The Arts Come Back to Class

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Gregory Lawrence Jefferson was a fifth-grader at Daniel Webster Elementary in Pasadena when he heard the sound that changed his life. After the Pasadena Symphony played at his school, the kids were invited to try the various instruments. “I was the one who picked up the flute,” he says. “It was like a spark.”

He talked his parents into buying him one, started band and orchestra classes, and “things just took off from there.” Jefferson, now 24 and a renowned classical flutist who has performed worldwide and with singers ranging from Luciano Pavarotti to Diana Ross, says he was lucky to get a taste of the arts when he did: Not long afterward, school programs were radically cut back.

The arts have long struggled to hold their place in schools. But now, after years of being battered by funding crunches and a back-to-basics movement, they are beginning to return to classrooms alongside reading, writing and arithmetic.


While some are ready to declare a renaissance in arts education, others are more cautious. They see frustratingly uneven progress. But clearly change is taking place.

* The State Board of Education in January adopted standards that for the first time spell out what students need to know to develop and demonstrate literacy in dance, music, theater and the visual arts, just as in languages, math, science, history and social science. Though short of a mandate, it is a step toward integrating the arts into the public schools’ core curriculum.

* Admissions requirements at the state’s public universities are being amended to require more arts instruction in high school.

* In February, the state PTA launched “SMARTS: Bring Back the Arts,” an awareness and advocacy campaign targeted at legislators, school boards, media and parents with a goal of seeing that every public school student gets quality arts education from pre-kindergarten through grade 12. Last October the 1.8 million-member organization adopted arts education as its top priority.

* Statewide, 211 school districts have received a total of $6 million in California Department of Education grants, seed money to help them start implementing effective arts programs.

* A 10-year Arts Education Plan adopted by the Los Angeles Unified School District in 1999 recognizes the “powerful role” of the arts in education and has as a primary goal that every graduating senior will be proficient in one art form and have an overview of arts throughout history.


* Last week, the L.A. school board gave final approval to an $18.6-million budget for arts education, up $5 million from last year. “We fought for it,” school board president Caprice Young said. “It was controversial because the superintendent did not initially include the arts money in his budget. We amended it back in.”

Despite signs of a revival, there are significant issues confronting the integration of the arts into curriculum. Some educators worry that the growing focus on learning that can be measured solely by standardized tests presents a threat to subjects in which assessment is more subjective. And, pressed to meet testing goals, schools may well continue to give short shrift to the arts in favor of subjects that produce hard numbers. Other issues range from a shortage of qualified teachers to ongoing financial pressures on schools.

“It’s going to be a long haul before we have universal acceptance, but I think we’re on the road to arts education for every child,” said Don Doyle, arts consultant at the state Department of Education. “We have moved from the doldrums of the ‘80s and early ‘90s and now are pressing forward to making arts education an equal partner in the curriculum.”

Current developments are in stark contrast to the dark days for the arts in schools, a decline that began after passage in 1978 of Proposition 13, the property tax freeze. The freeze sapped funding to schools and, in the scramble for dollars, the arts were seen as frills. Schools cut programs, sold band instruments and gave pink slips to art and music teachers.

For many schools, arts education turned into a 20-year hit-or-miss proposition, a legacy not easily reversed. But arts organizations, parents groups and educators who have been fighting to bring back the arts feel they have won a crucial victory: a change in attitude about the importance of the arts in their own right and about their ability to foster creativity and shape learning in more subtle ways.

As school board president Young puts it: “If you have a kid who’s stood up in front of a crowd and sung, or painted a picture and shared it with classmates, that’s a kid who’s a courageous learner, someone who’s not afraid to dive in, ask probing questions and express opinions.”


A national survey conducted in February by Americans for the Arts, a New York-based arts advocacy organization, found that 91% of adults think the arts are vital to a well-rounded education for children, 95% agree that the arts teach creativity and self-expression and 89% think arts education is important enough to be included in the curriculum. In October, the group will launch a national public service campaign to champion art education and motivate parents to take action.

Among factors seen as influencing thinking about the arts is the emergence of studies finding links between music and, say, math reasoning. The studies and the relentless efforts by arts advocates, who even when the arts lost a formal place in the classroom found a way to get them in, have combined to catch the attention of policy makers.

In endorsing the new state standards, Delaine Eastin, state superintendent of public instruction, said that students must be prepared to fill the increasing number of arts-related jobs in California. The entertainment industry contributes more than $25 billion to the state’s economy.

Investing Mentally--and Financially

This school year, about one-fourth of LAUSD’s 400 elementary schools will have a prototype arts program--music, dance, theater, visual arts. In middle schools, there are arts specialists in place, but programs vary widely.

Richard Burrows, who joined LAUSD last year in the new position of director of arts education, says having state standards is “a remarkable step forward ... We are at a watershed moment.” He sees L.A. schools as beginning “an intensive journey” toward arts education for every child in the 730,000-student district.

The $5-million increase in the district’s arts budget, though still a small part of the overall budget, will enable schools to hire additional arts staff, acquire textbooks and other resource materials and to enhance and expand its development program for professionals.


Other California school districts are experiencing what Ella Steinberg, director of visual and performing arts for San Diego Unified, calls a “bit by bit” comeback after “a big decline.”

Jim Thomas, visual and performing arts coordinator for the Orange County Department of Education, says seven of the county’s 27 school districts, together serving most of the county’s 495,000 students, have a strong commitment to K-12 arts programs and have hired arts coordinators. In other districts, the quality of programming varies, with “concentrations of arts” here and there.

Two schools with intense concentrations are the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, which opened on the Cal State Los Angeles campus in 1985 and has 500 students and a waiting list, and the Orange County High School for the Arts, founded in 1987 at Los Alamitos High School and which moved last year to a site in Santa Ana. Each is open to students who have demonstrated exceptional talent.

In many districts, in-school programs presented in partnership with arts institutions and community groups have been an important component in keeping arts education alive.

When cutbacks came, L.A.’s Music Center, art museums and theaters brought the arts to hundreds of thousands of children who otherwise would have had no exposure. In Orange County, the Performing Arts Center, museums and theaters stepped in too.

And, even in the leanest years, the arts had a powerful ally in the PTA. Said state PTA president Jan Harp Domene, “We felt very strongly that if we brought arts back to our schools, it would give kids a reason to get up in the morning. Some kids need to have that little hook that gets them excited to get out of bed and go to school.”


The PTA cites statistics such as a study by the College Entrance Examination Board showing that students with four years of arts education outperformed peers with no arts education or arts work experience on the SAT--by 59 points on the verbal and 44 points on the math.

A UC Irvine study found that preschoolers who took eight months of keyboard lessons boosted their spatial reasoning scores by 46%. An Auburn University study found significant increases in self-concept among at-risk children participating in an arts program.

The recent Harvard Project Zero of Boston College and Harvard Graduate School of Education, found three areas with a reliable causal link between arts education and achievement in non-arts academics.

They are music and spatial-temporal reasoning; music and spatial reasoning; and classroom drama and verbal skills. The survey looked at almost 12,000 published and unpublished studies and suggests that correlations between excellence in other subjects may just be that high achievers also study the arts.

Further, the study warns, arts education should not be justified “in terms of what the arts can do for mathematics or reading.” That, it says, is a “double-edged sword”--the arts could quickly fall out of favor if they do not fulfill that secondary role.

Survey Finds a Reality Gap

Last spring, the first countywide study of the state of arts education in Los Angeles County schools, Arts in Focus, found a reality gap between how people assess the importance of arts education and what is being offered.


Commissioned by Arts for L.A., a coalition of arts leaders advocating public support of the arts, it was based on interviews with officials of 80 of the county’s 82 school districts.

Laura Zucker, executive director of L.A. County Arts Commission, one of the study funders, said: “One hundred percent of the people interviewed believe that arts education is important. What that says is that we’ve won the battle. Everyone’s with us now on the importance issue. But there’s a gulf between the belief and the implementation.”

Other findings: A shortage of qualified arts teachers, with one arts specialist for every 1,200 students countywide; no real incentives to develop sequential systems; and lack of instructional time.

Few of the county’s school districts reported that they are implementing the Department of Education’s framework and standards. “There’s nothing about them that’s mandatory, and they do not come with any resources for implementation,” Zucker said. “There is not one school among those in the study providing sequential arts education.”

The good news: The survey found that the county’s five most populous school districts--LAUSD, Pomona, Compton, Montebello and Long Beach--have arts education policies and future plans.

The Arts Commission has just brought on board a director of arts education programs who will work with a counterpart at the County Department of Education to help schools implement state standards.


“It’s definitely not hand-wringing time,” Zucker said. “The pendulum is swinging back, but it’s not going to keep swinging on its own momentum.” The pattern has been that when educators who are passionate about the arts leave, the arts leave with them. Zucker wants to see arts education institutionalized “so the next time the pendulum is getting ready to swing back, it doesn’t.”

The new admissions criteria at the UC and California State University systems may add stability. Now high school students can choose between one year of arts or foreign language classes to meet state graduation requirements.

By 2004, graduates will need at least one year in a single arts discipline to get into the state’s universities.

For Educators, Double Challenge

At one time, the arts were a dumping ground for students, said Larry Peeno, deputy executive director of the National Art Education Assn., a visual arts teachers’ group based in Reston, Va. The attitude was, “Give us your poor and downtrodden and we will make them artists. I think the arts community in the public schools has learned that that’s not a good idea.”

He said, “We were drawing on cave walls 9,000 years before we were writing on them. We feel that children who come to school on the first day, regardless of their socioeconomic background, bring with them innate skills that more closely resemble art, music and P.E. than they do reading, writing and arithmetic. But it’s ground out of them by third grade. The curriculum drives creativity underground.”

Still, Peeno said, 15 years ago, one or two states had a fine-arts requirement for graduation; now 30 do. Asked if there is cause for optimism, Peeno laughed and said, “Oh, yes. In the arts we deal in illusion.”


Gai Jones of El Dorado High in Placentia heads the California Educational Theater Assn., an organization of theater education advocates. “Our big push,” she said, is to get theater teachers credentialed. Of course, proper theaters in all schools would be nice too. Right now, she said, it “varies from the multipurpose room to a 1,200-seat auditorium to a room shared with volleyball or wrestling.”

The payoff for her, as a teacher, is when everything comes together and “the magic finally works.” One magic moment was the school’s spring production of “The Diviners,” in which there is a drowning scene, an illusion that had to be created without water.

“The kids that designed the lighting and ran the light board and the kids that ran the sound and the actors worked so closely together. Just to see the smile that crosses a theater kid’s face when he’s accomplished something he didn’t think he could do,” is tremendous, she said.

Jones remembers too a “wonderful, positive kid” who was a student in the ‘70s and played the mother abbess in “The Sound of Music.” Deborah Voigt is now a Metropolitan Opera soprano, teaching opera to young students.

John Larrieu, executive director of the California Assn. for Music Education, a public school teachers’ organization, said there has been a resurgence of music education. “Our biggest problem is that the teachers are not coming out of school. There was a good period of time after Proposition 13 when people didn’t major in music education.”

The result? “A very serious shortage of music teachers. Our job site is listing 50 or 60 openings that haven’t been filled for this year.” On the positive side, he said, orchestral programs are making a comeback, and “there’s a lot of interest in electronic music, which is a credit course in many schools, and a lot of multicultural focus in California. Mariachi education is moving in some areas.”


He is hopeful that the new UC and Cal State admissions standards will boost arts education but knows that when schools have options, “they have a tendency to offer the classes that cost the least money, like drawing. Music classes are notoriously more expensive,” and it’s cheaper to “offer another class in pottery.”

The executive director of the National Assn. for Music Education, John Mahlmann, sees the state of music education as better than a decade ago “but still threatened. We’re regaining lost ground. I’m not so sure we’re better off than we were 20 years ago.”

His organization is a consultant to “Sesame Street,” which is planning programming to expose young TV viewers to music. Overall, he describes the status of music in the schools as “precarious. We’re always on the verge of being eliminated.”

Donna Banning, president of the California Art Education Assn., an organization of teachers and parents promoting arts in the schools, said arts teachers are a “graying population” and wonders if there will be a cadre of qualified arts teachers in the future. Many artists, who might in another era have earned an education credential, have for years instead found other careers.

“Since Proposition 13, we now have teachers in the elementary schools who have never had art in their own lives. There is no longer a requirement for elementary teachers to take a music or arts education class in our state universities. They don’t have the skills. They’re afraid to sing and dance and draw.”

Banning, who has taught for 31 years at El Modena High School in Orange, would like too to see credentialing of theater and dance teachers. “Right now we have theater as part of language arts. Teachers can get a credential and never have theater arts. And dance is part of P.E. There are lots of ‘walk-on’ dance teachers” going from school to school.


She speaks of the thrill of seeing students “find that art is where they want to be” and going on to become artists. But she also mentions a special-ed student who came to her ceramics class as a shy ninth-grader and went on to be her teaching assistant, to mentor new students and to win recognition in juried exhibitions and sell her art.

Squeezing Art Between Tests

Although the state has set standards for arts education, the Legislature has not wanted to mandate assessment. “To be perfectly frank, we’re really in the beginning stages of determining what would be appropriate to assess,” said Doyle of the state Department of Education. To encourage districts to self-assess, the department, in cooperation with 30 districts, has developed a tool kit with guidelines for measuring achievement.

National and state standards notwithstanding, Doyle acknowledged that “if it’s not tested, it’s not taught. It’s not on the radar screen for some people. Those test scores for math and reading, there’s big dollars attached” for districts. “There are no such rewards right now for the arts.”

Frank Philip of the Washington-based Council of Chief State School Officers, a professional organization of superintendents of education in the 50 states, believes the momentum for arts education has actually “slipped somewhat” since a decade ago.

Specifically, he points to President Bush’s proposal, now before Congress, to require states to test all children in grades three through eight in math and reading, and how such legislation might lead to “a de-emphasis of concern for other areas.”

Philip sees arts education today as a victim of “benign neglect. There’s no conspiracy out there to diminish arts education. It’s just that people are frying other fish. I think we’re in a holding pattern,” with California as “one of the brighter spots.”


In Los Angeles, said school board president Young, “one of the advantages we have is that this is an arts town,” one with a large number of families working in the entertainment industry and a strong constituency for art.

Flutist Jefferson, who got his start at Webster Elementary, went on to L.A. High School for the Arts and won honors in the Music Center’s Spotlight competition, is among those adamant about interesting children in the arts.

His talent has taken him before audiences large and small. He has played before former President and Barbara Bush, in Japan and China and for kids in inner-city classrooms. “The arts are our culture,” he said. “It’s so important for kids to be exposed at a young age. If I had not been, who I am now and what I’d be doing would be very, very different, which is sort of frightening.”