Hope, Engagement, Well-being and Arts Education

Yellow school busses, brand new backpacks, way more traffic at 8:00 a.m. on Helena’s city streets–all signs of a new year starting.  After years as a student, then a teaching artist, then a classroom teacher, my internal cycle is much more tuned in to the school year calendar than it is to the actual new year that arrives in the bitter cold of January.  This time of year is much more exciting for students, teachers and parents.  Everything is new, and full of potential.

I just read with great interest a study published by Gallup Education this past April titled “State of American’s Schools: The Path to Winning Again in Education”.  Often studies published by education think tanks like these focus on “raising student achievement”–usually referring to the effort to raise student scores on standardized tests.  This research-based study focuses on success rather than achievement, and defined success in a way that had nothing to do with test scores.  In a poll of over 600,000 students, Gallup measured student success based on three factors:

  • Hope
  • Emotional engagement (defined as the level of involvement and enthusiasm for school)
  • Well-being

The 2013 Gallup Student Poll results indicated that only 33% of students scored highly in all three of these factors defined as critical to educational success–meaning only 1/3 of students in America’s schools are “success-ready.”  This means that for way too many students, after those first few days of school, the newness wears off, that feeling of possibility fades, and disengagement takes over.  With little to keep them engaged in school environments where funding cuts have eliminated extracurricular activities, and the curriculum has been narrowed to the subjects that are going to be tested, many of our students are losing hope that they can become college and career-ready adults.

The study acknowledges that there are factors outside of school that can contribute to a student’s lack of engagement.  However, they also found that a student is 30 times more likely to be engaged at school if they agree with the following two statements:

“My school is committed to building the strengths of each student.”

“I have at least one teacher who makes me excited about the future.”

 The study goes on to say:

Meaningful interactions at school drive student engagement. But they don’t happen often enough or without a purposeful effort by school leaders to provide an environment in which students’ strengths are celebrated and talented teachers work under conditions that promote their own engagement.

What does this have to do with the arts?  Because if a school is committed to building the strengths of each and every child, it must include the arts in the basic curriculum, or it is failing.  The arts are the hook that keep many students engaged in school (read new research supporting this idea from the Kennedy Center’s Changing Education through the Arts program).

Imagine if all schools focused on students strengths instead of on their deficiencies.  What is instead of “drill and kill” in preparation for tests, and cutting out all extras because there just isn’t enough time in the day for anything else but English Language Arts and Math, school days were designed to allow students to spend more time each day doing what they do best?  For some students it will be writing code; for others, it will be spending time in a lab; for many students, it will be studying dance, music, theatre or visual art. 

I had a student in my previous position teaching at a charter school for the visual and performing arts in St. Louis who I will call Shawn.  Shawn was the type of student who caused trouble for nearly every teacher–he was disruptive, he was very low academically, he could barely sit in his seat and he loved to argue with you.  In a regular school with no arts curriculum it seemed unlikely that this 8th grader was going to make it through very much more of his school career before he dropped out or got expelled.  However, Shawn discovered in my 8th grade acting class that he had a strength:  he was absolutely brilliant at improvisation.  He could think on his feet, he was hilarious, and everybody wanted to be his partner on stage because he was also giving–he made them look good.  Once Shawn figured out his strength, he started coming to class early, taking his seat and asking me what we were going to do today.  He became a leader, too, taking charge of the daily warm-up ritual.  The other students loved his high-energy warm-up routine, and they chose him to lead the warm-up in our year-end showcase for parents.  Instead of “Shawn, that kid who is always causing trouble” he became, at least in one class, “Shawn, that kid who is amazing at improv.”

I have had more than one student like Shawn, so I don’t need a study to tell me how the arts engage students previously disenfranchised entirely from the education system.  After many years as a teaching artist and a classroom teacher in nearly every kind of K-12 public school, I have witnessed that moment over and over again where the switch is flipped and a student who never succeeded at anything in school suddenly finds they are good at something, and their talent is being celebrated.  I have always found the magic of arts learning is in the way it illuminates the special gifts children have that were previously hidden under a bushel because the student was low in reading, or couldn’t sit still in his chair, or was exceptionally shy.

That’s great, but how to pay for it?  Focusing on student strengths means adding back in lots of subjects that have been cut out of school curriculum in the high-stakes testing era.  Consider this, also from the Gallup study:

A 2012 study by the Brown Center on Education Policy found that standardized testing costs states a combined $1.7 billion per year, though that figure is just a tiny fraction of overall K-12 spending. More important is the opportunity cost such tests represent in terms of lost instructional time and reduced capacity to individualize students’ learning experiences.

That’s a lot of money, $1.7 billion per year.  What if all that money and time were re-allocated to programs that focused on building students talents and strengths, including restoring arts programs to schools, instead of standardized testing regiments that decrease engagement and demoralize students and teachers?

The Executive Director of Gallup Education, Brandon Busteed, proposed a Bill of Rights for All Students in America’s Schools.  It ensures that students are able to agree on three statements about their school experience:

1.  I have someone who cares about my development

2. I do what I like to do each day.

3.  I do what I’m best at every day.

I think few parents would disagree that we all want this for our children.  I know I want this for my daughter when she starts kindergarten a year from now.  We won’t get it if we don’t demand it.  I am hopelessly optimistic that arts education is about to have its day, and standardized testing and narrow curriculum will soon be a thing of the past.  Students and teachers who love the arts will be celebrated for their strengths instead of cut out of the picture.  It’s the beginning of the school year–all is possible!



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