In March, the board of the Los Angeles Unified School District took a big step toward securing the future of arts education in the city’s schools. Moving ahead of other districts in the state, the board approved ambitious learning standards for music, dance, theater and visual arts. They define what all students should know and be able to do at various grade levels and upon graduation. On June 15, the board can help foster a renaissance of arts education in the city by approving the essential funding to meet these goals.
For the past 25 years, the arts in Los Angeles schools have been treated as the dispensable piece of the K-12 curriculum, often being the first casualty of cutbacks and seen as a recreational activity offering little substance. As a result, a generation of students has graduated without the skills a strong arts education provides.
The new standards reflect a much more comprehensive approach to arts education than in the past, requiring students both to create and interpret works of art. Students will learn to organize their thoughts and feelings into effective performance and verbal, visual and musical expression. At the same time, students will learn to gain meaning through the study of works by accomplished artists. They will come to see how art reflects and shapes the culture from which it comes as they consider not only how the work was created but why. They can understand better not only their own culture but those of their classmates. The capacity of the arts to bridge cultural differences is critical to the future of a city as diverse as Los Angeles.
The board’s approval of the standards signals its resolve that the arts are as crucial as science, math, language, history or any other academic subject, providing not only essential subject matter but also broad-based skills in critical thinking and problem-solving that carry over into other core subjects. A recent UCLA study showed that academic grades, standardized test scores, measured reading levels and attitudes about commitment to community all are higher for students who maintain high levels of activity in the arts, regardless of parental education or income level.
Business leaders, too, have observed that arts education develops in prospective workers valuable collaborative and teamwork skills, technological competencies, flexible thinking and appreciation of diversity. As the Southern California economy becomes dominated increasingly by arts and entertainment-related industries, more and more jobs, from digital animation to graphic design, demand workers with a strong education in the arts.
On June 15, the board will consider a budget proposal that could begin to bring the arts back to our schools. If approved, the proposal will provide training to teachers and principals about the new standards and how best to implement them. Other funds will go for the purchase of art supplies, materials and equipment and to hire specialists to provide expertise and technical support to teachers.
The proposal before the board is a modest but important first step. Clearly, the district must make a more comprehensive commitment before all students will be assured the arts education they need and deserve.
Community arts organizations and the private sector have an essential role to play, too. A blue ribbon committee of arts and education leaders has been convened to assist the district in obtaining additional funding for arts education and in better aligning our community arts resources in support of the district’s goals.
All of us, as citizens of Los Angeles, hold a vested interest in strong school board support for arts education.