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Learning From The Arts
No matter how bad a recession gets, there is always something to look forward to at the start of a new school year! New faces, new curriculum, new ideas and challenges. Both children and adults have an opportunity for a fresh start. For arts educators, it is like looking at a blank canvas–a year waiting to be filled with creativity and new projects and experimentation with new materials and curriculum. This year may prove to be more of a challenge with budget constraints strangling the availability of resources. But as artists and arts educators, we are limited only by our imaginations and must use our abilities to innovate and create to our best advantage.
Since the start of public education, the arts have remained the seat of creativity in the K-12 curriculum. Whether visual or performing, the arts have provided students with an opportunity for self expression and innovative thinking. One of the reasons for this is that art educators tend to teach conceptually rather than operationally. Color theory for example, can be taught using paint, dyes, markers, colored pencils, tissue paper, crayons, or a host of other media. So when budgets shrink, the arts can still remain vibrant and effective because despite a lack of resources, arts teachers can continue to address the necessary concepts simply by substituting different materials.
While this attribute allows the arts to thrive, it should not be used as an excuse to deny funding for necessary resources for arts education. As an educator I have watched arts budgets diminish from $2000 per year in 1980 to my current annual allocation of $350. Despite the rising cost of materials, equipment and facilities, the arts have continually taken a financial hit year after year. Last year, our district commandeered all the arts funding that was provided to schools by the state of California Visual and Performing Arts Block grant; money that was earmarked for arts education was funneled into the general fund to pay bills.
Part of the reason why school districts cut art funding without regard is that the arts are too often seen as academic luxuries and not as part of the “core” curriculum. Subjects such as language arts, math and science take priority when it comes to school budgets. And schools that are under performing according to the No Child Left Behind guidelines tend to place an even greater financial emphasis on core academic subjects which leaves little left for the arts and other electives.
If a school or district were truly progressive and innovative they could learn great lessons from arts education. Arts educators incorporate every discipline into their craft. Music directly involves the use of math; visual arts blends history and world cultures as well as math, language arts and science; dance and drama incorporate social studies, psychology, language arts and history. Instead of pouring money into rote academic program support classes, school boards should consider using the arts to reinforce academic concepts and elevate student achievement.
Some schools in Tucson, Arizona, have adopted a program called Opening Minds Through the Arts. It is a K-8 arts integration program that focuses on brain development, improving test scores and closing the achievement gap. It is structured to teach all academic subjects through the arts–visual, music, dance and drama. Classroom teachers work with arts integration specialists and teaching artists to design and implement lessons based on content standards. Since its inception in 2001, OMA has produced credible results in standardized testing and individual student achievement. A three-year study focused on student test scores and improved teacher effectiveness with significant measurable results in both the Arizona mandated AIMS test and the Stanford 9 Achievement test. Improvements were also noted in overall teacher effectiveness.
There are models such as these throughout the country that are beginning to use the arts as a core for all curriculum. As we enter into this new and possibly trying school year, I am hoping that more schools and districts will begin to look at their fine arts departments as models for integrating disciplines, innovative curriculum development, and best practices that can be used schoolwide to elevate student achievement without adding to an already strained budget.
Tere Barbella is an arts educator in the East Side Union High School District of San Jose, California.