Arts education essential for city’s future

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Bruce Taylor

Bruce Taylor

In the recent series of neighborhood cultural conversations convened as part of the Chicago Cultural Plan 2012, the theme of “Ensuring K-12 Arts Education” was a dominant topic of discussion. Yet, the majority of attendees expressed their consensus regarding the dismal record of Chicago Public Schools in this area by giving it an overall grade of “D” in terms of its support of the arts for Chicago’s students. In spite of assertions made that the extended school day would result in expanded time for the arts, in reality it appears that the reverse is projected for the next school year.

Guidelines recently published show extended reading and math blocks, along with more time for science instruction—but only an additional 50 minutes per week for physical education, library time, technology and the arts combined.

Indeed, at one such neighborhood get-together, part of the Cultural Plan’s gestation, a CPS arts specialist revealed that her cumulative instructional time had been cut by 25% for next year and that she is burdened by teaching duties outside her instructional domain–and that half her salary had to come from sources other than CPS. Further, in keeping with each principal’s use of discretionary funds, building administrators will have wide latitude on allocation of the additional time.  So it seems that arts education will be embraced only by the pre-disposed – a diminishing cohort of educators. In fact, the continuing downward spiral I had predicted in my earlier comments published by Catalyst Chicago last August.

 But there are two elements that illustrate the arts education paradox – Common Core State Standards and the 21st Century economy.  CPS policy-makers are assiduously engaged in developing fresh curricula aligned with the new standards being adopted by all but three states. The interesting aspect of Common Core is the mindset revealed by looking at the “anchor” standards, for example, in reading.  While the assessments for Common Core have yet to be finalized, we can get clues as to what their foundation will be.

If you scan the first introductory page for the reading standards portion of the Common Core, you will come across such terms as “analyze, evaluate, interpret, interact, use, develop, compare, comprehend, and demonstrate understanding.” What do these terms reveal?  That kids will be required to think more than to know, to understand more than to recall, to transfer knowledge into unfamiliar contexts, and to create more than follow directions.  Future assessments will determine to what degree students acquire these capabilities. Remembering things will no longer be adequate for success as capable adults. Why? As quoted in John Kendall’s book Understanding Common Core State Standards, so that “our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy.”

Informing a paradigm shift

And what will that economy look like?  A driving force behind today’s economy is the Internet – itself a visual and aural artistic medium that compels us to interact with cultures different from our own whether we want to or not.  As proposed by Daniel Pink in his book Drive, 70% of tomorrow’s employment opportunities will require that employees be self-directed, creative, collaborative, media-literate, and culturally sensitive.  These capacities are collectively identified as 21st Century skills.  It is instructive that the action words cited in the previous paragraph about anchor standards also conform to these skill sets.  However, the singular challenge in teaching them is that they are not oriented towards pre-determined outcomes.  In other words, innovation, creativity, collaboration, etc. pre-suppose unexpected results that require imagination, adaptation, and flexibility in response. CPS will have to do a major overall in how teachers teach, how they are evaluated and how students learn in order to achieve success.

So, how can the city’s cultural plan and CPS’ upcoming paradigm shift inform each other?  Participants involved in the cultural plan’s activities overwhelmingly endorsed the need to ensure K-12 arts education.  Will the city’s policy makers, in particular the mayor, address this deep yearning on the part of their constituents?  The mayor of this city has his hands on the levers of power and influence for both the school system and the cultural future of Chicago. Without robust arts education, the city’s cultural future will be drained of promise.  Without the skills acquired through artistic habits of mind, our children will be ill-equipped to compete in a global economy.

In spite of their year-to-year fiscal struggles, CPS and city agencies need to work in concert over the long term, to try new ways in which the arts can contribute to residents’ quality of life and enable their children to accomplish things that matter to others.  Together, everyone who cares about the city, about kids, and about the arts needs to embrace the proposition that, in the words of David Engleman in his book Incognito, The Secret Lives of the Brain, “Ideas always need to be proposed and nurtured as possibilities until evidence weighs in one way or the other.”  To this I would add that such risks must be taken because the “quo” of the status no longer exists.

Bruce Taylor is a consultant and the author of “The Arts Equation” published by Watson-Guptil. He has served as a cultural envoy for the U.S. State Department and as the director of education for Washington National Opera.

RELATED LINKS

Principal’s guidelines for longer day

Chicago Public Schools resource page on longer day

National Center on Time & Learning

Catalyst In Depth, Summer 2010: Time in School