Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Stating the Obvious

Lascaux (Thot 15/15)
Lascaux cave painting. CC image courtesy of christophe brocas on Flickr.

Last week I blogged about the difficulty of maintaining a balance of intrinsic versus instrumental benefits of the arts in the advocacy process. Many advocates feel that we do need that "proof in the pudding" when when we up against an educational system that values standardized tests above all. Others point out that this can be dangerous by potentially overselling (or cheapening) the cause.

A Duh! Moment
     In this piece from the Washington Post's education blog, Valerie Strauss does an excellent job of getting to the heart of why many advocates bristle at the constant need for hard evidence that the arts are a strong positive force in the education system. Strauss says that to anyone who is paying attention, it is "self-evident" that art education is connected with achievement; she compares it to research from PE advocates connecting healthy athletic activity to improved academic performance. "As if helping kids stay physically healthy isn’t a good enough outcome on its own."
     Strauss' assertion that "the whole exercise belittles the importance of creativity as a value necessary to the development of young people." I think this really gets to the heart of why so many advocates steam when reports rely on research to state the obvious about the arts. As I work on completing my grantwriting internship for a fantastic and innovative community arts organization here in NYC, I can relate. Writing about how community and public art projects provide benefits to their intended communities can feel like a big exercise in stating the obvious. But there's another layer there too.

Art = Humanity!
     Not to go all new-agey on you, but the arts really are the soul of humanity--they are way of expressing ourselves, which is a big part of what makes us human. Studying the caves at Lascaux isn't just important to find out how we lived thousands upon thousands of years ago. It's also a record of that human impulse to expressively communicate that connects us back to our Paleolithic ancestors. So prioritizing test scores over this very human need to create and express can make it feel like we are selling ourselves short in a way that PE or STEM advocates might not. I suppose that I'm stating the obvious to arts advocates, but sometimes the obvious is worth repeating--in advocacy and beyond!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Art Education for Art's Sake

Oscar Wilde
Street Art of Oscar Wilde- the original art for art's sake advocate. CC Image courtesy of bixentro on Flickr.
Last week's LA Times article about the brand-new study by the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities closes with a quote from one of the few skeptics of this otherwise widely-hailed report. Ellen Winner, the chair of the Psychology department at Boston College, takes issue with the research in the report, despite her strong support of art education. Read on to find out why an arts advocate might criticize this very popular report.


     Winner believes that the research is somewhat misleading, telling the LA Times that other factors are at play in student success. "You can't infer arts is causing...test scores to go up. It could be kids who take lots of arts courses are very driven students." In a 2000 article that she co-authored with a colleague, Winner wrote, "Studying the arts should not have to be justified in terms of anything else…. they are time-honored ways of learning, knowing, and expressing."
     In a perfect world, Winner's way would be perfectly effective, and all of us arts advocates could go home, put up our feet, and eat bon bons all day. But it isn't that easy, and I think it is naive to suggest otherwise. (Remember January’s Spending Reduction Act that threatened to kill the NEA, NEH, and Corporation for Public Broadcasting?)

    As Winner correctly points out, arts advocates often do have to rely on trendy arguments and new research to make the case for arts funding. As the little guys, we often need some extra ammunition, and those tend to come in the form of hard positive outcomes. When you are fighting for your microscopic piece of the budget pie, we often feel the need to take whatever we can get in terms of an argument that sounds convincing to someone on the fence. So the "human spirit" angle doesn't end up getting much play.
     However, Winner's point is a solid one. Even as we use new advocacy strategies to make our case on the local, state, and national levels, it's important to keep in mind the inherent value of the arts beyond what they can deliver. Art for art's sake can’t be our only advocacy strategy, especially in These Dire Economic Times. But it is one that those of us in the trenches should keep in mind as we're fighting the good fight.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

76 Pages of Arts Advocacy Ammunition

Screengrab of Reinvesting in Arts Education.
Last week I blogged a about the glut of new information that’s becoming available to arts advocates. One of the reports, Reinvesting in Art Education by the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, has already made a relatively big splash since its release this past Friday. The report made headlines in the LA Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and EdWeek—all mainstream publications that are not necessarily preaching to the arts advocacy choir. These articles point out one of the report’s main tenets, and one that is familiar to art educators and advocates—while there are myriad reasons art education helps build stronger schools and students, art ed programs and funding have continued to decline.

The report itself is hefty, weighing in at nearly eighty pages, and includes an introduction by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan—an important vote of confidence from the most visible education administrator in the country. “To succeed today and in the future, America’s children will need to be inventive, resourceful, and imaginative. The best way to foster that creativity is through arts education,” Duncan writes.

Reinvesting culminates with five recommendations for improving and expanding art education in American schools: 1. Build collaborations among different approaches to art education; 2. Develop the field of arts integration; 3. Expand in-school opportunities for teaching artists; 4. Utilize federal and state policies to reinforce the place of arts in K-12 education; and 5. Widen the focus of evidence gathering about arts education.

These recommendations are based on an agglomeration of prior data that the report outlines, comparing data on the benefits of art education as well as challenges the education system is currently facing. Art education’s strengths (it’s an indicator of student achievement and engagement across economic levels!) are then matched to the wider challenges (distressingly high dropout rates, students with inadequate skill sets). Recommendations also take the budget picture into account by suggesting how to implement these recommendations in the most efficient way—an important point, as another takeaway from the study is that students in underserved schools have the most to gain from a strong art education.

You can download Reinvesting in Art Education here. I’d love to hear some input from art educators on the report—from what you see in your schools, does it hit the most relevant points?

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Good News for Arts Advocates!

Rosie the Riveter
Gas Station Rosie the Riveter. CC Image via Deaf Mute on Flickr.
I have to admit, I’m a bit of a Google Alert junkie. Naturally many of the alerts I have set up pertain to arts advocacy and education, and during a recession, these feeds of information can get quite depressing. Though it’s affirming to see so many stories of advocacy (students performing outside city halls to protest the arts! Art classes folding thousands of cranes to raise awareness for tsunami relief in Japan!) the sad part is that it doesn’t always work. Half of my art ed Google alerts pertain to school districts cutting their arts programs, or a university eighty-sixing their arts or humanities majors. To paraphrase what Marete Wester wrote on ARTSblog, you have to be a “manic depressive optimist” to survive as an arts advocate. Good news--we're going into a manic phase!

Arts Advocates Prevail!
     A climate of brutal budget propositions and deep cuts to the arts everywhere made this year’s Arts Advocacy Day in Washington particularly urgent. But advocates have prevailed, at least somewhat—the Arts in Education budget, whose $40 million proposed appropriation was actually going to be zeroed out, received $25 million. It may not be $40 million, but that’s $25 million more than zero, folks! The National Endowment for the Arts fared well too, receiving $155 million rather than the original allocation of $124.5 million proposed in February. Small victories!

More Data!
     I was also heartened to receive an e-mail from Americans for the Arts on Monday proclaiming that art education advocates are “gathering momentum to impact art education nationally.” In addition to Americans for the Arts’ own report (pdf, 1.6 MB) featuring recommendations on the power of the arts to fight the Creativity Crisis from the National Arts Policy Roundtable, there are two new art education reports on the horizon that will hopefully spell good news for art ed. Friday, the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities will release their new study on promoting art education in schools, titled “Reinvesting in Arts Education.” (I like the sound of that!) Additionally, the National Center for Education Statistics (part of the US Department of Ed) gave us a sneak preview of their study on the state of art education nationwide. You can be sure I’ll be updating you on all this new data soon (I am a right-brainer, after all). But after a brutal budget season for many educators and arts advocates, it’s nice to have some positives to look forward to.

Oh, SNAAP!
     Finally, this morning’s Google alert revealed some of the most exciting news of all for me and many other soon-to-be-graduates in the arts. According to a new report from the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project, ninety two percent of arts graduates find work and satisfaction. Fifty seven percent were working as artists—and this does number not include artists who become art teachers or arts administrators. (Not that, ahem, either of those professions are anything to shake a stick at.) SNAAP surveyed over 13,000 graduates from art schools, art departments, and arts high schools who graduated between 2005 and 2009 (that includes post-recession grads!) as well as some graduates from previous years. You can learn more about SNAAP’s study in USA Today. Happy reading!