Why Business Should Care About Arts Education - thoughts on a Dana Foundation Symosium

Posted by Gary Steuer, May 29, 2007 0 comments

The Dana Foundation recently convened a symposium in New York on "Transforming Arts Teaching: The Role of Higher Education" as part of their ongoing commitment to arts education, as well as to the role the arts play in the development of the brain. Participants included a wide array of people from around the country who are leaders in arts education, including people from arts organizations, academia, government and the funding community.  [The link above takes you a page on the Dana Foundation site that includes some video excerpts from the Symposium.] I had the pleasure of participating as well, and found it particularly relevant to the work we are doing in linking the arts and arts education to workforce development issues. The better job we can do of getting business to be active advocates for arts education because they see it of benefit to their bottom line, the more effective we can be at getting greater recognition and funding of arts education in our educational system which has been so damaged by the relentless focus on measurement of a handful of subject area skills. I thought it would be helpful to share some of the Symposium conversation through this Blog. It is a longish entry so please remember to click the "more" link to read the whole report! Dr. David J. Skorton, President of Cornell University, gave a stirring opening keynote on the importance of the arts in education. He is trained as a musician, and supported himself performing jazz while pursuing his education as a scientist, doctor, biomedical research and academic. His talk wove actual examples of music of different genres into his speech, as well as snippets of video from musical performances. He talked with passion of his belief that arts exposure, participation and training results in graduates who are both better human beings and better workers and contributors to society.

A panel discussion followed on the role of the arts college or conservatory, featuring the President of the Berklee College of Music, Roger Brown; Michael O'Keefe, President of the Minneapolis School of Art and Design; and Robert Sirota, President of the Manhattan School of Music.  Interestingly, both Brown and O'Keefe do not come to their positions as trained arts professionals. Brown has a background as a CEO, a management consultant and entrepreneur; O'Keefe was Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Human Services and before that was for ten years the CEO of the McKnight Foundation. His academic background is in nuclear physics and mathematics. Given their background, the conversation naturally turned to the role conservatories play not just in turning out arts teachers, but in turning out innovative creative human beings who might go on to great success in fields outside the arts. They talked about the fact that there are no boundaries anymore, one of the panelists noted that several of the faculty are professionally trained as scientists, but are also highly accomplished musicians. It was noted that in the new world, artists are often also the producers and distributors of their art, and therefore must also be trained as entrepreneurs. Brown noted that many graduates of Berklee go on to success in commercial television and film, the old road of being trained in a music conservatory to go directly into a symphony orchestra chair is now just one of many shifting options. He also noted that the founder and CEO of CD-Baby a music producer and distributor that helps emerging artists directly market their work, is a Berklee alum. Brown added that Herbie Hancock was trained as an electrical engineer, and that musical skills are very powerful and very transferable, in the current climate scientists can end up as musicians and musicians can end up as scientists. In comments Clive Gillinson of Carnegie Hall reiterated the growing and critical role of creativity and innovation in society, and the blurring of distinctions between artists and scientists and business. Mary Luehrson of NAMM, the trade association for musical instrument manufacturers also commented that in describing this new paradigm, people like the panelists had the power to make it happen, to change how they accept students, how they train students, and how they send them out into the workforce.

In the next panel, on the role of the teacher education college, Dan Fallon of Carnegie noted that art finds its way into teaching in so many different ways, and that skills and qualities that are associated with the making of art are also associated with good teaching. Joe Dominic of Heinz also pointed out the importance of creativity in the new global marketplace. He emphasized that there are major public policy issues here, especially with the reauthorization of NCLB. The economy is no longer based on manual labor or even knowledge, but on creativity and imagination-this requires a workforce educated very differently. He also noted that we need much better data on what is a good education. Are we measuring the right things?  If not, how do we measure the things we need to measure. Dr. Milton Chen, the Executive Director of the George Lucas Education Foundation , commented that we now have a new generation of "digital natives" and need to figure out how to educate them within that context. Old styles of teaching don't work anymore.

A panel of working arts teachers and teaching artists was moderated by Ray Cortines, former Chancellor of the Board of Education for New York City, and now overseeing education in Los Angeles. This was a very inspiring panel covering a wide array of ages and methods of arts teaching, from long-time New York City public school teachers to a working actress who also works as a teaching artists in schools. Cortines also emphasized that we need to press the point that arts education is NOT about teaching art and music, but about making better people, better citizens out of our students.

A panel then covered the issue of what we know about arts teaching. It included Dick Deasy of the Arts Edcuation Partnership, Sarah Cunningham from the NEA and Dennie Palmer Wolf of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform. Dick noted that there is a growing body of solid research on the impact of the arts, and that we need to focus on the cognitive and personal impact of arts education. He added that the public does not associate creativity and imagination with the arts, and that we need to do a much better job of explaining the transformative effect of the arts, with much better language. He feels that we have enough research now to make the case; we just need to communicate it better. He feels we should combine the "civic engagement" discourse with the business/economic development discourse. Dennie gave such a very powerful answer to a question about what she would do if she were Secretary of Education that if I could vote her into that office I would do it in a heartbeat. There was also a comment that NCLB has even dropped writing as a measurement of success, so that even the ostensible measurement of English proficiency is not measuring written communications skills that are so critical to success today.

The final panel, which was looking at the "big picture" and "next steps" featured Derek Gordon, Executive Director of the Arts Council of Baton Rouge (and long-time leader in arts education circles), Michael Cohen of Achieve, Pedro Noguera of the Steinhardt School of Education at NYU, and Jean Johnson of Public Agenda.

Achieve works with states to create standards for high school education that will produce young people properly trained for the 21stCentury workforce. Their board is made up of governors and CEOs, and it is clear that their engagement in efforts to promote arts education as important part of the curriculum is extremely valuable as their constituency of governors and CEOs have often been leading the drive for accountability and basic skills, which has had the indirect effect of diminishing funding for arts education.

Johnson of Public Agenda, the public policy research organization founded by Yankelovich, noted that there is thin research on public attitudes towards the arts and that it is "mushy" meaning that opinions are not strongly held and therefore easily swayed by methodology. She actually held up the recent National Assembly of State Arts Agencies on arts education that cited Americans for the Arts research on strong public support for arts education, and contrasted that with other research that seems to show much weaker support when questions are asked differently. As she put it, public opinion is not there yet on this issue. People think the arts are sort of OK, but they are not passionate about it. She added that she was afraid that some of the current rhetoric positions math and science as dull but important, and arts as fun but not important, which does a disservice to both.

Cohen commented how the CEOs on his board note how they need workers who are disciplined, work well in teams, strive for high quality, and can innovate all arts-stimulated qualities. Yet, they don't easily make the connection to the need for arts education. He noted how most major companies invest philanthropically in both the arts and in education, and we must get them to see those two investments as linked, and in service of their larger economic interests.

Noguera has extremely passionate and articulate about the disproportionate impact on poor children of test-driven instruction. He noted the elimination of arts programs for poor children all across the country. In wealthy school districts the resources are there to continue arts programs, or parents provide supplemental arts training/exposure. In poor districts if they don't get it in school, they are unlikely to get it. What this means is that the most at risk students are even LESS prepared to the workforce. He feels that in the name of increasing achievement, arts are being eliminated, which is in fact driving scores downward further. He emphasized, however, that the solution is not to try and add measurable arts testing, but to come up with a systematic way to measure the important skills nurtured in part through the arts, that would give educators an incentive to strengthen their arts education. It was also noted the situation is made worse by the fact that scripted education frustrates the most creative, innovative teachers, best equipped to integrate the arts into the classroom, driving them out of teaching.

Johnson closed by recommending that principals and district superintendents be targeted to make the case that arts education is a core part of what it means to be educated. Noguera politely disagreed and noted from his perspective it must start with Governors and state legislators who set he policies and budgets. He said it will be much easier to change the behavior of principals and superintendents if different policies and budgets come down from the top.

All in all, a fascinating worthwhile day of conversation, and I encourage all to check out the information on the Dana Web site, and the publication that will result at some point. It did highlight for me the critical need to engage the full spectrum of education leaders in the effort to encourage the private (and public!) sector to better support the arts and arts education. If we can get more university presidents, to district superintendents and school principals saying to business, foundations, elected officials and the media that effective high quality sequential arts education is important to their efforts to send into society the people we want as high performing workers and citizens, our job as advocates will be much more effective. At this symposium this group was "preaching to the choir" - how doe we get this message in front of the non-believers who need to be converted: that is the critical challenge.

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