Essay on Arts Education

This guest essay by Donn Harris, who runs the Oakland School of the Arts, continues my earlier discussion in the blog post titled “Teaching Innovation.” The essay is contained in the newsletter, RSF Quarterly, and can be found on page 6 of the PDF document.

Harris describes why arts education is so important, why it is better than the standardized test style of education, and why assessing it in a summative and data-driven way is so difficult. He reminds us, though, that the arts involve the things that make us human, that make life worth living, that bring joy to our lives. After all, what is the point of this “success” that we all talk about, if it does not bring joy with it?

Harris also brings up an important point about how much emphasis is put on these standardized test scores. He reminds us that schools can be closed (and teachers can be fired) over low test scores. For some reason, politicians and some “tough-love” administrators have made people believe that low test scores equal bad teachers. (Are there bad teachers out there? Yes. Do low test scores prove which ones are bad? No.) As a personal anecdote, some of my creative writing students who are very strong writers and who win writing awards score low on standardized writing assessments, because they have enough skill at writing to defy certain grammar rules or to use more unorthodox structural designs than a five-paragraph essay. However, the rigor of the scoring model labels them as weak writers.

Lots of people dislike No Child Left Behind for many different reasons. My reasons involve standardized testing and the connections to federal funding. I live in Alabama, a very poor state, and without federal education funds, we would barely have any schools at all. So teachers in Alabama have to teach to a test, in order to save their schools’ lives. George W. Bush was so proud of NCLB as his accomplishment in the area of education, but the truth is that NCLB reflected his value system that was based on utter and total conformity to his dictates. Just as his administration labeled people as “unpatriotic” or “un-American” who opposed his war efforts, NCLB labels schools as “failing” if they do not provide proof of compliance and conformity to one set of standards, which are easier to reach for wealthier, well-resourced schools full of students with family support than for impoverished, struggling schools full of students with a lack of family support.

Arts education, as Donn Harris describes, is one pillar that supports our culture. If we are fighting our wars to “preserve our freedom,” and we are striving for “success,” then for what? What are we trying to be free enough and well-resourced enough to do with our lives when we have it? Harris’ essay provides one answer to that question: the arts.

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