Are courses in the arts a frill – or an essential part of our vision of schooling?
It is increasingly possible that students will go through the Philadelphia school system without ever taking an art or music class. As this edition of the Notebook reports, only half the schools now provide a full-time music teacher, and the numbers for art aren’t much better.
Schools must offer reading, math, and science to be considered fit to operate. Do offerings in art, music, drama, and dance belong as part of the core package every school must provide?
Few will come right out and say that arts are a frill. But that is the message being sent every time an arts program is quietly eliminated because of insufficient resources or because reading and math scores are too low.
Cutbacks affecting the arts have been going on for decades. Allowing schools to decide whether to offer art or music has accelerated these cuts. In recent years, pressures to achieve test score targets under No Child Left Behind and tightening school budgets have led dozens of schools to phase out art and music teaching positions. An array of central office initiatives to bolster the arts has not reversed that underlying trend.
When we treat arts as expendable, we accept a minimalist view of what an education is – that it is just about providing the basic skills people need to enter the workforce. When we treat arts as expendable, those likely to lose most are students at schools with the fewest resources or the lowest test scores – mostly low-income students and students of color. We risk making our schools less exciting and less appealing places to the students whose opportunities are already the most limited. We put a ceiling on their aspirations and world.
The arts are an essential component of schooling for all students. The arts provide tools to reach students with a variety of personalities, interests, and learning styles. For many students, art or music class may be the only time during school that they genuinely look forward to, and the resulting sense of engagement and belonging is often critical to students’ overall academic achievement.
The arts also provide students with a powerful means of self-expression and an important sense of having a voice in the world. Through art, music, writing, drama, or dance, students may find a vehicle for defining who they are and expressing their goals and aspirations. Students can find community, make connections, and discover new sides of themselves through involvement with the arts.
Realizing one’s creative abilities is a key way that youth develop a sense of power and possibility. With that sense of possibility comes the ability to imagine change for oneself or creating a better world.
There also is evidence that exposure to the arts correlates with academic improvement, particularly for low-income students. Studies suggest that involvement in the arts can support learning by creating a better school climate, improving critical thinking and social skills, and increasing student motivation.
But the decision to teach the arts should not depend on whether or not arts classes improve reading and math scores. Student work in the expressive arts has meaning and value in its own right. The benefits of developing student creativity are huge, and our schools need the spirit and sense of community that the arts can foster.
The baseline for a meaningful arts program is to provide a full-time art teacher and music teacher in every school, just as better-funded school systems in our region do. Full-time arts teachers on staff are vital if we hope to see any real schoolwide integration of arts across the curriculum. At large schools, one art or music teacher won’t be enough.
Arts programs also need well-equipped physical spaces in our schools. Every student should have access to art and music classes, with additional elective opportunities for interested students.
The School District has made progress in building partnerships with established community-based and citywide arts organizations, which are a critical supplement to school programs. Through artist residencies and other partnerships, schools can provide exposure to talented, practicing writers and artists who can also connect schools to the rich cultural diversity of our communities. But some fear that in the absence of a strong commitment to full-time arts and music staffing, these short-term arts programs reaching small numbers of students are now being passed off as substitutes for a well-staffed, well-equipped program.
The city of Philadelphia will not realize its strategy for growth as a vibrant center for arts and culture if its schools are not preparing students to be part of that. A critical hurdle in rebuilding a strong arts education program in Philadelphia is securing adequate school funding. Philadelphia’s educational, political, civic, and cultural leaders must develop a shared vision for delivering quality arts education to all students as well as a strategy for garnering the necessary resources.