By Laurie T. Schell, Executive Director
In the recent celebration of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, President Reagan’s now famous speech exhorting Soviet President Gorbachev to “tear down this wall” replayed over and over again in print, radio and televised media. While the words echo a specific time and political context, the sentiment behind the words—of the need to tear down artificial barriers in order to effect lasting change– is one that arts education advocates would do well to embrace.
In spite of a sagging economy and plummeting state support for public education in California, there are clear signs of a shift in public perception about the value of arts education. The public, with parents in the forefront, has made it known that they want a quality education for their children, one that includes the visual and performing arts. We see evidence of this in California with the passage of the historic Arts and Music Block Grant funds of $105 – $109 million in 2006, 2007 and 2008. In the PSA announcements from the state’s largest teachers union, which decry the loss of arts programs in an attempt to gain more funding for education. In the stories from local advocates who have successfully lobbied to save their elementary music programs. The perception is out there— the public believes the arts are an essential part of a quality education.
Perception and reality are, unfortunately, two different things. The gains in public acceptance can be undone when an “either/or” argument is put forward, forcing choices or walls between PE and the arts, between community based arts organizations and schools, between Career Tech Ed courses and arts courses, and between in school and after school time. A complete education, which includes the arts, is about “both/and” not “either/or.” All of it is important.
In the arts education arena, we’ve always understood the value of a diverse constituency—parents, artists, teachers, business and community leaders. What we have yet to realize is an effective cross sector approach that subscribes to a vision that is larger than the sum of its parts. Embracing a common vision of excellence in education means placing students at the center, rather than institutions.
We need to continue to address the issue across many sectors—through national, state and local policy, local community advocacy, partnerships between schools and arts organizations, better pre-service education for generalist teachers, leadership development for school administrators, relentless exposure in the media, deeper relationships with the business community, to name a few. Everyone has a role. No one sits this one out.
Ultimately our strength comes from the creation a system of shared responsibility, or reciprocal accountability across sectors. Reciprocal accountability not only holds schools and teachers responsible for student learning, but also federal, state, and local educational agencies for ensuring that schools have adequate capacity and resources to provide strong instruction to all students, and parents, community and business members for giving voice and passion to the vision.
Tear down the artificial barriers that divide us and provide students the opportunities they need to be successful, caring and productive adults.