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Pin the Tail on the Arts Education Donkey: Where Does Opera Fit in K-12 Public Education Today?
Richard Kessler
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Opera America Magazine9/1/2009

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Annual Yearly Progress. NCLB. ELL. Merit Pay. Alternative Certification. Teach for America. Performance Assessment. Credit Recovery. CTE. The Achievement Gap. PISA. International Baccalaureate. Charter Schools. Graduation Rates. IEP. Mayoral Control. Principal Empowerment. STEM.

These are just a few of the terms of art found in K-12 public education in America today.

So, you're at an opera company. Perhaps you're director of education, or chair of the education committee or even general director, and you're wondering what, if anything, your K-12 education programs could or should be doing differently to connect to and address key issues. You know the discourse on K-12 public education has changed dramatically in the past few years, but you're not exactly sure how your opera company's approach should change in response. What you read in the newspaper often seems worlds away from what you thought you knew about schools.

Much of the field of arts education as we know it began in the mid-1970s. Before then, things were relatively simple, as the vast majority of public schools provided a quality music education, and while there were certainly concerns back then over equality, test scores, dropout prevention, etc., it was a much easier time to connect with public schools. For the most part, opera companies and symphony orchestras offered student matinees.

The 70s onward witnessed a significant period of decline in music and arts education, caused by a nasty cocktail: part budget, part values and part policy. Some districts suffered significant fiscal issues, leading to layoffs of arts teachers, which urban districts in particular have never recovered from. The once deep pre-service training programs for elementary classroom teachers, which established rudimentary knowledge of piano, fell by the wayside, partly a result of policies intended to ensure that only certified arts teachers teach the arts. And of course, reading and math, the most easily measured subjects, with longest standing histories of testing based upon standardized measurements, grew increasingly dominant as the real core subjects on the basis of practice and politics. This led to the relegating of subjects such as music, art, theater and even science to the very back of the school bus. Some know this as the "back to basics movement."

Today, K-12 education has a lot of haves and have-nots: The issue that concerns people in the arts field the most is that of equity. Quality of instruction and access is a major issue too. While it's easy to quip that there is no music in the schools, well, in fact, that's just not accurate. Rather, it is a Dickensian world, the best of times and the worst of times, one where on average, suburban districts do a much better job of providing the arts than urban districts, and schools with populations on the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum, as well as low-performing schools, often deny their students a well-rounded education that includes the arts.

And of course, the rub is that many of the kids in low-performing schools are often in poor neighborhoods, where parents are unable to provide arts outside of school, so you end up with the situation that Arne Duncan, U.S. education secretary, has so ably described: "Children who often need the most access have it the least."

Today, K-12 public schools have become a proving ground for those who espouse a free market in schools. Where once such theories were the province of for-profit business, public schools are now less about subject matter and more about systems of change and theories of free market and competition.

In 1955, the economist Milton Friedman wrote a piece envisioning a free market school system. Today's charter schools vouchers and choice are closely related to the Friedman vision. What is more, certain things that have been commonplace in the for-profit world, such as merit pay, have now been brought into the world of K-12 public education. The merit pay in this case is almost certainly tied or intended to be tied to standardized test scores in reading and math. Those test scores, essentially, are the market indicators.

Up until very recently, schools and school systems were known as being hierarchical, from the elected school board to the superintendent, and what is in effect a chain of command leading downwards to the school principal, eventually to the classroom teacher. Today, the landscape is more and more about school principals who are being empowered to run schools without interference from above (the principal as CEO), or below (the teachers and parents); charter schools (outside of the school district supervision); and variants of choice, meaning charter schools, vouchers and other interventions that disrupt the old notion of schools zoned to admit children within certain geographic boundaries (the neighborhood school). This is best exemplified by one big city mayor, who when recently referring to the local school system said, "Show me competition and I will show you improvement."

But wait, there's more! However, I think you've got the point, being that the K-12 landscape is on the surface less friendly to the arts than before, constantly changing and more political than ever. If policy makers are talking less about subject matter, and more about technical and political solutions, where does music and opera fit in?

Naturally, there is no simple answer to navigating these waters. That being said, there are a few approaches to consider that can help ensure that you and your company are connected to the schools in a way that helps provide the mission critical context necessary for well-informed decision making.

Establish an advisory committee of local K-12 educators, school board members, teachers, parents and even students. This could be a free-standing committee or an expansion of an already-existing education committee. I am often surprised by how many cultural organizations involved with K-12 education have what is really marginal representation from the K-12 community in its umbrella of board and advisory committees. It's a great opportunity to expand your community while gaining access to key "intel" from those in the K-12 trenches.

Conduct a needs assessment. People love to be asked their expert opinion. This is a great way to gauge what matters most to your K-12 education community. It's key to understanding the nexus between what the schools want and need and what your company has to offer. Technology has made these types of research approaches much easier to do via Web-based software such as Survey Monkey. There is a pretty wide spectrum here, from the lighter touch which resembles market surveys to a full bore needs assessment that might be used to develop a new education plan.

Think about new programs for school leaders. While programs for principals have traditionally been challenging, due in large part to the time constraints placed upon school leaders, these days principals and assistant principals are being granted greater authority and responsibility than ever before. It's a good idea to recalibrate what you offer and how you relate to these educators who make the key decisions.

For many arts education advocates, the area of 21st-century skills, something that falls smack into the category of "everything old is new again," is just the anchor they've been looking for amidst the sturm und drang. Spearheaded by a national organization, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, P21 as it's known in the field, is sweeping the state departments of education, partnering with politicians, administrators, educators and businesses to rewrite state learning standards. These rewritten learning standards are promoting a framework that "presents a holistic view of 21st-cent
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About the Author: Richard Kessler is executive director of The Center for Arts Education in New York City.
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