September 13 – 19 is National Arts in Education week. A time when we all can take a step back and appreciate the role the arts have played in our own educational development, and how the arts can be used to improve the education of our future generations. In our own state of South Carolina, the timing of this focus on arts education comes at the right moment – a few months after the successful campaign to overturn a gubernatorial veto of a $1 million increase in state funding for arts education through the South Carolina Arts Commission [SCAC] and the Department of Education, and a few months before the start of a new legislative session where education will be playing one of a few lead roles in legislative priorities.
South Carolina has, for years, been seen as a leader in the arts education field in this country. From the founding of the Arts in Basic Curriculum Project twenty-five years ago (a partnership between the SCAC, Department of Education, and housed at Winthrop University), to the development of the nation’s first STEAM Continuum (a rubric for schools who are looking to become STEAM-focused), South Carolina has led the way in developing new and innovative ways to ensure every child has access to quality arts education.
It’s a job that’s never always complete though. There are always new challenges due to changing educational needs, economic flux, and legislative hurdles. But each time there’s a new challenge, we meet it with new solutions.
In 2014, the South Carolina Arts Commission convened a group of arts, education, and community leaders from around the state and formed the Arts Education Task Force. Informed by recent research from South Arts that delved into arts education needs in states across the region, the ruling of the State Supreme Court in Abbeville v. The State which said the State Legislature was not meeting constitutionally-required minimums of education in rural districts, the development of TransformSC’s “Profile of the South Carolina Graduate” which surveyed the needs of employers around the state on workforce needs and highlighted “creativity” and “critical thinking”, and marked by the 25th anniversary of the ABC Project, the Task Force looked at the current state of arts education in South Carolina and developed a future pathway to reach more SC students.
The full report was released in early 2015 and contains many creative and impactful recommendations to the state. But for this Arts Education Week, I wanted to highlight three strategies, one for each major recommendation area, that, in my opinion, have the potential to influence the national discussion around the future of arts education.
Strategy 1.3: Develop and manage an arts education resource portal to include the following:
- Data on arts education programs in public and private K-12 schools, afterschool and summer program providers and participation by discipline, age, gender, geography, etc.;
- Standards-based curricula and resources (e.g., videos, contacts) for school-day and afterschool/summer programs;
- Professional development for teachers and workers in afterschool/summer programs;
- A portfolio of services, grants, and other resources suitable to a range of school and community education environments—from ready-to-use introductory programs for underserved schools and after-school providers to highly flexible grant support for comprehensive, self-directed school and district arts programs.
Essentially, this recommendation deals with professional development through an online portal that offers a vast library of resources and opportunities for users to share successes and failures in arts education. Having an independent (e.g. not managed by the State) online portal where teachers, administrators, community arts organizations, afterschool programs, and other providers can discover and provide resources to each other, and that gives them the opportunity to discuss and connect over common challenges will provide the field with a fluid library of data, research/news, models, and tested projects that can be replicated and scaled in communities of any size. It also opens the door to more collaboration across district and county lines and a more in-depth opportunity for unlikely partners to find common solutions.
2.2 Develop new programs to serve students whose schools are not currently providing comprehensive arts education:
- Link to programs targeting high-poverty, underperforming schools, such as summer reading camps and workforce development initiatives, and to afterschool and summer educational programs in school and community settings.
- Offer options of ready-to-use programs that deliver quality content with minimal preparation or financial support required from the host site.
- Develop a cadre of artists and arts organizations prepared to provide these programs.
- Where needed, provide financial support for materials, transportation, teacher training, and other operational costs.
- Join with local school partners and community host organizations to bring these programs to children in their areas.
- Map cultural assets in communities with underperforming schools and develop links between these assets and in-school, afterschool and summer educational programs. Such assets may include traditional artists, artisans, faith-based programs, self-taught artists, etc.
Probably the most vast recommendation made, this one is not to be overlooked. By developing new programs, projects, and partners, South Carolina arts education leaders can set trends for other communities across the nation. But more importantly, this recommendation is aimed at encouraging these new programs. By not restricting educators and organizations to work within the usual confines of the education field, but rather providing resources that assist in breaking the mold, South Carolina can prove that education should extend beyond the classroom walls, and that it doesn’t need to depend on purely the education system but can lean on other community resources to deliver quality arts education experiences. Additionally, finding what already works and making it scalable, replicable, and available will mean quicker implementation rates across the state.
3.2 Design and implement a system of evaluation for arts education programs that will enable evidence-based improvement. This evaluation should address both effectiveness in meeting established curriculum standards and impact on broader 21st-century skills development (creativity, persistence, teamwork, etc.).
This is perhaps the “holy grail” of arts education. The immense challenge in any educational program is proving its value and impact. You know a child understands the properties of addition when they understand 1+1=2. It’s harder to articulate a child’s ability to creatively solve problems when artistic capability varies and not everyone has the same definition of “success” in artistic ability. But it is easy to point out that creating a work of art develops important skills that manifest themselves in areas beyond that of the arts. Spatial recognition, the value of perception, mathematical relationships, historical context, teamwork and collaboration, and appreciation of new ideas – these are all skills that find their root in the arts, but are not “testable” in modern standards.
By focusing a fair amount of attention on developing a way to evaluate the success of arts education programs, and just as importantly, ensuring that evaluation method is in close similarity to other evaluation methods that are developed, will mean the difference between “fully funded” and “underfunded”. A key area to watch in this arena is the evaluation and success of “project-based learning” initiatives and charter schools. Given that the arts have, and will always be “project based”, the trends in PBL arenas will help guide the arts education field.
Disclosure: I was a member of the Arts Education Task Force that developed the above recommendations.