This month, First Lady Michelle Obama hosted a talent show at the White House to spotlight the success of Turnaround Arts, a public-private partnership led by the President’s Council on the Arts and Humanities that “uses the arts to help narrow the achievement gap, increase student engagement and improve the culture and climate in the country’s highest poverty schools.” The program began as a pilot in eight schools, including Lame Deer Middle School on the Northern Cheyenne reservation here in Montana, and has had enough documented success that it is now expanding to 30 more schools across the nation. Celebrities like Kerry Washington, Jason Mraz and Sarah Jessica Parker were all over the media talking about the benefits of arts education. The expansion of Turnaround Arts is great news for arts education. Even though a relatively tiny number of schools will benefit from Turnaround Arts’ efforts, the success of this national program sends a message: the arts are a proven and powerful tool for whole-school reform, and one extremely effective tool to close the achievement gap. This message is reinforced in an editorial by the National Association of Elementary School Principals, where they identify “Four Steps to Close the Gap”. Step number three–integrating the arts into the curriculum:
Recent research has shown that when principals–especially those in Title I schools–employ arts integrated strategies, the students who participate are four times more likely to be recognized for academic achievement, have higher GPAs and, later, higher SAT scores, and show significantly higher mathematics proficiency. Indeed, proficiency in math and other subjects seems to increase the more arts are integrated into the curriculum. Plus, these benefits are more pronounced in high-poverty, low-performing schools.
There are other successful arts-based school reform efforts besides the high-profile Turnaround Arts initiative: The Whole Schools Initiative in Mississippi, Higher Order Thinking (HOT) Schools in Connecticut, Value Plus Schools in Tennessee, and the A+ Schools program in North Carolina, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Louisiana. The following if from the Executive Summary of research conducted on Mississippi’s Whole Schools Initiative (WSI):
WSI schools that effectively implement arts integration were found to have reduced or actually eliminated the academic achievement gap for economically disadvantaged students.
Read that sentence again. Using arts integration, they actually eliminated the achievement gap in some schools.
How much more evidence do we need that the arts are the answer for many of our students? It is no easy task to be an arts education advocate. In the face of overwhelming evidence that what you believe in works, every day you are still fighting the good fight in an overall climate where the arts are supported in some schools and in some communities, but not in all schools and communities. Some is not enough, especially in Montana, where only 43% of school districts treat the arts as core curriculum, and 11% of schools offer no high-quality arts experiences at all.
Despite those sobering facts, the good news is that there is remarkable arts learning going on in many Montana schools and communities. Just a few examples from my recent travels:
VSA Montana teaching artist Carol Poppenga works with students at Geyser School on Highway 200 between Great Falls and Lewistown. Poppenga provided arts lessons to five rural schools in the Lewistown area this year, as well as five Hutterite colony schools. Her smallest school, in Shawmut, had only two students.
Artist and storyteller Monte Yellow Bird worked with 5th graders at Ponderosa Elementary in Billings, a Title I school with few resources, but with parents who are incredible advocates for the arts. The Parent Council funded part of the residency, and a partnership between the Montana Arts Council and OPI’s Office of Indian Education filled in with the remaining funding and technical assistance. Read about the residency in the Billings Gazette.
Jefferson Elementary School in Helena is one of the few public elementary schools in the state of Montana that integrates the arts into core curriculum. Each year the parents organize a day-long gala to celebrate the arts in the school, involving every student in the school. The gala also includes an art auction to raise money for next year’s activities, since the arts programming in the school is almost entirely supported by the school’s parents.
Montana Shakespeare in the Parks’ Montana Shakes! program, just wrapping up its third season, introduces the works of Shakespeare to elementary school audiences by creating a shortened version of one of the Bard’s plays, combining Elizabethan language with our modern language, and using audience participation to engage young students and help make the work accessible. The tour is growing every year, serving a larger number of schools across Montana and Wyoming.
It’s exciting to see these and many other arts learning projects happening in Montana schools, but too many students still do not have equitable access to arts learning opportunities. Malissa Feruzzi Shriver, a powerful advocate for arts education in California, recently wrote an ARTSblog post about the expansion of Turnaround Arts into more schools and why the model is a success. What is generally referred to as the “achievement gap” in education she refers to as an “opportunity gap.” When a school is provided the resources and technical assistance to implement something that is proven to work–like arts integration–the school, its staff, and its learners have the opportunity to succeed and transform the school culture. Shriver references a John Dewey quote, one that I think serves as a guidepost for the work that is left to do to provide equitable access to arts education to all students:
What the best and wisest parent wants for his child, that must we want for all the children of the community. Anything less is unlovely, and left unchecked, destroys our democracy.
Too many young people are falling into the opportunity gap, and while the arts are certainly not the whole answer to the problem of why too many students struggle at school, the arts can provide a lot to fill that gap: another way to learn, a way to build critical habits of mind that lead to success, a way to transform a school culture from a place labeled as “failing” to a place rich with music, art and joy. And until we fill that gap for all kids, and not just some kids, our work is not finished. Grab a shovel.