Toward a 21st Century Public Education

A forum on building student imagination, creativity, and life skills through the arts and new technologies

Published in: GIA Reader, Vol 19, No 3 (Fall 2008)

“Toward Extended Learning Time” —Kathy Freshley
“21st Century Standards and Assessment” —Sydney Sidwell
“Site Visits” —Jeanne Butler

Following a successful 2007 program in Santa Fe, members of GIA and Grantmakers for Education (GFE) came together in May 2008 for an Arts and Education Forum in the Boston area. Collectively, over fifty of our members took part in a program that included discussions with government and school leaders, researchers, and inventors. The program examined how one region has tackled the challenge of arts integration and looked at ways that arts and technology could be powerful partners in learning. The following three essays were prepared by participants. Rather than prepare an encompassing program report we hoped to give readers a glimpse of what took place. Readers can find more detailed program notes at http://www.giarts.org/arts-education.
Julie Sponsler, GIA Deputy Director for Administration

Toward Extended Learning Time: Redesigning the School Day

Kathy Freshley

The abysmal outcomes for children living in poverty are well documented. In some cities more than 50 percent of children drop out of high school. In Boston, 44 percent of those who do pass the Massachusetts standardized tests and graduate from high school end up dropping out of college in their first year. Dr. Jose Salgado, principal of the Mario Umana Middle School Academy in Boston asked, “Who are we educating?”

He has seen significant improvements for the 300 middle-school students in his school, including many non-English speakers, by incorporating the Massachusetts Expanded Learning Time (ELT) model into his school. Extended learning time programs are currently used by 1,000 schools around the country to improve student outcomes by adding at least two hours to each school day. Chris Gabrieli, co-founder and chairman of Massachusetts 2020, said the current school schedule in the USA was designed for the industrial and agricultural age, but is no longer optimal for the technological, twenty-first century, especially when two parents work.

In Massachusetts, state policy was changed to permit the Expanded Learning Time program. It provides additional funding ($1,300 per student) to schools with a strong plan to improve academics, enrich curriculum, and train teachers. Eighteen schools in Massachusetts have switched to ELT.

Dr. Salgado no longer talks about the achievement gap. He focuses on the “access gap.” How many children have access to theater, music, dance performances, get health care, eat nutritiously, exercise daily, and know their culture? Three hours were added to the Umana Middle School's day to address these issues in an integrated manner that combines academics with music, visual arts, theater, and sports. Each student has an individual plan that recognizes their need to create. Tailored classes in writing, spelling, and reading were designed for all youths performing four to six years below grade level. Nutrition, health, and exercise programs, such as cooking, hip hop dancing, kickboxing, and tai chi, were added to reduce obesity. Community-based organizations partner with the school regularly to advance common goals. Dr. Salgado meets with students everyday to hear their ideas/complaints/suggestions. The staff agreed to work two hours longer each day, teach until July 10, and return to work in August two weeks earlier than other public schools. A Parents Council has been formed where parents, teachers, peer mediators, and two trauma specialists work together to resolve complex issues. By using ELT, Dr. Salgado has reduced truancy by 70 percent, and 80 percent of students passed their math standardized test. He joked that students are so happy they don't want to graduate from eighth grade. Other schools with ELT have seen 44 percent improvement in math, 19 percent in science, and 39 percent in English language arts scores. It still is not enough but it is a vast improvement.

However, continuity is part of the challenge. Boston high schools don't have ELT. As the economy slows, budgets are reduced, and pressure to improve test scores increases, the arts and other creative activities that have been proving themselves so well in ELT schools might be squeezed out. This is a familiar story. Foundations have a major role to play in supporting educational reform. Funders can work directly to support model programs or support advocacy and public policy reforms. Cyrus Driver (deputy director, Education, Sexuality, Religion Unit, Ford Foundation) suggested that national foundations with education and arts initiatives must work collaboratively to advance this work. If we don't support promising “upstream” strategies like ELT, we will confront a larger “downstream” impact as a result of the lack of education, employment, and income.

Kathy Freshley is senior program officer, Meyer Foundation.

21st Century Standards and Assessment: Where Do the Arts Fit in?

Sydney Sidwell

Cyrus Driverbegan the conversation with the big question, “What are the principal challenges facing public education and how can the arts address those challenges?” Throughout the session, panelists returned to four fundamental barriers to creating an education system that meets the needs of today's students, teachers, and society-at-large.

  • First, the system of education in the United States is dominated by outmoded structures and theories of teaching and learning.
  • Second, the education system has not figured out how to educate and accommodate a diverse student body.
  • Third, schools and school districts experience unrealistic pressures to address the outcomes of larger societal inequities such as poverty and racism.
  • Finally, the United States education system does not have a shared vision or set of commonly understood and agreed upon goals.

Other large barriers include the limited time children spend in schools, the challenge of training and gaining access to serious and effective educators, and the lack of an effective assessment structure that serves the needs of students and educators.

Paul Reville described a twenty-first century education system as one that understands the context in which the students live and learn, attracts serious educators, and provides the amount of time students need to engage in learning. All the panelists acknowledged that the arts can be a central component of twenty-first century learning.

The panelists provided thoughts on how the arts can contribute to an effective system of education and offered suggestions to the audience on how to think about supporting the arts in a way that addresses large educational challenges. Three specific areas were identified.

Assessment: Arts educators are well versed in a range of assessment methods (portfolio, project, and performance-based) that are considered meaningful forms of evaluation for both student and teacher. These methods are alternatives or supplements to the high-stakes, standardized testing that ranks a student's knowledge but does little to enhance the student's learning experience. Peter McWalters encouraged advocating that state education boards incorporate multiple assessment strategies in state requirements and argued that arts partners have an opportunity to take leadership in this arena. The panelists encouraged arts educators to figure out how to use measurements that make a strong case for the arts without succumbing to standardized testing.

School Engagement: We know that the arts has the capacity to engage students in learning and their school community. The panelists suggested that the arts education community is not taking advantage of the demonstrated impact the arts have on keeping students in school.

Effective Instruction: There is evidence that the arts can help teachers reach a broad and diverse range of students, many with varied styles of learning. Carol Johnson said that it is clear to her that the arts have an impact on instruction and that the arts enhances the discourse between the teacher and the student. Teachers see “unexpected gains from unlikely performers.”

Time: The amount of time that students spend learning was the most common theme addressed by the panel. Paul Reville said this is a practical question for education reform advocates to tackle. All panelists agreed that advocates for equitable access to rigorous arts education should build expanded learning time into their advocacy efforts.

Sydney Sidwell is senior program officer, Lloyd A. Fry Foundation.
* Session participants included: Cyrus Driver (moderator), deputy director, Education, Sexuality, Religion Unit, Ford Foundation; Carol Johnson, superintendent of Boston Public Schools; Peter McWalters, Rhode Island commissioner of elementary and secondary education; and Paul Reville, president, Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy; and incoming education secretary, State of Massachusetts.

Site Visits

Jeanne Butler

Thinking back on the forum, I cannot help but wonder what the outcomes might have been had the agenda been backwards. I have always been a bit dyslectic which makes me want to reverse things ... the Boston forum was no different. The final session with Tod Machover and Mitchel Resnick, both from the MIT Media Lab, and the site visits to their labs afterward to see Toy Symphony and Lifelong Kindergarten really crystallized precisely what twenty-first century education is and should be all about. That was, after all, the theme of the forum.

Seeing the labs and meeting with both Machover, professor of music and media, and Resnick, LEGO Papert Professor of Learning Research, made me want to re-think education as we know it. With Resnick, we learned about a new breed of construction kit (Pico-Cricket) combining art and technology where kids can learn engineering and science concepts by building on their interests in music and art. We also were able to discuss Scratch—a new technology to create interactive stories, music, art, games, and animations to share on the web. Machover introduced participants to Music Toys that anyone can use to modify and shape musical lines (Beatbugs & Shapers), to use software and draw musical compositions (Hyperscore) and to learn about a series of enhanced performance instruments. The “toys” all have specific musical and pedagogical functions. Machover did state that they rarely partner with American educators; instead, they work internationally, where there is far less bureaucracy to impede creative partnerships.

Experiencing the work at the Media Lab was clearly the highlight of the forum for me. The now infamous words from When Harry Met Sally, “I'll have what she's having” leap to mind. Why can't public education in the twenty-first century have what the Media Lab is having? I regret that we did not have the opportunity to discuss as a group what could be learned from this truly futuristic adventure. This work could serve as a starting point and catalyst for our future thinking.

That being said, the real starting point of the Forum, a visit to the Boston Arts Academy was a joy. The Academy is the city's only high school for visual and performing arts. It is an audition-based pilot school charged with being a laboratory and a beacon for artistic and academic innovation. Most students have little if any formal arts training before they audition. The predominantly Black and Hispanic student body of 404 students are well prepared by a highly trained faculty to be successful in their college or professional careers and to be engaged members of a democratic society. In 2007, over 97 percent of the school's seventh graduating class went on to college. We met an impressive group of students, who performed for us and who articulated their future dreams eloquently. While they did not necessarily plan careers as artists, they could easily affirm the power the arts have had and will continue to have in their lives.

The second site visit for Forum participants was to Charles Sumner Elementary School in Roslindale, Massachusetts. This school of 512 is 63 percent Hispanic and has a fairly new focus on arts integration. Although there is no common planning time for teachers, most have had some professional development for this purpose through Lesley University and other partners. One teacher summed up their experiences on arts integration by saying: “The improvement in the kids empowers me. Last year arts instruction completely changed my philosophy in teaching and it also dramatically reduced discipline issues—the students are engaged!”

As Principal Lourdes Santiago informed us, they have been able to offer each child music, drama, dance and visual art this last year, but in the fall both dance and drama will have to be eliminated because of funding shortages. While there is participation on the part of parents and a dedicated faculty that wants to maintain the program, funding and long term sustainability is a major issue.

These two site visits left Forum participants with a strong sense of the commitment of educators, but, sadly, left us with an equally strong sense of the extreme vulnerability of programs like these. Linda Nathan, co-headmaster at Boston Arts Academy, indicated that, “we need to advocate for legislation to get new No Child Left Behind regulations; this school is collateral damage.” They further stated that the problem is: “everything is tied to money, access and equity to get into schools.” For the Sumner Elementary School, long range planning and obtaining funds to sustain their programs are critical. Unfortunately, these are common concerns of many working in twenty-first century education reform. How we help to change the future is a challenging agenda for funders everywhere.

Jeanne Butler is a freelance consultant.