Monday, April 7, 2014

Sacrificing Arts Education at the Altar of Test Prep

The irony smacked me right in the face. Yesterday, my wife and I journeyed to New York City as we often do to see a play. This one was The Heir Apparent, a thoroughly silly and joyous reworking by David Ives of a 1708 French play by Jean-Francois Regnard. And then this morning, buried on page A17 of the New York Times, comes a report from New York City’s comptroller, Scott M. Stringer, confirming what many of us have been observing: that many public schools “do not offer any kind of arts education and that the lack of arts instruction disproportionately affects low-income neighborhoods.” The comptroller’s report reveals that in the arts Mecca of the world, New York City, poor children are not receiving any, let alone adequate, arts education. Between 2008 and 2013, spending on arts supplies and equipment in New York dropped 84 per cent. The irony is positively Shakespearean.

Raise your hand if you think you know why.

Yes, of course, the reason for the reduction in arts education is that in many schools, and especially those with high concentrations of low-income families, the money for arts has been diverted to the tested subjects – Language Arts and Mathematics. Given very limited resources, schools are abandoning the visual and performing arts for test prep. Why? For survival. Under pressure to raise test scores, as if these scores were a true measure of a school, schools have been given little choice. The corporate education reform movement, of which former New York Mayor Bloomberg is a leading proponent, looks to close “underperforming schools”, fire teachers and principals and turn school children over to private sector run charter schools. With these high stakes tests hanging over their heads, schools abandon the arts and in the process abandon their children.

It should not need to be reiterated how important the arts are to a child’s education. Wealthy parents seem to acknowledge this daily. I can’t imagine a private school or a wealthy suburban public school without a rich music, art, and theater program. I bet former Mayor Bloomberg would not send his children to a school without a fine arts program. My own grandchildren are currently enjoying opportunities to develop their talents as musicians, actors and visual artists thanks in large measure to the excellent arts program their public schools provide. I credit arts programs at the schools where I taught with being the difference makers for many children who might not have been as academically oriented as their peers. The arts also provide new and different learning challenges for students who are doing very well in academic subjects. Arts programs bring joy to school children. Joy is too often in short supply in a today’s test oriented school.

Strong arts programs improve student learning. Research indicates that arts education is associated with higher student grades and higher college enrollment.  Music education has been shown to correlate with higher student math scores. Arts programs in music, dance and theater foster teamwork in every bit as strong a way as does athletics. For those who take a utilitarian view of education, the arts may seem like a frill, but to those of us who view schooling as a chance to experience all the richness that a life well lived can offer, the arts are indispensable. My education in the arts did not lead me to be an artist, but it did help me become an active, engaged and supportive audience member for the arts. My arts education has enriched my life immeasurably. I want that for all children.


The comptrollers report in New York is a hopeful sign that the tide may be turning. It calls for supplying a full-time, certified art teacher for every school. It calls for controlling “co-locations” of charters so that arts programs do not suffer. It calls for financing of arts education on a separate budget line and expanding partnerships between the city’s many arts organizations and the public schools. The report has been enthusiastically received by the new schools chancellor, Carmen Farina. Here is hoping that this great center for the arts will once again turn its attention to the arts in public schools. If the schools do not offer a rich arts curriculum, where will the audiences for the great plays, great paintings and great symphonies yet to be produced come from?