How Arts Advocates Keep Getting It Wrong

No one loves the arts more than I do. No one is a stronger advocate for K–12 required arts classes in the public schools than I am. I have three children with recent college degrees in the arts: one music; one art, design, and media; and one dance. I edited and co-authored a whole curriculum series called ArtWorks, designed to integrate the arts into the core academic subjects for students in grades K–5. So don’t tell me that I think the arts are any less important than anything else in school.

But the arts advocates who keep fighting a public school system that marginalizes the arts—especially when budget cuts come—do not know how to talk to the opposition. So let me try to help.

How Arts Advocates Keep Getting It Wrong, by Regina Paul, President, Policy Studies in EducationRecently, I read a thoughtful article by Dr. Matthew Lynch (“Happier Students, Higher Scores: The Role of Arts Integration”), which was posted in The Edvocate. Here are a couple of paragraphs:

The arts have always had a secondary place in K-12 learning. If you doubt that statement, think of the first programs to go whenever budget cuts are implemented – music, fine arts and even physical fitness which includes dance. I’ve yet to hear of a school board or administrators discussing the way cutting math programs could help the school’s bottom line. There is a hierarchy of academics in America, and arts education tends to fall pretty low on the totem pole.

That’s why some districts are implementing arts integration in their curriculum. Instead of treating the arts like a separate, distant relative to other classroom endeavors, these programs integrate musical instruments, painting, dancing, drawing, singing and more into traditional subjects like science, math and language. When implemented correctly, these programs are enthusiastically received by students who learn comprehensively.

Yes, I too like the idea of arts integration. But what are we integrating? It should not be “musical instruments, painting, dancing, drawing, singing,” but instead something in the arts that Americans think is important. What is that?

For many years, my nonprofit organization conducted the Educational Goals Survey, in cooperation with the National School Boards Association, in school districts across the U.S. We surveyed tens of thousands of citizens, teachers, high school students, and recent high school graduates. First, we asked them to rate a wide variety of educational goals, covering all school subjects, on their importance for students to learn and, separately, on their importance for schools to teach.

Then, we said: “Here is a list of 11 school subjects. You are a taxpayer with just $1,000 to spend. How would you divide up the money? Consider how important each subject is, but not the actual costs of teaching it. You may spend your $1,000 on as few or as many subjects as you wish. Just spend the money to show where your educational priorities are.”

Just as Mr. Lynch noted in his article, art and music usually fell at or near the bottom of the list of school subjects when participants played the money game. It made me sad, because it is absolutely true that, for some students, music is the only reason to come to school. When I helped to co-found an Early College architecture and engineering high school in Brooklyn, I insisted on an after-school music program and on two music courses (one required of all students)—because, for Wilmer, music was the only reason to come to school. I never regretted it for a minute.

But the real news for arts advocates is what happened when participants rated the individual art and music goals in the first part of the questionnaire. As it turned out, there were some things in art and music that participants felt were much more important than others—some things that actually might be worth paying for, some things that might survive budget cuts. Those things were spectator art and music, not varsity art and music. Not bowing and blowing, for example, but listening to and appreciating music and its place in our culture and indeed in other cultures, past and present.

I have worked with many art and music teachers over the years to create curricula for their school districts. They are an accomplished and passionate group. I always learn a lot when I work with them. But somewhere along the line, “appreciation” got a bad reputation. It is as if “appreciating” art or music is a lesser thing than doing art or music. That is a shame, because 100 percent of American schoolchildren can learn to be great appreciators of art and music and dance in a way that will improve their understanding of culture and history and that will be a pleasure to them for the rest of their lives, but relatively few of them can actually do art and music and dance nearly so well. And everyone who pays taxes knows it.

If art and music and dance classes in school were more about appreciating and understanding the history and looking at what artists are trying to communicate and seeing the value in multicultural contexts and were less about producing and performing, they would be more important to most taxpayers and less likely to be cut when budgets tighten. Take an analogy from literature. Taxpayers will pay for schoolchildren to read the great short stories and novels of authors from across the globe and across the centuries without expecting those children to write great works of fiction themselves. They are reading for a different reason.

Arts advocates, sometimes you are your own worst enemy. When it comes to integrating, you don’t have to integrate the actual performance of the arts—that is, the varsity version. You can integrate—or, if you can make the arts important enough, you can even keep separate—the spectator version. Because, when you are talking about that, there is nothing more important.