The Landscape of Arts Inclusion in Public Schools

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Photo courtesy of Emily Shallman.

Emily Shallman and I started talking about exclusion in arts and education while we were both working on our respective Master’s degrees.  Lately, I have been eager to ask her to blog about her extensive research in inequitable access to the arts in public schools.  Her findings suggest that museums, along with many non-profit arts organizations, are needed as key partners in providing equitable arts engagement and learning for students.  Emily’s research prompts me to consider the museum’s place in the “landscape” of arts access, best practices for partnering with schools, and if museum’s are achieving their full potential to impact students. How are different art museums sustaining partnerships with public schools in high poverty areas? Are museums offering comprehensive arts education that represents art across cultures and communities?  With more dialogue about these questions art museums can become more inclusive parts of this “landscape” themselves.  – Aletheia 

You can also find this post in its entirety on Art Museum Teaching, a blog and collaborative forum for reflecting on practice in the field of art museum education.  We are co-hosting this post with Art Museum Teaching founder and coordinator Mike Murawski  in hope that Emily’s work and observations can catalyze a broader dialogue among museum professionals and educators.

Arts education is a complex system today, as public schools–in conjunction with Parent Teacher Associations (PTA’s), local arts organizations, teaching artists, art specialists, volunteers, museums, school boards, the state legislature, and national policy–work in collaboration to deliver the arts to children. This intertwined web of arts advocates is a reaction to the worsening reality that the arts are no longer a stable piece of public school curriculum, with many schools excluding the arts altogether. The arts have had to react, and find a solution for inclusion in this landscape of severe budget cuts and focus on math and literacy. Rather than demanding to be included in the daily curriculum, with a mantra of “Do not cut the arts,” the arts have forged new partnerships to keep arts education alive in some public schools.

Let me paint the picture for you as best I can in an effort to make arts education more transparent, so that you can see how you fit into this landscape, and where there is room for improvement.

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Photo courtesy of Emily Shallman.

Schools, in the way they deliver (or do not deliver) arts education to children are highly diverse. This diversity means that public school A in Los Angeles, CA, is very different from public school B in San Francisco, CA, based on school population, size, parent involvement, student engagement and achievement, and of course, arts education. In the same way, public school B in San Francisco is also drastically different from public school C in San Francisco. Public schools are increasingly centered on the local, as arts education funding (at least in California) is distributed by local school districts. This distribution of funds, while on the surface entirely equitable, is not.

While each public school may get an equitable amount (based on school population and size, among other factors), PTA’s can quickly change the picture of arts education. More affluent schools tend to have more active PTA’s, and usually raise additional funds for academic programs that they value (and this sometimes includes the arts). Moreover, schools can decide how best to use the money they do receive—does this mean hiring a teaching artist for a week-long intensive for third graders in dance instruction, or does it mean buying new music stands and replacing outdated instruments, or does it mean using these funds to add to the overall school budget to help save a teacher from getting laid off (and hoping that teacher involves her students in arts learning)?

Photo courtesy of Emily Shallman.

Photo courtesy of Emily Shallman.

As you can see, arts education in public schools gets complicated quickly, and the picture can also seem rather bleak. However, I believe we are in a golden age of opportunity and collaboration.

Getting Arts Education into Public Schools

Local arts organizations, arts non-profits, and museums, have been afforded the opportunity to help deliver arts education to public school children. These institutions can provide a critical piece of learning to students, and if the success is documented, these collaborations can have a large impact* on student learning. Unfortunately, there is no one model to follow when it comes to arts education delivery. As schools are centered on the “local” so is the delivery of the arts. The report from the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities (2011) summarizes this nicely, stating

“Almost every community—indeed almost every school—that tries to address the vexing problem of how to get more arts into schools does so differently. A complex patchwork of arts education services across the country is the result, representing a mix of delivery models that include standards-based sequential arts curricula taught by arts specialists; formal and informal arts integration strategies; and short and long term teaching residencies for artists…There is no one model that works best for every community, and no single solution for the host of economic, pedagogic and logistical challenges faced by arts education advocates.”

Much progress is still to be made in terms of equitable and engaged learning with the arts, however. Interestingly (as based on my thesis research), a local elementary school in San Francisco with a high-poverty student population was a target of grant funding for the arts and actually had so many arts programs that the teachers were concerned about having enough time to teach other subjects. Comparatively, another elementary school in San Francisco, with an average socio-economic student population (neither affluent, nor high-poverty) had very limited arts education, despite a very vocal and committed PTA full of arts advocates. Lastly, another elementary school in San Francisco, with an affluent student population and a highly involved and highly funded PTA, had hired a full-time art specialist (a very rare occurrence, I can assure you) to teach sequential visual art to all students for an hour each week. The national trend, however, is still that those students in the highest poverty areas are the ones with the least amount of arts education, and are those that could most benefit from them.**

Pioneering Partnerships

There are substantial connections and programs to be cultivated with schools and outside organizations to bring quality arts education to all children. The arts, however, more than any other academic subject, are pioneering these partnerships. One successful example is seen at the Children’s Creativity Museum (CCM) here in San Francisco, CA. At CCM, public and private elementary-school through high-school students can participate in creative field trips such as claymation, music studio, or innovation lab taught by museum educators. High school students can work at the museum in the C.I.T.Y. (Creative Inspiration Through Youth) Teen Program, a paid employment opportunity, helping run exhibits and getting job experience in an arts non-profit environment. In addition, CCM has a growing outreach program, teaching Claymation workshops at after-school programs in the Bay Area. While CCM’s programs are quite established and the link to childhood and youth arts education is evident, I know of other arts institutions that are taking baby steps toward inclusion. For example, some fine art museums now have field trip guides (sometimes just a folded pamphlet) for elementary students to learn about famous artworks in understandable language.

Photo courtesy of Emily Shallman.

Photo courtesy of Emily Shallman.

Arts advocates, one school at a time, are inserting the arts, sometimes briefly, to change the landscape of learning. Hopefully this trend will continue to gain momentum. I know that it takes a whole ecosystem of arts advocates, from those working at the national and state level who make policy that supports equitable and quality education, to those at the local level, who raise additional funds for arts education to be taught in public schools, to teachers who understand the importance of the arts, to researchers who publish this knowledge, to people who have been impacted by the arts who share their stories to create more arts advocates.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a full-time arts specialist in every school, in addition to a visiting teaching artist and relevant field trips to museums, as well as after-school arts programs by local arts organizations? Just think of all those students could accomplish!

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*As I am sure you know, the arts have been identified to promote reading readiness, fluency and comprehension; to increase academic achievement in every subject, and to decrease dropout rates; to increase student engagement and positive social interactions; to promote higher cognitive functions including reasoning, abstract thinking, and problem-solving; to foster enhanced oral speaking skills, increase confidence, flexibility, creativity, and empathy; as well as to provide an artistic outlet for self-expression that is immediately tangible, deeply personal, and profoundly meaningful.

**On a national scale, “there is increasing evidence that the students in schools that are the most challenged and serving the highest need student populations often have the fewest arts opportunities,” according to the report from the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities (2011, 32). Additionally, the report states,

“While this pattern is similar to the pattern of inequities associated with other education resources, in practice it means that the students who could benefit most from the increased motivation and life/workforce skills fostered by engagement with the arts in school are the least likely to have the opportunity…In schools identified as needing improvement and/or with higher percentages of minority students, teachers were much more likely to report a reduction in time spent in arts instruction (GAO, 2009). Of great concern, respondents to a survey of arts participation from some minority groups (African American and Latino) are only half as likely to report having had arts lessons or classes in school as others…Schools in the bottom third of graduation rates (less than 50% graduation rate) offered the least access to arts education— fewer certified arts teachers per student, fewer dedicated arts spaces, fewer arts and culture partnerships, and so forth.”

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Arts Education Advocacy Resources

Emily Shallman has a BA in Elementary Art Education with a Washington State Teaching Certificate and Reading Endorsement from Western Washington University, and a MA in Urban Studies from the San Francisco Art Institute. Emily has experience as an Art Specialist, teaching visual art to grades K-5. Her MA thesis researched the history of arts education in public schools, as well as case-study analysis of the inequality of arts education based on socioeconomic factors.  Currently, she is a Continuing Education Coordinator at the San Francisco Art Institute, serves as a Board Fellow for the California Alliance for Arts Education and runs a children’s illustration blog www.illustrationsby.com. She lives in San Francisco, CA with her husband and two cats.

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