Gotham Gazette

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The principal of St. Nicholas School in the Bronx makes it clear what she thinks of arts education when one of her teachers enters her office unbidden.

“Who’s watching your class?” the principal, Sister Aloysius, asks her teacher, Sister James.

“They’re having Art,” Sister James replies.

“Art,” the senior nun snorts. “Waste of time.”

“It’s only an hour a week,” Sister James replies.

“Much can be accomplished in 60 minutes.”

This exchange is near the beginning of John Patrick Shanley’s hit Broadway play, “Doubt,” and serves in part to establish the principal’s rigid character. But while the principal and the school may be fictional (“a parable,” Shanley calls it), the attitude is for real.

“Many educational leaders in New York City…do not value art as a core academic subject that requires time and the attention of…principals, teachers and parents,” concludes a report on arts education in New York City public schools (in pdf format) released by the City Council in June of 2003.

That report and three hearings of the education committee of the City Council picture arts education as spotty and undervalued, with inequitable resources, inadequate instruction, insufficient facilities, and a shortage of qualified arts educators -- but also find much to feel hopeful about: In the New York City public school system, “you can find absolute state-of-the-art enlightened arts education,” Richard Kessler, executive director of the Center for Arts Education, testified at the third of the council hearings last month. “It’s the best of times and the worst of times.”

From Anti-Art To "The Arts Administration"

The still-widespread attitude that the arts are a “frill” helps explain why funding for them always seems endangered. A New Yorker cartoon in 2003 depicted one caveman complaining to another: “Why is the arts budget always the first thing to be cut, when you know damn well it’s the only thing that separates us from the monkeys?” This was no joke during the 1970s fiscal crisis, when the arts were virtually eliminated from the city’s public schools; all art, music, drama and dance teachers were laid off. Although the city’s cultural institutions and individual artists tried to fill in the gaps, with the aid of newly-created private non-profit organizations like ArtsConnection and the Center for Arts Education, it took more than two decades before City Hall and the school system itself committed to restoring arts funding and the arts curriculum. The New York City Department of Education says it spent roughly $250 million for arts education in the last school year (out of a total budget of some $13 billion.)

It is a sign of progress that Sharon Dunn, who is newly in charge of arts education for the Department of Education, officially acknowledged that an anti-art attitude is part of the problem, though she couched this politely:

“One of the areas identified as most in need of development,” Dunn testified last month, “is the need to acquaint school administrators with the benefits and elements of arts education.”

Dunn’s testimony at the October 31 council hearing was intended to emphasize that the Bloomberg administration, Dunn said, “has made arts education a priority.” She gave as one small example among many the creation of a “cultural pass program for school leaders,” with funding from the Bank of America, that enables school principals and other educators to attend cultural events for free (which would presumably seduce them out of any bias.)

But the “embodiment of a deep commitment” by the mayor, chancellor and school system, she said, is the “Blueprint for Teaching and Learning in the Arts.”

This echoes statements that Mayor Michael Bloomberg made during his re-election campaign. In answer to a questionnaire by an education advocacy group (question 17), he wrote that he was “dedicated to developing and improving access to quality arts education for every public school student in our city.” Evidence of this commitment, he said, was that his administration “created and implemented the city’s first comprehensive kindergarten through twelfth grade art curriculum in visual arts, music, theater and dance.”

The New York Times more or less reiterated this point, in a laudatory article on the front page of the Arts and Leisure section entitled “The Arts Administration” that asserted that the Bloomberg administration "has done more to promote and support the arts than any in a generation" and singled out its “development of a mandated arts curriculum for public school students...the first of its kind since the city gutted arts education during the 1970's fiscal crisis.”

But that article itself has been criticized for its omissions (mostly involving criticism of Bloomberg budget cutbacks to cultural organizations) and for its timing -- just two weeks before the election. And, as the most recent hearing made clear, some critics see a sharp disconnect between what officials say and what actually exists.

Why Arts Education Is Not A Frill

It should be self-evident that learning to play a musical instrument or to appreciate a painting or to know how to respond to performances at Lincoln Center would give students a sense of discernment and delight that would last their entire lives. But merely providing a lifetime of pleasure and fulfillment seems a hard sell at a time when there is so much worry that American youth (all Americans, actually) are ill-prepared for the economic challenges of the future. The result of such concerns has been a emphasis on teaching "the basics" -- and on test scores.

The arts can easily seem an "obscure" consideration, said Richard Kessler, "when you look at the push being made in reading and math...and [at]the ways in which school leaders are evaluated" -- i.e. by test scores.

But if it may be difficult to test and grade individual achievement in the arts, the arts have been shown to offer concrete and measurable scholastic benefits. Research studies (in pdf) indicate that involvement in the arts –- whether in school or after school; as a participant or a spectator -- enhances young people’s ability to learn in other subjects. Sustained participation in music, for example, was shown to be connected to success in mathematics; and participating in theater was correlated with success in reading. One study found that young people exposed to the arts are far more likely to be recognized for academic achievement, to participate in a math or science fair, and to win an award for writing an essay or a poem.

The arts have proven a reliable way of reaching students who, for one reason or another, were alienated from their studies. The arts involve parents and other members of the community in a way that other “schoolwork” usually cannot.

The arts also can develop empathy and instill confidence in young people, and (in the words of the City Council report) “provides them with a language to understand and contribute to the world around them.” This was demonstrated in an especially compelling way in Born Into Brothels, an Academy Award-winning documentary about the children of prostitutes, whose lives were transformed when they were taught how to take photographs.

To Xanthe Jory, executive director of the Bronx Charter School for the Arts, "the arts can be a catalyst for change, not only in individual students, but also in the life of the school."

The City's Blueprint For Teaching And Learning In The Arts

The core of the city’s efforts in arts education is called Project ARTS (standing for Arts Restoration Throughout the Schools), and the core of Project ARTS are the recently-completed blueprints for the arts -– there is one blueprint each for theater, for visual arts, for music and for dance.

In each of the four artistic fields, and in every grade, the blueprints offer five “strands” of learning that begin with the making of art, but go beyond it. A well-rounded arts education would mean growing mastery in all five approaches. To use the terminology that the blueprints use, the five elements include (with examples randomly selected from the blueprints to illustrate):

1. “Making Art”
In theater, for example, students are expected to achieve certain “benchmarks” in each grade, in acting, directing, designing, technical work and playwriting. Second-grade actors, for example, should be able to “make appropriate use of costumes and props in activities, sharings and performances” while fifth-grade actors should “demonstrate the ability to memorize spoken word and staging within a performed work” and eighth-grade actors would be able to “apply a knowledge of the characteristics of various genres in performance, including tragedy, comedy, farce, improvisation and musical theater.”

2. “Literacy in the Arts”
In the visual arts, a 12th grader would be asked to “identify issues raised by a controversial work of art,” and expected to know enough about art history and the vocabulary used in interpreting a painting to write both a review of a museum exhibition, and “wall text, labels, catalogues and promotional materials for a student-curated exhibition.”

3. “Making Connections”
A fifth-grade music student learning how to play “This Land Is Your Land” could be assigned to research the period in which Woody Guthrie composed the song, what issues engaged him, and how his song compares to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” The student, while improvising harmonies for “Ode To Joy,” could be assigned to explore other examples of harmony – in poetry, in painting, in architecture. The connections being made are to other fields and to society in general.

4. “Working With Community And Cultural Resources”
A dancer in the eighth grade would be asked to attend professional dance performances and report on them for her schoolmates, or use the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts to research American social dances.

5. “Exploring Careers And Lifelong Learning”
The point here, said Sharon Dunn, is to drive home to the student that “as you learn to look at art and find that you have a passion for it, there's actually a place at the end of this path [where] you can earn a living.”

But Dunn stresses that an arts education is for every student, not just those who might one day become professionals, and the blueprints should also function as resources for teachers in every discipline.

Falling Short

At the recent City Council hearing, Eva Moskowitz, the chair of the council’s education committee, seemed unimpressed with the blueprints. "I'm all for being ambitious," she said at one point, "but given...the fact that there's chaos in many of our schools, it just seems like I'll have great grandchildren before we'll have this implemented...I mean we barely have schools that have bands."

Moskowitz and other members of the council were especially taken aback when Dunn said she did not know what percentage of the public schools currently offer their students an excellent arts education -- nor, when pushed, would she offer an estimate or even hazard a guess.

"I find it profoundly troubling," Moskowitz said, "that either they don’t want to say that only five percent of their schools are meeting the standard...or they honestly don’t know."

While Bloomberg talks of having “created and implemented” a “comprehensive” curriculum, in other words, there’s proof only of the blueprint having been created, not implemented, and, to Moskowitz and others, the blueprint is not even really a curriculum (much less a comprehensive one) but a sometimes vaguely-worded and often obvious set of goals and guidelines.

At the hearing, and in its report, the education committee enumerated other concrete challenges, among them a lack of such facilities as art or dance studios, an inadequate supply of basic material and equipment such as musical instruments, and a shortage of arts teachers. Some 150 public schools –- more than one in ten -- still have no full-time arts teachers of any kind. (Currently, there are reportedly 2,343 licensed art teachers across the city, including only 136 teaching theater and 124 teaching dance.) While the school system is hoping to hire more, they are having trouble finding them, in part because schools of education (taking their cue from New York City’s long-time lack of interest) eliminated their programs to train arts teachers. To make things worse, Richard Kessler observed, “we are hearing regularly from schools where arts specialists are being let go.”

If there is one Web site that offers the most compelling information about the state of arts education in New York City public schools, it is probably not the Department of Education’s pages on the blueprint for teaching and learning in the arts, but DonorsChoose , a site that tries to match classroom needs with individual philanthropists. Here an elementary school teacher in the Bronx asks for help in taking her students on a trip to visit the Guggenheim Museum, and one in Brooklyn asks for help in funding a similar trip to the Brooklyn Museum. A middle school teacher in Queens asks for a few hundred dollars to build a theater library: “Our kids are talented, creative, and energetic. Most of them have never seen a play, much less been a part of one.” A high school teacher in Brooklyn asks for money for three-dollar magic markers. “Our markers have run dry. The students are eager to finish their intricate design work but there is no money for new markers… This is just one more frustration and disappointment in ... lives that are full of substandard supplies and facilities.”