The Comeback Kids

Have you seen this headline?

“Arts Education Poised for Comeback in Nation’s Largest School Districts”

Not all that many articles about arts education get posted on mainstream media websites, so when one does, especially one that heralds good news about arts education, it gets re-blogged and tweeted all over by arts education advocates.  I saw it at least a dozen times in my Twitter feed over the past month.

But why should we care here in Montana?  None of the nation’s largest school districts are in Montana; in fact, the Chicago Public Schools have over twice as many students as the entire state of Montana.  We still have 61 one-room schoolhouses!  Half of our public schools have less than 100 students.

This headline is not about us.   Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, San Diego . . . lucky them.

But play along with me for a minute.  What if that headline said “Arts Education Poised for Comeback in Montana’s School Districts?”  Here are some things you might read about in that article:

  • Montana is beginning the process of revising our arts standards. Teachers across the state are participating in focus groups and surveys, and eagerly volunteering to serve on the standards writing team.
  • Eighteen teachers are heading to Salish Kootenai College in June for the first-ever Montana Teacher Leaders in the Arts Summer Institute, a partnership between the Montana Arts Council and the Office of Public Instruction. The teachers will receive in-depth professional learning opportunities with master arts educators on multiple arts learning topics. These teacher leaders will become coaches, mentors and advocates for other teachers in their regions to implement best practices in arts learning.
  • Great Falls Public Schools and the Great Falls Symphony were just honored as one of only 38 school/music organization partnerships in the nation to attend the Yale Symposium on Music in Schools.
  • Missoula is the first Montana community to participate in the Kennedy Center’s Any Given Child Initiative to provide equitable access to the arts for every child in the district grades K-8.
  • Lame Deer Middle School was one of eight pilot schools in the high-profile President’s Council on the Arts and Humanities Turnaround Arts program. Their students performed at the White House, and the school continues to receive visits from Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble.
  • Forty professional artists from across the state gathered at the Holter Museum in Helena in April for a weekend of networking and learning how to provide the highest-quality arts learning experiences for schools and communities.

All of the above is true. Maybe you could add something happening in your school or district to this list.

For years now, arts education nationwide has existed largely on the margins, pushed aside in favor of “important” learning that would lead to higher test scores.  Too often there has been more bad news than good.  Evidence suggests that arts education is moving back towards the center, not just in large urban districts, but here in Montana as well.  Lots of good things are happening.  True, we still don’t have enough arts specialists, we still don’t have enough funding available to support comprehensive arts curriculum, especially in our rural schools, but the winds are shifting.

One reason for the shift is evidence.  A comprehensive national effort has been underway for years now to measure the impact of arts learning.  The research keeps getting better, especially now that it is shifting away from often faulty correlations between the arts and academic achievement and towards the arts impact on cognitive function.  Policy makers are beginning to acknowledge that the arts are one of the best interventions for students in low-performing, high-poverty schools.

But I believe we really need to give credit to teachers.  The ones who give countless hours of afterschool time for the school play, the strings program or to keep the art room open for students, knowing they will not be compensated for their extra time.  The ones with budgets stripped away to almost nothing, who still find a way to keep the program going with recycled materials and donations.  The ones who quietly close their classroom door and do that art project when the administration tells them they should be doing extra test prep.  The ones who find a way to pay for the museum field trip, even if some of the money comes from their own pockets.  The ones who never let the arts be eliminated from their school, because they all have witnessed the way the arts can change a child’s experience of school from failure to success, from frustration to joy.  These teachers have kept the arts alive during dark days.

These are the teachers I’ve encountered in Montana’s schools.  Montana’s teachers will slowly chip away at the obstacles, and give all Montana students what they deserve—a world-class education with arts learning at the core.  You are the comeback kids!

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