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Ask not what arts education can do for you. Ask what you can do for arts education.
by Laura Day Giarolo, Manager of Education & Community Engagement, OPERA America
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Original Content2/1/2011

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This past month saw the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s historic inaugural address, and the beginning of the 50th anniversary celebrations for the performing arts center that bears his name: The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

January also saw President Barack Obama’s second State of the Union address, which featured improvements to and investment in education as a key component of “winning the future.” Most educational authorities expect a renewed emphasis to be placed on STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) as reauthorization for the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) is considered by the 112th Congress. The American entrepreneurial spirit has thrived in the idea economy through technological innovation, and further development of imagination, creativity and innovation is increasingly seen as a core component of college- and career-readiness. How can these areas all be elevated through educational reform?

A key way in which children may develop these skills is through educational experiences in the arts, which are included in the definition of the core academic subjects of learning under the ESEA. Yet the most-recently authorized version of ESEA (known as No Child Left Behind, which was authorized in 2001) places such significant emphasis on improvements in standardized test scores in math and language arts that many schools and districts have cut back on the arts and arts-based instruction as an unintended consequence. Some areas report that arts specialists, such as music teachers, are being asked to tutor individual students in math or language arts during a time that had been dedicated to providing arts instruction for a whole class.

Though it is difficult to prove a causational relationship between arts exposure or arts-based instruction and increased standardized test scores, several studies have demonstrated a significant correlation between the two. Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick reinforced that state’s commitment to the imaginative and innovative skills that can be developed through the arts by authorizing the development of a state-wide Creativity Index to measure creative education opportunities in public schools. Other leaders, including Massachusetts Secretary of Education Paul Reville, are pushing for the integration of these creative thinking skills into the state’s curriculum framework and assessment tools. On a national level, leaders are looking for ways to more directly tie the arts and arts-based instruction to the central topics in educational reform, including teacher effectiveness, student assessment and extended learning opportunities, and some have suggested a push to include the arts and replace STEM with STEAM.

What did President Obama really indicate about the role the arts will play in nation-wide educational reform and the administration’s push for ESEA revision and reauthorization when he called this “our generation’s Sputnik moment” and emphasized that “we need to teach our kids that it’s not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair” during the State of the Union? Shouldn’t the section leader of the choir, the poet, and the painter deserve to be celebrated as well? What about the innovative business leaders who trace their out-of-the-box way of thinking to early exposure to the arts?

It’s clear what President Kennedy would have to say about these developments, as it was he who “[looked] forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business and statecraft." Make your voice and your view heard by contacting your representatives on the state, local and federal levels to show the importance of the arts in education.

For more information on OPERA America’s advocacy for arts education, contact Education@operaamerica.org.
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