I just came back from the National Convening of the Arts Education Partnership. It was a fantastic gathering of arts advocates, researchers, and practitioners. I was particularly struck by the comments during the opening session made by Eric Martin, who leads Music for All . He noted that parents and communities tend to want more arts education than their schools often provide. I suspect he’s right about that, but that raises a puzzle: if parents and communities want more art, why are their schools not providing what they want?
You might think the answer is a lack of funds, but that can’t really explain it. The arts are not that expensive and if schools were more responsive to parental and community preferences, they would give greater priority to the arts in their budgets and schedules. And then it dawned on me… schools are not more responsive to parent and community preferences regarding the arts because parents and communities no longer really control their schools. Schools are increasingly answerable to distant bureaucrats in state or federal departments of education rather than to the parents and communities they serve.
This situation is a disaster for the arts. Even if distant bureaucrats valued the arts as much as many parents and communities do, bureaucrats cannot give priority to the arts because that is not the basis by which the success or failure of their distant management is judged. The only systematic, easily available information we have on schools is math and reading test scores. Narrowing the focus of schools on math and reading test performance is inherent in the effort to manage those schools from a distance. Parents and communities do not have to rely on math and reading test scores to judge school performance because they are close enough to gather a large amount of contextual information. By contrast, the state superintendent has no access to this information about quality and is inevitably judged completely on the few bits of test score data we do have about all of the schools in their charge.
If this is correct, the most promising strategy for arts advocates to pursue to expand arts offerings in school would be to favor decentralization of control over schools to parents and communities. If we want more art, let’s get out of the way of parents and communities that want more art.
The irony is that most of the people at this week’s Arts Education Partnership meeting are very focused on lobbying for policies at the state and federal level that they hope would advance the arts. There was a lot of discussion of the importance of states adopting a set of national standards regarding arts education. There were pleas for more funding and support from state departments of education.
All of these measures are sincere efforts by good people working hard on behalf of the arts. But I suspect that the more arts advocates strengthen centralized control over schools, even if in the name of advancing the arts, the less likely we are to see priority given to the arts in education. Centralized control requires evaluation by centrally collected metrics, which means an emphasis on math and reading test scores. This is true no matter how many arts standards are adopted, how many state arts initiatives are adopted, or how many speeches in favor of the arts state officials give.
Arts advocates may want to shift their attention toward strengthening parent and community control over their own schools so those schools are more likely to deliver the arts education that folks really want.