Positive about Progress

Posted by Ms. Heather Noonan, Sep 14, 2015 0 comments

Former U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley responded earlier this month, when asked at the Arts Education Partnership forum how education policy advocates should navigate the partisanship sparked by the presidential election cycle: “For crying out loud, think positively!”

So, with a view to heeding Secretary Riley’s excellent and wise advice, here are reasons to be optimistic about progress in advancing arts education policy.

The League of American Orchestras has worked for two decades alongside a diverse group of national organizations focused on a unified approach to preserving funding for the Arts in Education programs of the U.S. Department of Education, expanding access to arts learning through the re-write of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), and mobilizing advocates at the state and local levels to close gaps in access to a complete education.  As we all await the next steps in the re-write of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act – now 14 years and counting in the making – these points are the foundation for ongoing, coordinated national advocacy.

It’s about the students.  

I’ve been fortunate to be a part of the Arts Education Policy Working group for the past 20 years.  This ad-hoc collection of national arts service organizations and arts education associations was born out of the Arts Education Partnership in 1995, when participants in that newly-formed organization determined that a separate “war room” (ah, the vernacular of the 90s!) was needed to advance federal arts education policy in an environment in which the very existence of the U.S. Department of Education was in question. That intense focus challenged us to come together with a unified message, rise above political partisanship, and look across previous institutional boundaries to – above all – put the student learner at the center of the policy discussion.

The benefits of arts education are backed by strong research

Whether arts learning takes place in school, out of school, or at home, the gains that students make in school, work, and life are now well-documented. Thanks to solid, reliable, and ongoing research, and advocacy over time, we rarely encounter disputes as to whether arts education is an essential component of a complete education. Of course, the case still needs to be made and compellingly illustrated by real examples –relentlessly. But it takes up far less space than it used to in the policy dialogue, which gives us room to move the conversation on to the meaty policy concerns…

Learning in the arts is rigorous and core to academic success, and student progress can be measured.

The development, adoption, and adaptation of national standards in arts education and the accompanying assessment framework helped to earn the arts their place in federal law as a core academic subject 20 years ago. This fact is largely underappreciated by policy leaders, who continue to question whether the arts are an eligible use of Title I funds, despite assurances from the USDoE, time and again. Even policymakers who are our best champions – and their staffs – still need to be reminded that the arts are already named as a core academic subject and are not “too magical to be measured.” On the contrary…

Arts educators are old pros and new innovators at “beyond the bubble.”

Arts education pioneered the performance-based assessment strategies that so many other core subjects of learning are now grasping to attain. When the 1998 Nation’s Arts Report Card was issued, it made a splash by being released in a spectacularly modern new format – CDROM. This then-noteworthy innovation was required to fully illustrate the report’s “successful, authentic arts performance assessments.” Amidst today’s ongoing, fierce debate about the next approach to accountability and the backlash against high-stakes testing, there is common ground about getting “beyond the bubble.” We can leverage national, state, and local arts assessment experience to take a seat at the policy table.  

Equity gaps are a cold, hard fact.

National data on the status of arts education in our schools is too elusive. It’s infrequently collected and publicly inaccessible.  But when it surfaces, it is very powerful.  On the 2012 release of the Fast Response Statistical Survey on Arts Education, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said, “the arts opportunity gap is widest for children in high-poverty schools. This is absolutely an equity issue and a civil rights issue--just as is access to AP courses and other educational opportunities.” The Policy Working Group continues to call for more frequent data collection at the federal level, but the most critical demands for transparency are happening at the state level, where these reports can fuel policy changes.

The arts education policy effort is accelerating out-of-the-beltway.  Way out. 

Unpacking the opportunities that current federal law provides for the state and local level is an ongoing need and a challenge that the Policy Working Group will continue to address – and we’ll be working every step of the way to expand those opportunities as the successor to No Child Left Behind is finally crafted. But the long-delayed effort at a new federal education law often claims too much of the public attention, while state and local policymakers are allocating nearly 90% of our nation’s education resources.  Arts advocates and their essential partners in the business, civic, grantmaking, and education spheres are making real progress in closing the equity gaps, through policy and practice.

Here’s to the power of positive thinking.

Please login to post comments.