June 19, 2008
Coordination Flawed in Arts Education, Study Finds
By Charles Storch, Chicago Tribune
Jun. 19--No shortage of foundations, cultural organizations, community groups, educators and working artists have striven to provide Chicago's public schoolchildren access to quality arts education. But the efforts have lacked coordination and a common strategy, claims a report released Wednesday.
The report from the Rand Corp. think tank observes that, in Chicago and across the nation, arts education has been a low priority in the public schools for more than 30 years. The marginalization of the arts is the legacy of fiscal crises dating to the 1970s and recent educational reforms that focus on basic skills such as reading and math.
Rand looked at communitywide "countermovements" to revitalize arts education here and in Boston, Dallas, Los Angeles County, New York City and Northern California's Alameda County. The study favored no one approach. It found achievements in all six cities to be "fragile" and vulnerable to policy and funding whims.
The New York-based Wallace Foundation commissioned the report and had planned to publish it in April. But Wallace suspended its release, saying inaccuracies had been discovered.
A comparison of the early and current versions showed some changes in details about Chicago but not in the conclusion.
The report's authors, who conducted interviews here in fall 2006, took note of the many arts education groups, some with national reputations, working here. But they said they found "little collaborative effort in Chicago."
They cited, but did not identify, several groups that had "no desire for citywide coordination and were content to provide deeper services to a few schools within the system."
But the authors did find one example of broad-scale collaboration. In 2005, 17 foundations and private donors joined to persuade Chicago Public Schools to create a central arts education office, similar to ones in New York and Los Angeles. The collaboration, led by the Chicago Community Trust, agreed to pay part of the office director's salary for three years. In August 2006, the district hired as director David Roche, former head of the Old Town School of Folk Music.
This initiative favors making the arts part of the core curriculum at all city public schools. It supports establishing a set of standards for "sequential" arts instruction--that is, from grade to grade--so at least some students can attain a level of proficiency in music, dance, visual arts or theater by the time they enter high school.
In an interview, Roche said his office has been working with district teachers and outside arts organizations on instruction models for sequential learning. It also has worked on professional development for teachers.
He expressed confidence that the district would pick up the full tab for his salary when private support runs out in another year.
His office has a budget of $2.3 million, but money for school-based arts programs is managed by the schools themselves. As Rand noted, principals and local school councils can decide whether precious time in the school day is allotted for arts.
Rand also detected a philosophical divide among arts education groups here. Instead of separate arts classes, many groups favor integrating the arts into instruction of general subjects--for example, reading or social studies. Advocates feel this approach adds potency to learning and helps students engage with the wider world.
Rand said that "these two camps, while not at war, preferred to exist side by side."
Nick Rabkin, executive director of the Center for Arts Policy at Columbia College Chicago, said he believes the report overstates the differences between the approaches.
"Good instruction is what matters most," said Rabkin, whose center is to shut in August for lack of funding. He is moving to the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center.
Roche said the two approaches can work together in Chicago's schools.
"We want it all," he said. "It not either-or."
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