In the Washington Post Magazine this week, I write on arts education in schools - a huge and complicated topic. Read it here.

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 4: Dancer Damian Woetzel, center stage, leads students and cellist Yo Yo Ma, bottom right, in motion excercises during a music and dance workshop with kids at Savoy Elementary on December, 04, 2012 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post) (Bill O'Leary/WASHINGTON POST)

I initially came at this story from my own beat. Over and over, I hear orchestras, in particular, blaming the decline in music education for their own declining audiences, and I see them putting more and more of their own resources into education to counteract this trend. This is, to me, a dubious claim: the decline in orchestras’ ticket sales reflects, to my mind, a general cultural shift in perception and priorities -- there are so many other kinds of music to go to! -- as much as a decline in education. I also think that by investing in arts education, orchestras make themselves feel like they’re doing something about a problem that needs to be addressed on a number of levels, in terms of administration, programming, artistic philosophy.

But to write a whole piece debunking orchestras’ reasons for investing heavily in a very worthy cause would be unforgiveably curmudgeonly, especially when kids need arts so much and the importance of getting them more arts is so great. I may look askance at the eagerness with which orchestras have embraced the El Sistema idea, because it promotes a vision of the world the way they want to see it -- see, childrens’ lives are improved by playing our music! -- but I can’t find anything but praise for the energy, commitment, and results of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s OrchKids program, one of more than a dozen such programs around the country. Meanwhile, it’s a relief that policy-makers in education are finally beginning to recognize the importance of the arts -- now that No Child Left Behind has helped show everyone what happens when you put all of your educational eggs in only a few baskets. What this adds up to is more arts organizations (not only orchestras, of course!) trying to get involved in education, and more communities and school boards, it seems, trying to find ways to benefit from what they have to offer.

Though I didn’t want to focus exclusively on orchestras, I think this education push shows a continuing evolution in their self-definition. A few years ago I said that orchestras should consider the possibilities of redefining themselves as educational institutions, pointing to the New World Symphony -- a training orchestra, not a professional one -- and its ability to pursue interesting artistic avenues precisely because it is an educational insitution. At the time, I got derisive comments saying I understood nothing about the structure of orchestras, but of course I wasn’t saying that all orchestras should transform themselves on the model of the New World Symphony, simply that there were lessons to be learned. Meanwhile, the existing structure of orchestras is working no better now than it was then, and more and more orchestras seem to be investing more and more in education as a hope for their future. There was a lot of research done for this article that didn’t make it into the final cut, including interesting information from small and mid-sized orchestras in the Washington region about how much they’re investing in educational programs -- several of them, from the National Philharmonic to the Prince Georges Philharmonic, devote as much as one-quarter of their annual operating budgets to education.

“Arts education” itself is such a huge topic that this article is necessarily incomplete. I gave no more than a passing mention to the idea of an integrated curriculum, which is being extensively tested in a number of areas (the Fairfax public schools being one of them): a curriculum in which arts are used to help bolster skills in other areas, like math and science. The Wolf Trap Foundation is doing significant work in this area with its Institute for Early Learning Through the Arts, a nationwide program that I talked about in a past article but which, for better or worse, I felt fell a bit outside the topic of arts in schools which I chose to explore in the current piece. The idea of an integrated curriculum, like most things about arts education, is contested; some teachers are concerned that it means they’ll have to be retrained to teach material they’ve been successfully teaching for years. Others feel it’s swinging too far toward the arts side of the pendulum. Anthony Jones, a musician and teaching artist at the Savoy Elementary School, which I visited in December, was himself the product of an arts magnet school in Houston, and he summed up his reservations about an integrated curriculum succinctly. “You could really save a lot of time and money,” he said, “instead of trying to make school arts integrated just put music or dance or theater or band back in the school. The schools I was at were not arts integrated schools. We did math, English, social studies, foreign language; none of those ever mentioned arts. Academics were very strong and arts were very strong. We didn’t need an arts integrated curriculum.” I’m not anti-integration, but I think he makes a notable point.

The other big issue, which I touch on in the piece, is content. When Yo-Yo Ma comes to your school, or your teachers discuss a painting with you in class, what exactly are your students getting out of it? In the course of working on this article, I saw a couple of demonstrations of arts education in action that left a lot to be desired, for all of their praiseworthy intentions. It is not a priori a teaching experience to get a kid to tell you that he sees a bird in a painting, though at least it shows the kid is actually seeing a painting in the first place. If basic exposure is the goal, the bar is set pretty low, but it is, at least, a starting point -- and it may be more valuable, as Rachel Goslins, the director of Turnaround Arts, said in the conclusion of the piece, than she, or I, may have initially thought. The communications director at Savoy Elementary School, when I arrived there for Yo-Yo Ma’s visit in December, summed it up pretty well; I didn’t take down exactly what he said, but the gist of it was that the kids probably didn’t know who Yo-Yo Ma was, but as the years went by they would realize his stature, and remember that he’d come. I’d guess that the kids will have a clearer image of the excitement of the visit, the sense of event, and of getting to perform “Thriller” themselves, than of the beauties of Saint-Saëns “The Swan,” but of course you can’t be prescriptive about what people should get out of art: the point is to give them the tools to let them start figuring it out for themselves.