Gotham Gazette

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Arts Education

Arts education means many different things across the city’s 1200 public schools, as a recent City Council report makes clear. Dancers might be hired to teach “movement” to first graders to harness their excess energy; history teachers might take high school students to the Metropolitan Museum’s “Art of the First Cities” exhibition for a long perspective on the Middle East. In District 25, in Queens, students create multimedia works that do double-duty as lessons about technology and Shakespeare. Overall, however, the City Council concluded that funding, resources, and facilities for arts education remain woefully inadequate.

Though all schools receive funding through Project A.R.T.S. (Arts Restoration Throughout the Schools), each school principal chooses how to allocate the funds, whether for professional development, an arts coordinator, programming, or purchase of equipment and resources. Financially strapped schools often tap into Projects A.R.T.S. money for basic needs, since current regulations do not require that funds earmarked for the program are actually spent on arts. According to Department of Education figures, in 2002 only $12.5 million of the $52 million Project A.R.T.S. funding went toward arts education. Schools Chancellor Joel Klein wants to build more accountability into arts education. As part of his efforts to reorganize and streamline the system, Klein plans to implement a uniform arts curriculum by the fall of 2004. Standards will be created to assess arts programs, and the city will track how the $67.5 million Project A.R.T.S. budget is spent on a school by school basis.

Regional Arts Supervisors
From her “Office of Strategic Partnerships” at the Board of Education, Caroline Kennedy will oversee the new arts curriculum. According to Kennedy’s advisor, Leslie Koch, Kennedy will work to “strengthen the relationships between schools and the city’s many arts institutions and artists.” This will likely mean seeking private funding to supplement Project A.R.T.S. money; already, some of the most ambitious school arts programs are funded by the Department of Cultural Affairs, private foundations, or large cultural institutions. The New York City Arts in Education Roundtable estimates that 60 percent of funding for arts programming in schools comes from cultural institutions and community organizations.

With the shift from school districts to regions, regional arts supervisors will oversee as many as 100 schools and all age groups. Already, the average pupil-to-art-teacher ratio in is 610 to 1. Some arts educators worry that the supervisors will be overwhelmed under the new regional structure, but Koch argues they will have the advantage of “being able to think about the whole gambit of arts education, from kindergarten through graduation.”

Arts Standards
Standards-based assessment has become the new mantra for educational reform. A national review of arts education in 1997 revealed that most students’ exposure to the arts was sporadic and lacked any coherent plan. This finding prompted the creation of assessment tools for desired outcomes of basic arts learning, under the rubrics of creating, performing, and interpreting the arts.

The standards are surprisingly specific. In evaluating movement skills among students from kindergarten to fourth grade, they include: “students create movements at low, middle, and high levels” and “students use improvisation to discover and invent movement.” For theater education among the same age group, students are expected to “imagine and clearly describe characters, their relationships, and their environments” and “visualize environments and construct designs to communicate locale and mood.”

By high school, dance students are expected to be able to “project” (demonstrate movement and meaning to audiences) and theater students are expected to “design coherent theater management and marketing plans.”

Under the direction of Angelo Gimondo, the outgoing superintendent of District 30 in Jackson Heights who will become senior instructional manager for the arts, the city has just one year to come up with an arts curriculum and uniform standards to judge its success. Working committees made up of education and artists will focus on each of four disciplines -- visual arts, dance, theater, and music.

But, as demonstrated by the national effort, assessing the efficacy of something as subjective and varied as arts education is challenging (we’ve learned in recent weeks that even math tests can be flawed). In addition, arts learning is freighted with multiple expectations in a way that math or science are not. Research has found that involving students in creative activities can improve their overall academic performance. For troubled students, the arts can build self-confidence or provide direction. Particularly in New York’s diverse classrooms, arts activities are often the media through which discussions about racial or cultural difference occur. After 9/11, creative writing and role-playing became a kind of collective therapy for thousands of shell-shocked students. Art performances or programs are often a vehicle for involving parents or other community members in schools.

Ron Russell, the former education director for Theater for a New Audience and current artistic director of Epic Theater Center, says that art activities have virtue as a process of “consistent reflection.” When a young person tries to learn a song on the guitar, for example, they must pay close attention, check their progress, and assess the results. Russell has found that the repetition and revision of creative activity is often difficult for students to grasp (“I just did that,” his drama students when asked to read a line of dialogue again). Making art -- with its cycle of preparation, rehearsal, and production -- can be a useful model for most kinds of work.

Making Arts Part of the Core
During the fiscal crisis of the 1970s, arts programs were zeroed out from the city’s education budget, and there was no system-wide funding for the next two decades. It is a sign of the times that no one is considering doing away with arts education today, thanks in part to the high-profile role accorded to “creativity,” broadly defined, in the new economy.

Martha Hostetter writes for American Theatre magazine.

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