(Correction: An earlier version placed a school theater program in Queens. It is in Brooklyn.)
By Michael Sokolove
Arts instruction in America’s schools is something that almost everyone agrees is a great idea. Just, apparently, not for all children.
Let’s say that you are thinking about enrolling your child in an exclusive private school and you visit several before making a choice. At each one, you’re likely to tour the music room, the visual arts studio, the well-appointed theater decorated with posters from previous years’ musicals. It’s a good bet someone will tell you, with great earnestness, that these facilities exist because the school cares deeply about educating “the whole child,” which can’t happen without teaching the arts. Which, of course, is true.
But it is also true that as America has cleaved apart into haves and have nots over the last couple of decades, serious arts education – taught by certified, in-school instructors — has receded in many communities or even disappeared entirely. We’ve got some whole children that need nurturing, and then some half-children.
Students in private schools and comfortable suburban districts still get the whole robust menu – staples like foreign languages and social studies along with an opportunity, to learn to play the French horn or win a part in “The Crucible” or “Beauty and the Beast.” Less fortunate children have been on the receiving end of what I’d call an emergency-room approach to education —one that addresses only the parts of a child thought to be in most dire need of attention. Their curriculum may consist solely of reading, writing and mathematics – the subjects tested on high-stakes exams.
The shame of this is we know it’s wrong, and we do it anyway. Longitudinal studies have shown that students who receive sustained in-school arts instruction have better attendance, better grades and higher graduation rates. Neurological research suggests that immersion in the arts can cause an actual change in the structure of neurons and make the brain more receptive to other kinds of learning.
The anecdotal evidence of how arts education benefits children is every bit as powerful as the stories of how participation in scholastic sports “saves” certain kids. When I was researching a book on an elite high school theater program in the blue-collar town of Levittown, Pa., I met a student who was taking special education courses – remedial math and English, life skills – because high doses of chemotherapy she received to treat childhood leukemia were thought to have damaged her ability to retain and sort large batches of information. But she was able to memorize long scripts – and win statewide awards for her acting — because the narrative through line of plays came clear to her. Theater animated her as nothing else ever had.
Elsewhere, the children most in need of arts instruction have been the least likely to have access to it. Anyone who has spent time in America’s poorest inner-city neighborhoods knows that they are virtual islands, with no bridge to the mainland. A child deep in Brooklyn or Queens may never have set foot in Manhattan, let alone inside a Broadway theater. A child in Los Angeles might live three miles from the beach but has never felt the sand on her bare feet or dipped a toe in the Pacific. One in Washington D.C. may have never been inside one of the Smithsonian’s free museums.
Arts transport. It’s often said they are an an essential part of what makes us human – and an element of that is the ability to imagine another reality, apart from the one we are living, a skill essential to resilience and ambition. Children already living a in a narrowed world need more access to the arts, not less. But that has not been the trend.
The reason is no great mystery: The accountability movement in education – from President George W. Bush’s No Child Left behind initiative up through President Obama’s Race to the Top — has resulted in a zero-sum equation in America’s schools. Time spent on anything other than the essential mission of elevating test scores is too often perceived as time wasted.
Thoughtful educators know that practicing for upcoming tests — at the expense of lighting up children’s mind and imaginations — is destructive. But they have been incentivized, to use a favorite active verb of corporate America, to act against their better judgment because their salaries and career prospects have been set by how students score on tests. In extreme cases, schools can be shuttered as a penalty for bad scores, and who wants that on their resume.
A report last spring issued by Scott Stringer, New York City’s comptroller, found that 28 percent of the city’s schools did not have a single full-time arts teacher – and 42 percent were without one in lower income neighborhoods. Some principals who received “supplemental arts funding” used it for non-arts purposes, including test preparation.
Not just the arts – but arts spaces within schools – were being disrespected and often used for other purposes. Suzy Myers Jackson, executive director of the nonprofit Opening Act, which brings after-school theater to some of the city’s lowest performing schools, told me of discovering “this amazing theater” at a high school in Brooklyn. “It was almost like a black box but when we got there you could hardly see the stage. It was used for storage. Our kids cleaned it up.”
We are at a juncture right now, with a possibility to set a new course. In July, New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio announced that the city would spend an additional $23 million for arts education, some of which would go to hiring 120 new arts teachers in underserved schools. Chicago and Los Angeles also have recently announced plans to bolster arts education in their public schools.
But will these initiatives take hold and will they last? Some arts advocates are encouraged because David Coleman, the architect of the Common Core and now president of the College Board, has spoken eloquently about the centrality of arts education.
But the Common Core is an idea more than a program (with details to be filled in by the states), and it does not change the incentives for educators. Its focus is on mathematics and what it calls English Language Arts. “To me, the Common Core is a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” says James Catterall, a professor emeritus at UCLA and founder of the Centers for Research on Creativity at the California Institute of the Arts. “If you look at it closely, the tests that flow out of it and will be high stakes will be basically in language arts and math. The arts will not be tested.”
So let’s test the arts, without ruining them, instead of abandoning them once pre-kindergarten teachers assure that every student can identify their colors. And let’s study, support and expand these fledgling initiatives to put arts teachers back into public schools.
Perhaps that can be a bridge to a true national consensus that arts education is not just for privileged kids. It’s not an extra or a frill, no matter how desperately some students may struggle to grasp the basics of reading and math. For some of those very children, it’s a lifeline, and the pathway to mastering those other subjects.