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Building a Well-Rounded Child Through Art Advocacy

How Art-Focused Integrated Programs help kids at school perform better

Tom Hatfield believes it's time for a radically different approach to art advocacy. The discipline, he reports, is strong enough to stand on its own, and in fact, always has been. Cut it from public school budgets and you're sending young adults into the world unprepared for 21st-century communication.

A Necessary Art

"What you're cutting out is children's accessibility to learn things that they wouldn't get anywhere else in the curriculum," says Hatfield, executive director of the National Art Education Association (NAEA), based in Reston, Va. "Let me give you an example. You buy stock in IBM or Toshiba or General Motors. You get an annual report with four-color art. It's got photos in there – dynamic photos. There are pie charts and graphs. And you look and say, 'Why did they do that?' Well, one of the reasons – and this is not necessarily 'art,' but 'visual literacy' – is because it's much more effective and much more efficient to use four-color art and graphics and visual imagery to convey information than it is to have nothing but text, like a phone book."

Founded in 1947, NAEA is the world's largest professional art education association and a leader in art education policy, practice and research. Its 40,000 members include elementary and secondary teachers, university professors, artists, administrators, arts council staff, museum and program educators, publishers, manufacturers and suppliers of art materials and concerned parents and students.

"There are a couple of things that people can do to advocate successfully for the arts," Hatfield says. "Number one, talk to the principal. 'How can we get more art in this school?' Number two, communicate to the school board that this is what you want. I've been in the business a little over 40 years, and I can tell you, the parent is the most effective way to get something done in schools. If the principal or superintendent sees parents saying, 'We need this; we want this,' it'll get done a lot quicker than anything else."

While study of the arts may enhance other skills, assist in the transfer of learning in other academic areas, improve attendance and morale and strengthen social insight and personal development, NAEA promotes teaching art for art's sake.

Effective art advocacy, NAEA leaders contend, must market and present art education as a thoroughly unique discipline with equally unique skill sets critical to developing multicultural understanding.

"We're dealing more and more with imagery in the world – through advertising, for example," Hatfield says. "It's not necessarily fine arts in the sense of looking at Rembrandts, but we study the same principles. If we deny that to kids, we're denying learning about that and how we cope with the world."

Essential to Education

Dr. Tobie Sanders, education department chair at Capital University, agrees, crediting art education for providing the building blocks to 'essential meaning making' – a basic 'this means or stands for that' understanding that skill is the heart of all reading, writing, representing and symbolizing.

"I value arts in the classrooms so highly," Sanders says. "The key to human communication, of course, is expression, and expression through the arts is such a natural avenue for children. The arts transcend culture, climate, heritage, proficiency testing and economic conditions. The arts are essential 'meaning making.' Opportunities for children to represent what they mean, to amplify their voice and be understood is probably the most important thing in education, and yet, it is undervalued."

Visual literacy allows humans to cultivate cultural meaning and message through such forms as color, style, size and design.

"It includes a wide variety of imagery," Hatfield says. "For example, if you're not really wild about flying, you don't want to get on a plane with a pilot dressed in something that looks like it's from The Music Man. That's why pilots always wear dark blue or black – because it's conservative and gives an image of strength. It says, 'Take me seriously.' So, the bottom line is that you learn things in the education of art and music that you don't learn elsewhere in the curriculum, and if you deny that to children, then you're denying them the knowledge and skills, because today's world is global. It's media-literate. It's high-tech. If you take away those [interpretative] skill sets, they won't be as able to deal with and understand the world."

Sanders emphasizes that the use of symbols and representations to communicate or 'make meaning' forms the very foundation for teaching and learning – the transfer of thoughts, feelings or understanding among people that defies conventional boundaries.

"When a child creates a tree with watercolors, or beats a drum and makes a sound like a giant coming or stretches toward the sun [to imitate] the way a seedling grows into a flowering plant, that child is making meaning," Sanders says. "Understanding that thoughts, ideas and abstract concepts can be represented, manipulated, shared and connected is at the heart of the educational process. The child needs to enter the world of symbols in order to read, write and use quantitative reasoning. So even though the arts add to the quality of children's lives on the basis of enhancing aesthetics, participation in the arts makes it possible for children to make use of symbols like numbers, letters and words."

Young children, in particular, learn best during situations in which they're encouraged to move, feel and manipulate, Sanders explains. Multi-sensory experiences deepen a child's understanding, particularly as new concepts are introduced. Enhanced senses strengthen multiple intelligences and, in turn, transfer to greater academic reasoning.

"There's a ton of research to support this," she says, "and it's also common sense."

Sanders points to new educational approaches such as Reggio Emilio that present information on the premise that children have at least 100 languages – ways of communicating to represent or make meaning.

"From this perspective, the languages of movement, drama, color, sound, music and pattern, for example, all enrich understanding," says Sanders.

Creative Training

Tim Katz, director of Community Arts Education for the Greater Columbus Arts Council, says art strengthens students' ability to problem-solve from a variety of angles, and when integrated into other subjects, stimulates attendance and interest levels.

"Art trains people to think critically and creatively, and that's where invention comes – through critical thinking and creativity," Katz says. "Invention has driven the development of the world. It's driven world economies since the beginning.

"I also think you can't ignore the fact that involvement in the arts stimulates certain students within the normal day's curriculum and can definitely lead to better attendance and better behaviors in school, which are bound to lead to increases in performance in other topics as well," he says. "It's just another way of hooking students into school. If arts are offered, then that's something they want to show up for, and I think that sort of thing has been proven."

An important off-shoot of visual literacy, known as media literacy, allows us to recognize, filter and analyze hidden agendas in what we read, see or hear – a key consumer skill given that the average child is bombarded by more than 100 ads per day. Not even Saturday-morning cartoons are immune.

"There are covert messages, subliminal messages, injected into advertising that turn us all into consumers," Hatfield says. "And there's nothing wrong with consumerism, but the point is that they're selling something. If you have a command of that visual language, you're able to discriminate. You're able to understand what's taking place. If we don't give this [interpretive knowledge and understanding] to kids, they miss out."

The relative health of arts education in public schools varies widely from state to state. Experts report that many programs are being hindered by the underfunded mandates of No Child Left Behind, as money allocated for art education is being siphoned to improve ever critical test scores in reading and math.

"With some of the schools, it's the cost of tests that are holding them back," Hatfield says. "With others, it's the cost of scheduling and meeting the requirements. Nearly 30 states have some kind of formal amendments or legislation because they are either not real happy with, or against, No Child Left Behind."

While Sanders believes that No Child Left Behind could be used to assure the public that art teachers are well prepared, she's not confident such good intentions will emerge.

"I have some fear that the arts may be less valued in a 'No Child Left Behind' environment, because value and test results are often confused," she says. "I would hate to see the evolution of an arts proficiency test. Rather, I suggest that those of us who advocate for the arts in schools stress that not everything that matters can be measured, and that not everything that can be measured counts – in learning or in life. The arts matter in both – big-time."

The 35th-annual "Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the Public's Attitudes Toward the Public Schools," published in September 2003, asked responders to rate their concern about No Child Left Behind and its emphasis on English and math testing only as a means to judge school performance.

Specifically, the survey asked if such emphasis would mean less attention given to art, music, history and other subjects. Eighty percent of those questioned said they have "a great deal" or a "fair amount" of concern, with just 14 percent responding "not much" and 6 percent "not at all."

While Katz has no data at his disposal indicating that No Child Left Behind is harming arts programs because of its inordinate focus on reading and math, word on the street isn't positive, he says.

"The feedback that I get from teachers and administrators is that the program is hollow," Katz says. "It imposes a certain kind of hardship on school systems without providing the [financial] support to follow through. It is quite underfunded, and it's putting a heavy burden on states that they are not in a position to assume. School districts are really hurting. Now, whether that's specifically harming arts programming, I don't have any hard evidence to know if that's true."

The arts are fully mandated in 38 states (74.5 percent), mandated on a limited basis in five (9.8 percent) and not mandated at all in eight (15.7 percent), according to the 2002-2003 State Arts Education Policy Database: Arts Education Partnership.

Despite lingering recession and the added financial strain of No Child Left Behind, arts education remains healthy in some states, such as Ohio, particularly within Franklin County, Katz reports.

A two-part study conducted by the GCAC and completed last year surveyed Franklin County, Ohio's 16 public school districts at both district and school building levels, and also examined public arts education programs available through community organizations.

Part I of the report, the schools' survey, generated a "phenomenal" rate of return – 100 percent at the district level and nearly 100 percent among school buildings. Among the survey's key findings: "Franklin County is way ahead of the curve."

Sixty-nine percent of Franklin County public school districts report they're in compliance with national art education standards, compared to just 31 percent statewide. Furthermore, 94 percent reported use of Ohio's model competency-based program for arts education, compared to 88 percent throughout Ohio.

Education officials report wide variation in arts budgets, with spending ranging from $21,000 to $3 million per year. Similarly, student population varies, too, ranging as low as 3,000 or less in some districts and as high as 64,000 in others. Overall, arts education expenditures account for about 1.6 percent of the aggregate budget for all 16 districts, combined.

"There's a lot of public rhetoric out there of, 'When funding gets tight, when the economy gets bad, the arts are the first things to go,'" Katz says. "There's a lot of argument and a lot of harsh sentiment out there about that fact, but when the Greater Columbus Arts Council, in its capacity as a steward of arts education in central Ohio, asks the question, 'Well if that's true, then by how much? How much has it been cut and what's been cut?' Well, no one can answer those questions. Because there's no real data. It's all anecdote and it's all perception.

"I'm not saying it's not sometimes true, but no one can quantify it." says Katz. "And the reason for that is there's been no baseline data. So we've set to the task of creating a set of baseline data, so that 10 years from now, if that argument is still being made, we can say, 'You know what? That's true. Here's how much it was cut over the last 10 years.' Or we can say, 'You know what? It's not really true.' But we need to be in a position to be informed, so that was the point of doing this study."

The GCAC study also reported more than 500 instances of partnership between Franklin County public schools and arts or cultural organizations, with 73 percent occurring in elementary schools and another 26 percent among middle and high schools.

Partnerships produce a wide range of outside-the-box benefits ranging from student field trips, guest artists and performers to quality materials and professional expertise.

"It means they're engaged in programs offered by arts and culture organizations," Katz says. "The collaboration can take a variety of forms. It's not just the sort of classic model of putting kids on the bus and visiting the museum, although that's definitely part of it."

Additionally, schools reported over 600 usages of "other local sources" – everything from arts councils and universities to libraries and parks and recreation programs – to specifically supplement arts education.

"There's a lot of interaction going on," says Katz. "There are resources being accessed. On the other hand, it's clear that there could be a lot more being accessed than is currently being accessed. I mean, we're talking about a total student population in Franklin County in the public schools of something like 140,000 students."

Innovative Programs

According to Carole M. Genshaft, director of education at the Columbus Museum of Art, approximately 30,000 participate in museum studios and school tours. The facility serves schools throughout Ohio and has developed a particularly strong partnership with Columbus Public Schools.

ARTful reading, tailored to the district's curriculum and supporting fifth-grade learning standards in the arts, language arts and social studies, allows students to tour the museum and explore works of art using the same language and reading comprehension tools used to interpret literature.

DepARTures: The Art of Language, The Language of Art, offers a year-long visual and language arts program to 300 fifth-grade students from 10 Columbus Public Schools classes. Students work with professionals ranging from museum staff to gallery teachers and guest poets-in-residence to gain a unique understanding of poetry and art, learning to express themselves and their ideas through writing, sketching and group discussions. At year's end, the program distributes to participants and their parents a professional produced anthology of students' work.

"Response to DepARTures is extremely positive from all – teachers, children and parents," Genshaft says of the 17-year program. "What we've found is that average and high-achieving students do well with the program, but that at-risk students who have problems performing in more traditional classroom situations often find success [as well]. Even those children with learning problems seem to thrive."

A smattering of feedback reveals the program's popularity and effectiveness. "It gives the classroom teacher a sanctioned reason to awaken student creativity despite the curriculum," writes one teacher. "This should be part of all school curriculum," adds another.

Asked to define poetry at program's end, fifth-graders responded: "A poem is a song without music." "A poem is a work of art that comes out in words." "A poem is what you feel inside."

"The beauty of this program is that many of the teachers who participate each year make the DepARTures materials, lesson plans and approach to learning part of their curriculum," Genshaft says. "Each year, even though particular teachers are no longer in the formal DepARTures program, they continue to enrich their students' experiences by incorporating poetry and art into their classroom and art curriculum."

Additionally, an offshoot art and poetry program empowers students to write creatively using original museum works of art as inspiration. Both programs demonstrate the success of utilizing an art-focused, integrated approach to learning.

"Many districts in Franklin County have very fine art programs," Genshaft says. "Parents of students in other situations need to let administrators and teachers know that they value art instruction and field trips to museums, so that these aspects are included in their children's education. It's unfortunate that without these lobbying efforts, the arts are often curtailed when budgets are tight and levies aren't passed."

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