What this boils down to is arts education advocacy, also a new initiative at Performing Arts Workshop. For decades we have touted the importance of arts education in the classroom, but the impact seemed limited to our region. Recently we chose to broaden the focus of our work from the every day little changes we see in the classroom to institutional changes in the way arts education is defined, funded, and spoken about. The Obama Policy statement shares this goal, but what does this actually mean for arts education nationwide? While the Workshop advocates for the arts from a platform based on valuable life skills and critical thinking, the Obama Policy document argues in favor of higher test scores in non-art subjects. This is a larger issue where, due to the continuing time crunch of the school day, teaching art can only be justified if it has statistically viable affects on other subjects. But we don’t teach Science only because it enhances Math skills and we don’t teach History only because it helps with English. We teach these subjects because they are part and parcel of a well-rounded education in which art has always had a place. Falling into the art-is-okay-only-if-it-helps-with-standardized-testing trap has dire consequences as the main argument for arts education.
Testing is not the end-all be-all answer for our suffering education system. The nation has had firsthand knowledge of this through 8+ years of No Child Left Behind. Benchmarks for improvement are important for assessing students in a broad sense, but relying on test results to give us a detailed picture of a students’ individual learning is dangerous. Each student is different and deserves an education focused on their strengths and needs. By contrast, the arts education experience is individualized. At the Workshop, teaching artists adjust their curriculum plans based on the desires, needs, and pace of the students. Education systems with no flexibility intrinsically fail the students that they are trying to serve.
By using academic achievement as the main argument for arts education, it appears to be the main goal as well, and our current system evaluates academic achievement goals through test scores. Teaching to a test does not raise life skills, critical thinking, or joy in education. If we look only at test scores to evaluate the success or failure of arts education, the dynamic aspect of arts learning and the real life skills gained during that experience are ignored. The value of the art-making experience lives well beyond a 95% score in math. A student may never remember what he or she scored or even the topic of a test, but they will remember the teaching artist who taught them that they too have the power to create. The arts are about being different, the arts are about personal expression and what makes us individuals. Testing is about the same answer for every question.
The Obama Arts Policy Platform is certainly a beautiful idea. Its message heralds a new era of arts education that has the potential to “reinvigorate the kind of creativity and innovation that has made this country great,” “nourish our children’s creative skills” and “encourage the ability to think creatively that comes from a meaningful arts education” so that the arts are “a central part of effective teaching and learning.” This is an arts education dream. But if Barack Obama truly believes that, “the arts embody the American spirit of self-definition,” then he needs to re-think the rationale behind his support for the “creative economy” and how these ideas will be implemented. Will public/private partnerships continue to be mired in bureaucracy and limited to funding tied to economic growth? Or will art based education finally come into its own with innovation based on art’s inherent creativity? Will teaching artists be given a living wage, work in their own community, and the creative freedom to be agents of change? Or will they be forced into the “teach the test” box in which our overworked teachers currently find themselves? President Obama, it is up to you.