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Thursday, December 15, 2011

Will The Grinch Steal The Arts?

Tonight marked the second of our two Christmas concerts. This well attended event offered children in grades 3-6 an opportunity to showcase their musical skills to an appreciative audience. In addition, evidence of art work created by learners decorated the stage and added to the festivity. Every school traditionally boasts similar programs throughout the country. But how much longer will the arts be featured in our schools?

Fiscal problems continue to negatively impact education. The opposing forces of increased performance expectations and decreased revenues available to support education have often placed the arts programs in the cross-hairs of those thirsting for budget cuts. The state mandated assessments in Reading, Language, and Math prompt schools to disproportionately allocate ever scarce resources of money and time in those areas to prepare learners for the tests. Failure of the schools to meet projected standards of performance in these tested subjects results in public humiliation in the form of headlines broadcasting the school's status as a School In Need of Improvement - or worse.

The absence of statewide tests in the arts renders them less valuable in the minds of too many people. After all, a layperson could conclude that if a subject was truly important then it would be tested. That alone could contribute to a painful misconception among those that impact annual budget approvals.

However, tonight's concert offers several reasons why the arts are a vital part of school and an essential element in the learning dynamic. The experience of performing in public, while it causes anxiety to some, is a great platform upon which one may build self-confidence. Our society leans heavily toward verbal skills as an indicator of success. What better way to develop an orientation toward communicating in public than singing in a group before an audience? The songs in this evening's program involved several from other cultures in other languages. The arts are universal in their appeal across borders and politics. The arts have long served civilization by reflecting, interpreting, and transmitting the history,customs, and beliefs of mankind. The arts represent a significant indicator of our quality of life.

Furthermore, the arts engage learners in creative experiences that promote expanded boundaries of thought. The ability to express oneself in various mediums and explore possibilities through innovation allows us to stretch outside the conventional parameters that confine other learning disciplines. New and puzzling dilemmas are often solved with alternative interventions rather than time honored responses.

Here's an appropriate reference, an excerpt from Why Arts Education is Crucial, and Who's Doing it Best, by Fran Smith.

"Involvement in the arts is associated with gains in math, reading, cognitive ability, critical thinking, and verbal skill. Arts learning can also improve motivation, concentration, confidence, and teamwork. A 2005 report by the Rand Corporation about the visual arts argues that the intrinsic pleasures and stimulation of the art experience do more than sweeten an individual's life -- according to the report, they "can connect people more deeply to the world and open them to new ways of seeing," creating the foundation to forge social bonds and community cohesion. And strong arts programming in schools helps close a gap that has left many a child behind: From Mozart for babies to tutus for toddlers to family trips to the museum, the children of affluent, aspiring parents generally get exposed to the arts whether or not public schools provide them. Low-income children, often, do not. "Arts education enables those children from a financially challenged background to have a more level playing field with children who have had those enrichment experiences,'' says Eric Cooper, president and founder of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education.
It has become a mantra in education that No Child Left Behind, with its pressure to raise test scores, has reduced classroom time devoted to the arts (and science, social studies, and everything else besides reading and math). Evidence supports this contention but the reality is more complex. Arts education has been slipping for more than three decades, the result of tight budgets, an ever-growing list of state mandates that have crammed the classroom curriculum, and a public sense that the arts are lovely but not essential."

In conclusion, a narrow emphasis on a limited instructional menu will likely produce narrow minded learners. In the long run, how will that process help us as we encounter unforeseen problems that require solutions unlike those that have worked before?

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