kentucky, Nebraska, North Carolina, and Wisconsin). They spent two and a half days in Chicago with colleagues from Idaho, Kansas, Missouri, and South Dakota to discuss how to make the arts core to pre-K through 12th grade education across their respective states. After listening to speakers that stretched their thinking, discussing articles and chapters that provided new insights, and working with a coach who guided the team along the way, they felt the possibilities for next steps were limitless. To get people across California excited and to figure out how educators, artists, parents, elected officials, higher education, philanthropy, and businesses could work together to move arts education forward, they recreated the power of their ELI experience in California. In addition to hearing speakers at two, day-long forums, leaders across the state, including NEA grantees engaged in county-wide arts education efforts such as Art for All in Los Angeles and Arts Learning Leadership in Alameda County, met in small groups to discuss ideas for a state-wide plan for arts education. The excitement in the room was contagious. I remember sitting in the audience with goose bumps and thinking wow, something powerful is happening here.   A year plus later, I had goose bumps all over again when in my new role as director of Arts Education for the NEA, I helped plan and then participated in the Education Leaders Institute Alumni Summit in Chicago in December 2012.  I'll never forget the energy and excitement in the meeting room when it was full with two team members from each of the eight Alumni Summit teams--Alabama, California, Louisiana, Missouri, Nebraska, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin. I listened intently to their shared stories of what they were learning since their participation in ELI and their efforts to move arts education forward across a state—efforts that were both successful and not so successful. One of the discussions centered on collective impact, a framework which resonated deeply with the alumni summit participants from the eight states. Collective impact is a term coined by John Kania and Mark Kramer. I like to think of it as tackling and solving a complex problem by working with partners (including those that can't be considered your "usual suspects") instead of working alone. You can learn more about this framework in the NEA's webinar from March 2013 with John Kania. Discussions about this subject validated successes and helped explain challenges the teams had experienced to date. This response to collective impact made perfect sense to me since for more than ten years I’d led Los Angeles County's Arts for All, a large-scale, county-wide effort to ensure dance, music, theater, and visual arts education for 1.6 million students. Kania and Kramer's article provided the language to articulate and understand why Arts for All and similar efforts (such as Alliance for Arts Learning Leadership in Alameda County, Ingenuity Incorporated in Chicago, and Big Thought in Dallas) were successful in increasing access to arts education for all students. After the ELI Alumni Summit, I spent a lot of time thinking about the stories I heard at the summit. At the same time, ELI's evaluator, Rob Horowitz, delved deeply into the interviews that he conducted at the summit and the responses he received on the post-summit evaluation surveys. I am pretty passionate about this work, so I got goose bumps yet again when four themes emerged from both my personal reflections and Rob's deep look at all of this material.  The NEA describes these four themes as "catalysts" to advance arts education: 1. Cross-sector collaboration of state-level policymakers 2. A laser focus on changing the systems that serve students 3. A sustained, coordinated effort of the state-level partners over time 4. Alignment of arts education with state-wide priorities The NEA Arts Education staff had an "aha" moment when we realized that the four catalysts align perfectly with the collective impact framework articulated in the article written by Kania and Kramer. Given this alignment, the NEA developed an Arts Education Strategic Plan which is grounded in collective impact and will guide the agency's leadership, investments, and annual priority-setting process for pre-K through 12th grade arts education. We invite you to read more about both the ELI Alumni Summit findings and how they informed the NEA's strategic plan in the newly released Education Leaders Institute Alumni Summit Report. The arts education strategic plan includes four goals, which the agency has already made progress on! We describe these goals more fully in the report but here is a brief overview: NEA Goal: Leverage Investments for Deeper Impact In 2014 the agency added a new grant category for Collective Impact projects, intended to impact entire systems that serve students—for example, neighborhoods, schools, school districts, states—in rural, suburban, or urban areas. These projects must embrace the guiding principles of cross-sector partnerships, data, planning, programming, and evaluation. The NEA anticipates making multi-year investments in collective impact projects and we are excited to announce the first recipients of these grants next fall. NEA Goal: Drive a National Arts Education Data and Research Agenda Through ELI, the NEA identified the need to help states understand how much and to whom pre-K through 12th grade arts education is being delivered at the local, state, and national levels. These data can help decision-makers in every state determine whether they are meeting their state-approved policies and content standards regarding arts education, while also helping state arts agencies, funders, and other stakeholders direct resources to increase the likelihood that every student in each state will benefit from an education that includes the arts. As first steps in shaping our strategy, the NEA consulted with the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Educational Statistics and education data managers across the country. The agency is also now a member of the National Forum on Education Statistics. NEA Goal: Collaborate with National, State, and Local Leaders for Collective Impact To achieve the NEA's vision for arts education, we know we need the leadership of our arts and education colleagues, and we need alliances with other organizations and agencies. This combined work is about embracing collective impact—it’s about determining how multiple partners each agree to  take on a piece of a shared strategy to move the whole plan forward. The NEA's major task is to listen and to talk with national and state partners in the field of arts education and to engage new partners outside of the arts education field in order to develop and implement a defined, national, coordinated strategy. As an important first step, in 2013 the NEA joined Grantmakers for Education (GFE), and we are now a member of the GFE-funded Collective Impact Forum for Funders. By playing a leadership role in GFE, we will explore, promote, and align arts education grantmaking efforts with national education funders to gain a deeper understanding of national investment trends in education. NEA Goal: Provide Leadership for the Field of Arts Education The NEA will become a clearinghouse for information on what is working in the field in terms of collective impact and we will share this information on our website, in a webinar series, e-newsletter (both of which were launched spring 2013), and in arts education reports. The NEA will also continue to provide leadership in the national and state arts education ecosystem by investing in the Arts Education Partnership, the State Education Agency Directors of Arts Education, and the professional development of state arts agency arts education managers (which is implemented in partnership with the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies). The Education Leaders Institute Alumni Summit Report is one of the first outcomes of this strategy and we hope it will foster a national conversation about changing pre-K through 12th grade learning systems by advancing the arts as a core element of education. At the ELI Alumni Summit I observed firsthand how we can benefit from each other's experiences. We invite you to share collective impact stories about your community, including successes and challenges at ArtsEducation@arts.gov! Speaking of stories, whatever happened in California with their effort to develop a state-wide plan for arts education? You can hear an update on the innovations, challenges, and next steps for the state-wide arts education work taking place in California, and in Alabama and North Carolina, on the NEA's May 14, 2014 webinar on the Education Leaders Institute Alumni Summit Report. Register here. I just got goose bumps again.