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Thursday, April 8, 2010

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Executive Director's Column

Arts Education Initiative Illustrates the Value of Infrastructure

NASAA Executive Director Jonathan Katz

It was not long ago that a task force to examine arts education policy jointly convened by one of the most influential education associations and a state-based network of arts educators would have been unimaginable. Now it is happening.

The Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and the National Governors Association (NGA) through its Center for Best Practices are partnering in the Common Core State Standards Initiative, in which the governors and the state commissioners of education from 48 states, 2 territories and the District of Columbia are developing a "common core" of K-12 state standards in English-language arts and mathematics. This is a landmark collaboration with potential to be enormously influential, setting a precedent for more work by top state policymakers on other aspects of education and on other subject areas.

Last week I received an invitation to join in an arts education task force meeting May 11-12 to discuss the idea of "common core arts standards." The task force is cosponsored by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the State Education Agency Directors of Arts Education (SEADAE) for the following purpose: "Given the states' role in framing and adopting standards for schools, SEADAE feels strongly that their participation in a Common Core Arts Standards initiative is critical: CCSSO wants to demonstrate the organization's commitment to arts education and to the Common Core Standards movement."

Certainly, research on the academic, social, school environment and, most recently, brain-strengthening benefits of arts education has contributed to appreciation of the value of arts education since the mid-1980s, when the NGA education task force did not even include the arts as a core academic subject. But I think it is also worthwhile—especially for NASAA members, our National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) partners, and our foundation and national service organization colleagues—to note how the building of an infrastructure that included and supplemented the organized arts teachers has broadened appreciation for the value of arts education in some key education leadership groups. (Note also the College Board's National Task Force on the Arts in Education and its publication, Arts at the Core: Recommendations for Advancing the State of Arts Education in the 21st Century.)

Over a 15-year period, factors contributing to the evolution of a SEADAE-CCSSO task force have included the long-term participation of CCSSO as a comanaging partner (with NASAA) of the Arts Education Partnership (AEP) and the physical location of AEP staff and meetings in the CCSSO office building. When NASAA received a grant from the Packard Foundation for a project entitled "The Arts Education Leadership Network Initiative," I invited colleagues from the NEA, AEP and the Kennedy Center to jointly oversee project activities. One of the things we did was underwrite a national gathering of state department of education fine arts consultants to jump-start that network's revitalization; it is now incorporated as SEADAE. The NEA, for many years a supporter of professional development for state arts agency arts education managers, has now invested in strengthening the SEADAE network as well.

Even though it seems perfectly logical for education leaders and arts leaders to meet together at times when important policy decisions are being considered, there must be familiarity, mutual understandings and convenient, representative networks in operation for this to take place. In this case, creation of AEP—a national forum to advance arts education—by the U.S. Department of Education and the NEA, followed by their annual funding and additional investments by private foundations spanning three presidential administrations, has generated broad stakeholder participation and put in place the infrastructure that facilitates the necessary working relationships. Both NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have confirmed that they will address the upcoming AEP national forum in Washington, D.C., April 9-10. (I have the honor of introducing Landesman.)

At the state level, the state arts agency is one of the few sources of support for cultural infrastructure. Effective associations, networks, convenings and planning processes enable constituents to identify and adapt to the changing forces in their environment, help them learn from each other's experience, help them find new partners and new resources, and allow them to form new collaborations among themselves. When facing budget constraints, state arts agency leaders need to balance the effects of their decisions not only on grants and on services, but also on the infrastructure they help create and help sustain.

As always, I look forward to your comments, questions and suggestions.