Where's the Leadership in Arts Education? (Janet's Blog)

On June 24th, Grantmakers in the Arts and Grantmakers for Education hosted a group of private and public foundations and corporations to discuss the barriers inhibiting arts learning in K-12 urban public schools. Cyrus Driver, Ford Foundation, set the stage with comments titled “Can the Arts Become Part of the “Basics” of our Public Education?”

Barriers were defined by a group of experts and funders and were addressed by invited “provocateurs.” These individuals were: Nick Rabkin, NORC, University of Chicago, David Sherman, American Federation of Teachers and Richard Kessler, NY Center for Arts Education. They presented solutions to barriers which included the lack of public will for equitable access to the arts, resources for teaching and learning and the failure of systems to respond to the disconnect between the reality of practice and the intent of standards and law. GIA will be putting these presentations on-line as audio and written files. The analysis of the entire discussion will hopefully be available within 30 days and GIA will offer a session furthering the discussion at its national conference in October. But, let me give you what I took away that struck me like a ton of bricks.

First and foremost, although all presenters tackled different barriers, their solutions had much in common. Those commonalities included these four areas:

1. Research on outcomes, pedagogy and cost efficiency and a clearinghouse for research that is curated for easy access and quality of content.

2. A clear message from the arts community speaking in one voice that includes all our strengths as arts educators: teaching artists, community organizations, school specialists.

3. Advocacy from the top down, bottom up and laterally. This means persuading decision-makers from Secretary Duncan and President Obama to state boards of education/governors and local school boards and superintendents. Bottom up, grass roots groups from national to local like PTAs, La Raza, NAACP, civil rights groups, teacher and principal associations. Laterally, those organizations that support the Common Core standards and who are attempting to influence change from the same decision-makers. They are our allies, in many cases.

4. Support for those organizations that can write education policy, activate the public and influence decision-makers. On the national level, the question was raised about leadership both in research and policy development. There is currently no clearinghouse for research and no single organization leading the charge to fund research, curate it and promote it as a tool for policy change.

There is no single authoritative voice in Washington DC negotiating with policy makers, bringing likely and unlikely partners to the table to move the arts education agenda forward. We continue to talk to ourselves. The Arts Working Group, Americans for the Arts, National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, the National Endowment for the Arts… no entity seems to be collecting non-arts allies and expanding the argument with the Department of Education or the administration. Do we need to create a new organization? In this day and age of fewer dollars and an over built nonprofit field, I’d hate to say yes but …

I believe what we need is a ten to twenty year strategic plan that includes influencing Congress, the Department of Education and the White House. Although education is locally controlled (supposedly), the carrot of annual funding from the federal government is so great that without the arts on their agenda, local policy makers can (and do) easily ignore it. Although we are getting great rhetoric from President and Mrs. Obama and Secretary Duncan at DOE, the arts are barely visible in the programs of Race to the Top, I3 innovation (not arts there???) and there continues to be a focus on math and science (STEM) as if the arts don’t have much to do with it. There is some hope in the resurrected “workforce for the 21st century” movement that a connection will be made between the arts and creativity, imagination and innovation. But who is connecting those dots at the federal level?

Where are the national arts education experts pushing the envelope and bringing teacher unions, principal associations, PTAs, equity organizations together to talk about the disparity of arts education offerings in our schools, particularly in our urban centers. We’re no better off than we were 40 years ago after spending millions (billions?) of dollars. I don’t believe the answer is “get out of the business” for funders. The answer is organizing, coordinating, funding and strategically attacking the issue for the long term with a twenty-year plan. But then I’m an optimist who believes that public policy can and is changed by those who are willing to dig deep for research and hit the halls and meeting rooms to find collaborators. We have a terrific message and we need a credible and tenacious messenger.

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Agree and Disagree

Hi Janet -

As always, a GREAT read. Thank you for saying this stuff. You use your position and your good mind in such complimentary and smart ways.

AEP is tackling much of the research issues you raise, as we speak. However, it's more challenging to secure real or meaningful participation by a teacher union or other national education or business organizations for our work. They have their own difficult issues that stare them in the face, such as teacher assessment or tax codes. Comparatively, the arts are low priority for these partner prospects. Their interest may mirror the US Department of Education's own; they'll value it, saying the arts are important for kids, but they won't prioritize it, taking action to provide it.

I've heard arguments recently that the arts education community should enlist creative businesses. But they have the same challenge. They're consumed by small business or tax policy, operational success, bottom line issues, etc.

I would say anything is possible, but probability is different.

One strategy I've not seen in action yet is coalition building with other untested subjects. Perhaps we can more easily find common ground with our subject peers in health, history, foreign language, etc. Certainly, the USDE and the Presidential Administration see us as a single blob because they've lumped us into one funding category with absolutely no distinctions in two different budget proposals.

Maybe we should give them what they want. Organize. And then we can give them hell.

Yes, and...

Thanks, Janet and Grantmakers for the convening and your clear blog, admitting that we haven't changed the arts education landscape in any appreciable way in four decades. And, huff and puff as we may do now or in the recent past, we seem not to be able to change the game. I appreciate your call for new kinds of organizing and coordinating. And yes, I think there is a central role for funders. I do sense the silo walls that contain the various sectors of our field are slowly thinning, but they aren't coming down at a speed that can change the game anytime soon. Yes, there is good experimentation unfolding in may disparate places, but it isn't working like R&D for such a fragmented field--the heroic efforts at change cannot add up to more than the sum of their parts, and mostly they add up to very little before they fade.

One strategy that I have sometimes seen make a significant impact in local settings, that involves coordination of funders, is the carrot-and-stick approach to increasing communication and alignment of many players. Funders enter genuine dialogue with the players in a local area for a long term redirection of the ecosystem. Over time they are going to increase funding to work that heads in the direction Janet points, and over time, funders will decrease funding to work that doesn't head in that direction. The dialogue has to be honest and patient and sustained. But it can redirect the trajectory of a local field, and I think could work on a national level, if funders could coordinate their influence, the way Janet implies. And if funders and practitions and program leaders could align and distill their goals.

Eric Booth

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