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What Do We Value?


“A substantial increase in arts educational experiences has remarkable impacts on students’ academic, social, and emotional outcomes.”


This statement, part of a large study on the impact of increased student access to the arts among a sample of over 10,000 third through eighth grade children in large urban districts, was reported by the Brookings Institution in February of 2019. The study was conducted in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts, the Spencer Foundation and the Houston Endowment.


The reported results really serve to confirm what those of us invested in arts education already know. Yet, some of the key findings are too compelling not to report.


Among the kids with enhanced opportunities for engaging in artistic experiences, there was a 3.6% reduction in disciplinary infractions. Now, that may not appear to be a significant number on its face, but it represents 360 fewer trips to the principal’s office or 360 fewer learning disruptions for these students. Trust me, that is a big deal!


There’s more. These kids demonstrated an overall 13% gain in standardized writing scores.


But, this is where my heart soars. The children who were treated to greater access to the arts showed an 8% increase in their compassion for others. I’ll admit that I don’t know how “compassion” is measured for the purposes of this research. But here’s the bottom line, citing, again, the article titled “New Evidence of the Benefits of Arts Education,” “In terms of our measure of compassion for others, students who received more arts education experiences are more interested in how other people feel and more likely to want to help people who are treated badly.”


That is an encouraging and compelling statistic as we consider our current level of societal division.


Again, many of us know these benefits, and countless others, as kids are exposed to the arts. That said, decision-makers are otherwise inclined to think that we believe these things to be true but, in the absence of abundant evidence, there’s no way to know for sure. The “arts for arts sake” just doesn’t cut it in board rooms.


Many of us have been there. Whether during up close, closed-door negotiations or public testimony, or even from vantage points more on the periphery, we’ve experienced the knee-jerk reactions, and subsequent decisions, of policy makers when faced with funding shortfalls and the dilemmas that result. The discussion goes something like this.


“Given the fact that we must make cuts, what should we consider?”


“Well, let’s look at the non-essentials.”


“What experiences are non-essential?”


“Let’s start with what content is required, protect these and then look at other areas.”


“Okay, language literacy is a given. Mathematics and the sciences also fall into the protected categories. (Think STEM here: science, technology, engineering and mathematics.) What’s left?”


“The areas of study considered ‘elective’.”


“What are these elective areas?”


“Music, art, drama, dance, world languages, physical education.”


“We know how important physical education is. We must save that. We need our kids to be healthy. Besides, the community would kill us if we didn’t offer sports. And, in light of our global economy, kids need to opportunity to learn other languages.”


“So, what’s left?”


“Music, art, drama, dance. Maybe even ‘shop’ and cooking classes, though these could fall into the category of CTE (career, technical education).”


“Music, art, drama, dance - couldn’t they also be considered CTE?”


“Maybe. But we’ve got to make cuts. And the only things we can cut are those areas that fall ‘below the line’ of “essential.’ That’s the arts classes.”


“Aren’t the arts also essential?”


“They’re nice when we can afford them. But, they’re expendable when we can’t. Today, we can’t. I’m not sure they’re really ‘essential’ anyway. Where’s the evidence?”


And so it goes.


But here is the truth. Beyond what we consider essential, important, or required, the fact remains that we fund what we value. And, in our convoluted notion of “value,” we defer to what is measured - to what we test.


“Over the last few decades, the proportion of students receiving arts education has shrunk drastically. This trend is primarily attributable to the expansion of standardized-test-based accountability, which has pressured schools to focus resources on tested subjects. As the saying goes, what gets measured gets done.” (Brookings Institution, 2019)


Our system of standardized assessment looks at kids through a very narrow lens. Can they read? How do they write? What is the level of their mathematic computational skill? Can they out perform the kids from Finland, Taiwan, South Korea or Iceland?


We don’t ask - can they think? What is their evidence of creativity and innovation? We overlook the obvious concerns of motivation and relevance based on student interest. To what degree do these children demonstrate compassion, empathy and understanding? We don’t seek to address the needs, and desires, of our nations’ children to pursue their curious instincts or their quest to seek a more just and equitable social system.


No. We are very discreet in what we measure, which signifies a similar level of discretion over what we value, and subsequently what we fund: a narrow, standardized (and de-humanizing, if I might add) notion of what represents being a competent and educated American citizen.


I contend that this is not enough: sufficient. It’s not what kids deserve because it does not represent what will be required of them, the children in our classrooms today (virtual or otherwise), to be truly prepared to inherit the challenges that they will face down the road.


Don’t believe me? Is my perspective too narrow? Then allow me to refer to the concluding paragraph of the Brookings Institution report: “(The report) findings provide strong evidence that arts educational experiences can produce significant positive impacts on academic and social development. Because schools play a pivotal role in cultivating the next generation of citizens and leaders, it is imperative that we reflect on the fundamental purpose of a well-rounded education. This mission is critical in a time of heightened intolerance and pressing threats to our core democratic values. As policymakers begin to collect and value outcome measures beyond test scores, we are likely to further recognize the value of the arts in the fundamental mission of education.”


That’s an education kids deserve.



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