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Guest Editorial: A Complete Education Includes the Arts

Published on: December 30, 2013

By Una McAlinden, Executive Director of ArtsEd Washington

arts-education-375Last month, the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities announced their “Turnaround Arts” initiative, a dynamic arts education program designed to increase student engagement and narrow the achievement gap in low-performing schools. This two-year pilot project, launching in eight high-poverty elementary and middle schools across the country, has garnered broad-based support and is an important step in publicly validating the important role of arts learning.

The disciplines of the arts — dance, music, theater and visual arts — are a critical educational component, supporting the development of the whole child. They also are a required core subject for students in grades K-12, as mandated by state and federal law. The arts serve students far beyond their school experience, enhancing their overall involvement in community and contributing to motivated career paths and college goals. Credible research has long shown a strong connection between sustained arts opportunities and increased academic and personal success.

Simply put, the arts are critical in preparing students for success in school, work, and life. That’s why — despite continued challenges with school budgets, limited resources, high stakes testing, and competing priorities — we must come together to demand the delivery of this core curriculum so that all students in our community receive the “arts advantage.”

Here in Washington, arts provision in our public schools varies greatly from school to school and doesn’t offer the sequential pathway of learning provided in other core subjects. It’s common to find arts delivered as “before- or after-school activities” or offered as “extracurricular” programs taught by a parent volunteer instead of a trained educator. This should prompt us to ask, “What other core subject would we hand over to parents to teach once a month, or push out of the school day? How would we react if math or English were taught that way?”

Ensuring arts are delivered fairly and equitably to all students, not just those who can readily pay for it outside of a school setting, is also a vital component. Otherwise, children whose parents can’t afford it — and who typically stand to benefit the most — go without and lose critical learning opportunities.

Recent data from the U.S. Department of Education’s 2012 report, Arts Education in Public Elementary & Secondary Schools, confirms this strong trend of poor arts delivery to students of low socio-economic backgrounds. Ironically, a longitudinal study on arts and achievement in at-risk youth, released simultaneously by the National Endowment for the Arts, shows these are the students gaining the most from arts learning, with demonstrated better grades, less likelihood of dropping out, and more positive attitudes about school.

So, how can we justify not making arts learning a priority when creativity, along with the many attributes and thinking skills nurtured by the arts, continues to be a top priority for employers – one that’s rapidly increasing with the growing needs of tomorrow’s world?

Take, for example, IBM’s 2010 global CEO study. It notes “creativity” as the most important leadership competency needed to manage in an increasingly complex world. While we can’t anticipate the way students will need to live and participate in the world of tomorrow, we can — through effective and consistent delivery of the arts in school — provide them with the intrinsic benefits and 21st century skills to help them be ready for what’s ahead.

So how can we make a difference? We must engage in the broader education conversations and be involved in the concentric circles of influence in a child’s education. We must take action in support of arts education, clearly and persistently articulating our expectations that the arts receive the time and resources to be taught, as mandated, effectively and sequentially during the school day.

By joining together as a powerful collective voice, we can catalyze change in the way arts are perceived and taught in schools, and we can impact the future for every student in Washington state.

About Una McAlinden

Una McAlinden has been Executive Director of ArtsEd Washington for eight years. In 2009, she was honored with the Washington Art Educator Association Tribute Award, and The Advancement of Arts Education in Washington State Award. She has served on the Network Leadership Committee for the Kennedy Center Alliance for Arts Education Network, co-chairing its Advocacy Committee, and was a founding Board member of Leadership Eastside. She currently serves ex officio on the Board of the Washington State Arts Alliance.

About ArtsEd Washington

ArtsEd Washington works to positively impact arts education for all students in Washington State, seeking to ensure that every student in grades K-12 has access to ongoing and progressive arts learning. The organization ardently pursues favorable arts education policies, supports adequate resources for arts implementation, rallies organizations and the community to join the cause, partners and works with state and local coalitions, and builds school and district capacity to teach the arts.

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