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Thursday, March 15, 2012

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Executive Director's Column

Advocating for Arts Education: Three Strategies

NASAA Executive Director Jonathan Katz

As readers of Notes may know, NASAA manages a cooperative agreement funded by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) to provide state arts agency arts education managers with professional development activities. This tremendously productive and long-term partnership has contributed greatly to the knowledge, skills and effectiveness of what has become a mutually supportive network of arts education leaders informed by national perspective and federal colleagues. Recently, the advisory group that plans the professional development agenda each year met in Washington, D.C., and I had the opportunity to speak with them and our NEA friends. Here are some headlines from that discussion, underscoring the value of arts learning and the importance of state arts agency leadership.

Although a growing body of evidence, in the form of research and successful program models, demonstrates the uniquely valuable learning benefits that it provides, arts education continues to be viewed as optional in the curriculum and marginalized in terms of required resources. This is in spite of endorsement by education leaders, many successful programs and their positive evaluation, good research documenting the benefits of arts learning, and the widespread approval by legislation or policy of state standards for arts education. I therefore have three strategic recommendations for advocates of arts education.

I. The Arts as Essential Symbol System

My first recommendation is to figure out how to persuade decision makers to align their resource and policy decisions with the truth that learning and communicating with sensory images is as valuable as learning and communicating with numbers and words. This is the subject of compelling arguments by Sir Ken Robinson, Daniel Pink and others who link arts learning with imagination and creativity skills. It needs to be a theme of common-sense conversations between advocates (parents, teachers, business leaders, etc.) and education decision makers.

The arts are, in addition to being areas of academic content (like mathematics and literature), a unique symbol system (like numbers and words). Sensory images enable students to learn all other subjects. When we learn the arts, we become aware of how we can use our senses to perceive, create, make meaning and judgments, communicate and make beauty. How many things that we do or think about do not draw upon a combination of imagery, literacy and numeracy? For an educator to think that any one or two of these symbol systems is sufficient, or so important that they should exclude learning the third, is to make a mistake that diminishes the potential of every student and tragically reduces the ability of many students to succeed in school and the workplace. It's not easy to talk about "symbol systems" in an environment of sustained budget shortfalls. But nothing less than the future success of our work force is at stake. Until advocates of arts learning make our value proposition clear, we will be fighting an uphill battle for resources regardless of state or federal financial conditions.

II. The Arts as Integral in STEM (STEAM)

Second, we must be more precise and effective in our communication about the value that arts learning adds to the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects. Anyone who reviews what the Lincoln Center Institute calls "capacities for imaginative learning"—including noticing deeply, making connections, identifying patterns, exhibiting empathy, living with ambiguity and taking action—would understand how closely artistic skills match those needed for brainstorming hypotheses and designing experiments, solving problems and the innovative application of knowledge. Anyone who reviews the 21st Century Skills Map would perceive how integral arts learning is to applying STEM knowledge in school and work.

There are many ironies in a policy emphasis on STEM subjects that does not explicitly include the arts. One irony is that when professionals in the STEM subjects produce valuable concepts, products and innovations, it is because they are behaving as artists. When scientists recently adapted three-dimensional visualization software to advance their ability to replicate a key enzyme in combating HIV/AIDS, they were using artistic skills. When information technologists translate data into graphs or maps or videos in order to train or persuade, they are using artistic skills. When engineers create an assembly line, match the work and people flow for a building or factory with structures and materials, or engage a community in the development of a bridge, park or transportation system, they are using artistic skills.

Another irony is that federal and state policies that incentivize STEM without including the arts miss high-payoff opportunities to grow the economy and improve American competitiveness. There is extensive evidence that the "creative industries"—variously defined as including design, music and other performing arts, fashion, film, interactive software, publishing, television and radio—are among the fastest, if not the fastest, growing sector of jobs and wealth creation in the economies of developed nations (see examples). The creative sector is, of course, heavily populated by workers with STEAM (A for arts) education and arts degrees. Aren't we handicapping our workers—and our entire economy—if we fail to prepare them for an arts-rich global work environment? As Bob Lutz, former CEO of General Motors, who addressed NASAA at our national conference in Detroit, has said, "A car is an exciting mobile sculpture that you want to own, drive and be seen in. That's why [auto-industry] comeback stories are always design-driven."

III. Models of Influence

My third suggestion is to establish an infrastructure capable of representing the value of arts education at every governmental level where decisions are made about education—federal, state and local.

At the federal level, the Cultural Advocacy Group (CAG) is the coalition of national associations (including NASAA) that each year sets common budget goals and the policy agenda that the constituencies of the federal arts agencies will take to Congress. A subgroup of CAG agrees upon legislative goals for federal support of arts education with a primary focus on programs within the U.S. Department of Education, and leads the work to implement those goals.

Another important national coalition, the Arts Education Partnership, brings together stakeholders in the arts, education, arts education, and a broad range of business, civic, philanthropic and government interests to function as the nation's forum for arts education research and policy analysis. Its governance committee represents the National Endowment for the Arts, the U.S. Department of Education, NASAA and the Council of Chief State School Officers. Another hundred organizations that are national or have national impact participate in the advisory committee and the network of member groups.

State leadership is likewise essential. Most key decisions about education policy are made at the state level. State arts agencies and their allies must promote policies that advance arts learning, but policy language alone is insufficient. We must also enforce or incentivize local implementation of those policies, which many state arts agency studies have shown to be uneven. Arts education stakeholders in each state must ask themselves what model of influence is necessary to influence actual practice at the local district level.  

It will take purposeful, strategic and long-term collaboration on the part of many stakeholder groups to establish the arts as a valued symbol system in American education, to integrate the arts in STEM policy and funding, and to put in place the coalitions of influence that arts education merits. Such cooperation will build the public value and sustain the resources necessary to provide all American students with the arts education they need to excel in school, work and life. State arts agencies are essential contributors to these collaborations. For these reasons, the support of professional development for the national network of state arts agency arts education managers is one of the most important collaborations between the NEA and the state arts agencies.