Arts education in Chicago: From Desert to Oasis

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Paul Sznewajs

Paul Sznewajs

One bright light in the challenging work being done to improve Chicago’s public schools is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to ensure that the arts, in all its forms, are part of our children’s everyday experience in the classroom. 

Research consistently shows that the arts leverage student achievement and development far beyond raising test scores in reading and math; there is growing recognition that the arts contribute to essential 21st century skills like innovation, creativity, and critical thinking; Chicago has a spectrum of well-developed arts education resources that is probably the best in the nation; and new leadership has signaled its readiness to consider innovative ideas to improve schools here. 

Still, arts education has not played a big role in schools in Chicago or nationwide.  In fact, a virtual arts desert has spread into many schools over the last 30 years, including too many in Chicago, because the arts have been seen as insufficiently academic to be of great value.  By building on a remarkable body of work, much of it done over the past decade, Chicago has a unique opportunity to advance the arts in our schools and ensure that they make their full contribution to our children’s preparation for life.

 The case for the arts is clear. We now know that arts education strongly correlates to substantially better student engagement, academic performance, test scores, and college attendance, along with significantly decreased dropout rates and behavioral problems.  And we know that the correlations are strongest for low-income students, whose need is the greatest. 

New analysis shows that the influence of arts education is sustained for years into young adulthood.  Low-income youth who have had substantial arts education are much more likely to have gone to and finished college, hold promising jobs, and be active in their communities as young adults.  Recent science has shown key mental processes cultivated in the arts are present in all thinking and learning.  This suggests that the arts build cognitive capacities across many domains. 

If the keys to the future include creativity and innovation, schools badly need strategies to develop those higher order skills.  Testing math and reading is just not enough for this century.  Seeing and imagining the world in inventive ways is what the arts are about. 

The President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities just released a report calling for “Reinvesting in Arts Education: Winning America’s Future Through Creative Schools.”  No city in the country is better positioned to win the future by investing in arts education than Chicago.  We have a set of incomparable assets to build on: 

  • Beginning next fall, CPS students will have an additional 90 minutes each day that can be used for innovative arts learning opportunities.
  • CPS’s Guide for Teaching and Learning in the Arts is the most comprehensive in the country.  
  • We have a creative universe of more than 200 arts organizations that have built partnerships with many Chicago schools. 
  • There is a dedicated and well-prepared corps of teaching artists who already work in many schools to supplement those arts teachers. 
  • One tenth of CPS elementary schools are arts “magnet clusters,” neighborhood schools that have chosen the arts as a lever for their efforts to improve.
  • Arts integration, a strategy that marries the arts to teaching and learning across the curriculum, is more richly developed here than in any other city. 

The district’s new strategic plan clearly moves its goals beyond “the basics” to embrace creativity, global citizenship, self-confidence, and effective and literate communication, all of which are well-served by arts education.  Mayor Emanuel has made it clear that the arts are one of his education priorities.  The new school CEO, Jean-Claude Brizard, is committed to shattering the power of poverty to determine student success.  The mayor’s new commissioner of cultural affairs is the former director of the City’s successful Gallery 37 arts education program.   Our philanthropic community has a long and committed history of support for arts education in the schools.

Finally, Ingenuity Incorporated was recently established.  It caps a two-year effort by 400 volunteers, working as the Chicago Arts Learning Initiative, to engage all the forces working to advance the arts in our schools and be a continuing source of research and data on progress being made.
 
No city in the nation is in better position than Chicago to make the changes in policy and strategy needed to make the arts central to the education of each child in its public schools.  These are tough times, and, as the mayor has repeatedly pointed out, they call for hard choices and new ideas.  One of the best of the new ideas is to bring the power of the arts to every school.


Nick Rabkin is a senior research scientist at NORC at the University of Chicago, where he does research on the arts and arts education.

Paul Sznewajs is executive director of Ingenuity Incorporated Chicago.