The Future of Arts Education is a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy at the Podium

Posted by Robert Lynch, Sep 12, 2016 0 comments

As teachers and students around the country head back to school, I can’t help but think about my own years of starting school in the fall. I was always excited. Excited about new opportunities in the new school year. Excited about new friends to meet. Excited about figuring out just how my high school rock band could get in front of a crowd. I may not have been all that excited about eighth grade math assignments at St. Mary’s School in Stoughton, Massachusetts, but the love of literature and poetry that Sr. Andrena instilled in me got me there every day and I learned some math too. And while the four years of ‘Conversational Latin’ at Boston College High School didn’t quite drive me to get there each day, the prospect of playing music in that band did...and I learned some Latin.

Today when I think about back-to-school time, I worry. Will the teachers be prepared to reach every student—and reach them in the poorer corners of cities as well as rural areas? Are the schools welcoming and enticing to students and parents? Will creativity be a daily activity in the lives of our country’s next generation of thinkers, leaders, and artists?

Just last year, I was honored to attend the signing of the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which replaced No Child Left Behind after almost 14 years. I was proud to represent the arts among the country’s foremost leaders in the field of education, and the White House gathering buzzed with excitement as we waited for President Obama to arrive. This was a moment years in the making and I thought back to 2011 when Obama made a visit to Kenmore Middle School in Arlington, Virginia, to speak to students, educators, and educational leaders about America’s need to deliver a world-class education, specifically citing the integration of the music of Duke Ellington into the school’s curriculum. He concluded this speech with a call to end No Child Left Behind and reform the American education system.

A student approached the podium at the White House event to introduce the President. His name is Antonio Martin—a math and science honor student from Kenmore also in the school’s drama program and orchestra. “I care about education because it opens up a world of possibilities for students including me,” he remarked. “I want to be an engineer and I work really hard in school. I love science and math and all of my teachers have helped me enrich my love of learning. For me, Kenmore has opened new possibilities because it is an arts-focused school...art is integrated into all subjects [and] I even have the option to be in drama and orchestra!”

A lot has happened since Antonio took the podium. The new law compels states to start drafting state-wide plans for the implementation of the new law. I’m happy to report that the law includes many arts-friendly provisions, and opens the door for states to deliver an arts-rich education to students across the country. Much of what we know about the value of arts education and the power of the arts to motivate positive change has been evidenced through many initiatives like the Turnaround Arts program on Obama’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities and the “Embracing Arts Education to Achieve Title I Goals“ report from the California Alliance for Arts Education.

At Americans for the Arts, we are pleased to be a partner on these and many other projects to help state leaders—like the tireless advocates from state arts advocacy groups, staff at the state Departments of Education and State Arts Agencies—take their place at the discussion tables that inform educational policies which will impact the next generation of students.

We know that by infusing the arts, a failing school can turn around. We know that states can use Title I dollars to aid in this process. And we know that by doing so, the arts can be a solution for school reform, they can be an indicator in state accountability plans, they can be an entry point for parents and community members to engage, and they can infuse joy back into teaching and learning.

We also know that we often leave behind far too many students. We are watching demographics change in the United States, especially in our education system. Why is it that students of color are often less likely to have access to arts education? Why is it that students in many rural communities, don’t have the chance to learn from a qualified and passionate teacher? And why is it that students on the autism spectrum or English language learners in many cases have fewer opportunities in the arts? These are issues we must address.

Through these challenges, the American public is with us. Released earlier this year, our Ipsos-administered public opinion poll tells us that 9 out of 10 Americans believe that the arts should be included in a well-rounded education. Additionally, that same 9 out of 10 Americans believe that the arts should be a part of education in every level of education—elementary, middle and high school. However, the public made it clear that there is not enough access. This is the reason why we must fight for policies like ESSA, which works to improve access and equity gaps nationally. As Hampshire College’s motto states, “Non Satis Scire: To Know is Not Enough.”

We must celebrate all that has been achieved this year but we must also be sure to continue to tell our civic and educational decision-makers about the importance of the arts in our lives. I invite you to join the field of arts education in celebrating National Arts in Education Week this week. Designated by Congress in 2010, the national event celebrates the transformative power of the arts in education. You can share your story using #BecauseOfArtsEd on any social media platform like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

I can’t know for certain what will happen in the future education of our children, but I am confident—excited even—at the prospects before us. Picture a school where murals cover the hallways; where sounds from rehearsal of the school musical drift through the building; where parents are reading positive articles about their school in the newspaper; where principals haven’t had to choose whether to hire arts teachers or security guards; where students are finally excited to come to school. Backed by these new policies and our collective voice spreading the word about the transformative power of the arts in education, I’m excited about the possibilities.

This blog was also posted on The Huffington Post.

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