What are our local schools doing to keep the arts alive?
By Jennifer Murphy
When the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act was instituted in 2002, the country’s public school systems changed. Even though NCLB listed the arts as a core subject, administrators, teachers and staff were challenged to significantly raise math, reading, language arts and, later, science scores. In many cases, this meant that more classroom time was needed to focus on these tested subjects and the only way to do that was to cut back on so-called “specials,” including physical education and cultural arts subjects such as art, music, dance and drama.
According to the research by the National Arts Education Public Awareness Campaign (www.americansforthearts.org), 89 percent of Americans believe that arts education should be taught in schools. Even so, the organization reports that kids spend more time at their lockers than in arts classes. How are local schools addressing the issue?
Arts at Risk
In 2001, Anne Arundel County’s Board of Education voted to cut back on the arts programs in the middle school level. Parent advocacy groups responded with a successful appeal to the State Board. As a result, local arts programs remained untouched. In 2002, however, the arts were on the chopping block again. This time, standards were instituted specific classroom times weren’t mandated.
Terra Snider, Ph.D., and her family moved to Anne Arundel County in part because of the school system’s excellent reputation for in-school arts programming. After they moved, Snider says, the arts were drastically cut. This was, she says, “a misguided attempt to raise reading scores.”
Snider’s daughter Sage, who is now a senior at Severna Park High School, was upset that so many of her school’s arts classes had been eliminated. In order to take two cultural arts classes during her middle school years, she was forced to cut out gym, health, foreign language and technical education classes from her schedule. As a fifth-grader, she testified before the Board of Education to raise awareness of the missing programs. “These are choices that an 11-year-old should not have to make,” Snider says. To counter the dwindling support for in-school arts programming, she co-founded the Anne Arundel Coalition for Balanced Excellence in Education.
“Administrators statewide are under tremendous pressure to raise test scores,” says Amy Cohn, Music Coordinator for Anne Arundel County Public Schools. “Unfortunately, the arts suffer in some schools due to increased instruction in the tested subjects and numerous interventions. I believe that No Child Left Behind has negatively impacted music programs, especially the instrumental pull-out programs such as elementary instrumental music and chorus,” says Cohn. When students need remedial assistance in one of the tested subjects, they are often taken out of cultural arts and physical education classes.
In both Anne Arundel and Calvert Counties, the biggest area of concern seems to be at the middle school level. “When I came on board [right after NCLB], schedule changes had been made due to testing requirements,” recalls Suzanne Owens, art coordinator for Anne Arundel County Public Schools. “Since middle schools are on a three-day rotation block, it has been especially limited. They are only able to take their elective once every third day. And they only have the opportunity to take art that one semester. That has really limited kids.”
Not Just Notes and Strokes
A growing body of research indicates that cultural arts programs aren’t just about children learning how to read music or paint a canvas. Mary Ann Mears, acting executive director for Arts Education in Maryland Schools Alliance, explains how arts education triggers long-term learning and promotes balanced brain usage.
Mears cites the ABC song as an example. Most preschoolers know their alphabet from learning the ABC song, she says. The musical soundtrack makes learning easier and improves retention. “Our brains were hardwired for the arts. It’s how they work,” says Mears.
Mears also reflects on a study involving two groups of students who were given the task of writing a story. The first group was asked to draw a picture from the story and then articulate it into words. The second group was asked to only use words. After the completion of the project, the story from the first group was more organized, provided more detail, more thoughtful and written better. The drawing brought the story to life for them, Mears explains.
In April of this year, the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously passed House Concurrent Resolution 121, which recognizes the benefits of school-based music education. According to the resolution, “Music enhances the ability to analyze, solve problems, communicate and work cooperatively.” The legislation also acknowledges that children who are involved in music are “less likely to be involved with drugs, gangs, or alcohol and have better attendance in school.”
An Integrated Approach
There is evidence that schools with solid arts programs — regardless of student socio-economic levels — earn higher test scores. This positive research has affirmed Mears’ optimism about Maryland’s future for cultural arts. In fact, the Maryland Higher Education Commission recently approved a post-baccalaureate program for arts integration. Unique to Maryland, the program will be hosted by Towson University. It will train teachers to incorporate the arts in their lesson plans. “Arts are modes of communication. They provide an opportunity for learning in other subject areas,” says Mears.
Dr. Kevin Maxwell, superintendent for Anne Arundel County Public Schools, recently attended a meeting at the Strathmore Arts Center in North Bethesda at which he observed an integrated arts model for education. This model, he explains, allows the arts and tested subjects to occur simultaneously. Based in part on the work of Daniel Pink, author of A Whole New Mind (Riverhead, 2005), the model takes into account the development of the creative mind and the balance of right- and left-brain functionality. Maxwell sees potential for Maryland’s schools in Pink’s work. “We think that there is a way that our curriculum can coexist,” says Maxwell.
This may provide a path for educators whose classroom schedules are already too tight. Using integrated arts enables multiple subjects to be taught in unison.
According to Owens, students embrace the concept. “Art students are currently providing Art Statements with their work,” she explains. “This requires students to articulate the meaning of their work. They have to ask themselves, ‘What is the meaning of the image? How did they get to the process of analyzing their art?’ People are finding that reading and writing have become a vital piece of the art classroom.”
Elizabeth Chapman graduated from Broadneck High School this summer and is heading to Towson University in the fall to pursue a Fine Arts Major. She believes her classes at Broadneck connected with one another in ways that improved her work. “My art and history classes were really intertwined. I could take what I learned in my AP European history classes and apply it to my AP art classes. I could use architecture lessons from history and connect it to design in my art classes. Learning about it gave me a whole new understanding of the world. I cannot look at a building anymore and not connect it to the people who lived there.”
This type of emotional interactivity and connection can make the lesson learned stay with them forever.
We are fortunate that our children have some — if sometimes limited — exposure to the arts. Owens, who is also the president of the Maryland Arts Association, admits that many other areas of the country that have been harder hit by budget cuts. “Maryland has great support through the Department of Education,” says Owens. Still, she explains, arts funding is difficult to maintain and even more difficult to increase.
Parents make the difference, according to the report, “Gaining The Arts Advantage: Lessons From School Districts That Value Arts Education,” which was produced by the national Arts Education Partnership and The President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities. “Without exception,” the report states, “school districts with strong arts education credit supportive parents as the rock on which their community base is built.”
Linda Patton, the supervisor of instruction for cultural arts in Calvert County Public Schools, agrees. She says the schools’ programs were unaffected by No Child Left Behind. “We have a very supportive school board and teaching staff. Our biggest asset is our parents. They are there driving to rehearsals, accompanying students on trips,” she says.
Fortunately, the work of parents in Anne Arundel County has had a deep impact. “The school system understands the importance of the arts now,” says Snider.
Once considered the “frills” of a child’s education, arts programming is recognized locally as a key component to student development. Maxwell says, “I share the concern that we need to pay attention to the arts, including arts education, dance literature, and all forms of music. These subjects compliment and reinforce other lessons and help achieve all educational goals.” With recent arts research and the commitment of administrators, teachers and parents, the arts can surely receive the spotlight that they deserve.
Jennifer Murphy lives in Carroll County. She is a freelance writer, wife and mother of two.
More Arts, Better Students
According to Americans for the Arts, young people who participate regularly in the arts are:
-4 times more likely to be recognized for academic achievement
-3 times more likely to be elected to class office within their schools
-4 times more likely to participate in a math and science fair
-3 times more likely to win an award for school attendance
-4 times more likely to win an award for writing an essay or poem
Source: “Living the Arts through Language & Learning: A Report on Community-Based Youth Organizations”
What About P.E.?
According to local sources, No Child Left Behind hasn’t affected physical education classes in our communities. Rick Wyles, the coordinator for health, physical education and dance for Anne Arundel County Public Schools, explains: “For 30-plus years, physical education has been taught two times per week at the elementary school level.” At the high school level, he says, Anne Arundel schools have instituted a half credit more than the state requires.
That’s not to say more can’t be done. In middle school, students participate in P.E. every third day for three nine-week sessions. This adds up to only 45 class periods of physical education during 6th through 8th grades. Not nearly enough to make a dent in our nation’s alarming childhood obesity statistics.
Wyles would like to see physical education qualify under the No Child Left Behind Act. Advocacy groups are actively lobbying for this recognition in hopes of securing funding for additional physical education programs.