Arts in Focus

Los Angeles Countywide Arts Education Survey

2001, 43 pages; summary, 8 pages. Arts Education Task Force of Arts for LA, 213-974-1343, Los Angeles County Arts Commission.

In 1993, a small group of senior arts administrators in Los Angeles started meeting informally on a monthly basis to discuss mutual concerns. Eventually adopting the name Arts for L.A., in 1999 the group hosted a broader convening of the arts community with the intent of generating interest and activity around an action agenda. That meeting, in turn, led to creation of two task forces, one for marketing, the other for arts education. It is the work of the latter that led to creation of this report.

The Arts Education Task Force of Arts for LA has as its stated intention "the advancement of quality arts education...in K-12 public schools throughout Los Angeles” County. Yet before the task force could identify an appropriate strategy for action, they realized that some solid baseline data was first needed about arts education offerings in the County's 1,745 schools. That need led to development of a district-level survey encompassing eighty school districts. Funded by a consortium of local grantmakers (A.S.K. Theater Projects, the California Arts Council, The J. Paul Getty Trust, and the Los Angeles County Arts Commission), Arts in Focus reports the survey's findings.

The report contains three principle sections: an Executive Summary, which interprets the findings through the filter of four “contradictions;” a more in-depth categorical breakdown of the findings; and a presentation of five successful arts education partnerships between school districts and nonprofits.

The particulars of the findings probably won't come as much of a surprise to anyone interested in the subject matter. Among them: school curriculum is increasingly tied to requisite standardized testing; the impetus for arts education programming often comes from outside the school (e.g., nonprofits); and higher income school districts have more arts education opportunities than do those in lower income areas. While the Forward calls the findings “sobering,” as a product of an L.A. County school district, I must confess to being pleasantly surprised by the current level of activity. But this feeling may be a chimera caused by a format that presents the findings in very general terms — that is, mostly on a district rather than per student level, and often reported out based on the existence of “some” level of activity.

Arts in Focus was written for a local constituency comprising “policy makers, school administrators, teachers, parents, students, business leaders, and the community at large,” and its utility depends on one's perspective (the “contradictions,” for instance, seem problematic to me and the interpretations drawn from the data may appear either axiomatic or sophistry). Moreover, I don't know that the data points per se are that generalizable to communities outside L.A. County.

Nevertheless, the report does contain much that is of value to funders of arts education. The case studies, indeed, provide some solid models. And, embedded in the study's methodology and included among its findings are some points worthy of funders' consideration. Examples include: Parental involvement in the schools is a key determinant of the existence of arts education programming. The engagement of full-time arts specialists at the district level is a critical determinant of a commitment to quality arts education programming. And, perhaps, most critically given all of the funding for such programs, schools are wary of partnerships with nonprofits because the relationships tend toward the ephemeral, but they are willing to engage in the programs...if the nonprofits are footing the bill.

Danton S. Miller, Program Officer, The James Irvine Foundation