by Erika Lovley | Politico.com
But while districts scramble to improve on core subjects, educators say the latest subject to be left behind is arts education.
The arts community is hoping to build a partnership with the business community to make music, dance and drawing classes more of a priority in the reauthorization of the education program.
Their pitch: Art classes enhance the creative and innovative thinking that drives entrepreneurs.
A recent study by the Center on Education Policy indicates that school time spent in art classes has decreased by nearly half since NCLB was passed in 2001. Some educators say the focus on testing is so intense that it is forcing schools to siphon time away from other nontest subjects such as music and dance.
The shift has alarmed and energized some of the nation’s largest arts groups, like Americans for the Arts, the nation’s largest arts advocacy nonprofit; American Arts Alliance, a group of 4,100 performance artists; and NAMM, a trade association representing musical instruments. NAMM spent $320,000 on lobbying last year, the most out of the three groups.
With the reauthorization of NCLB stalled on Capitol Hill, the community has time to plan its attack. In March, on Arts Advocacy Day, it plans to saturate Capitol Hill; some activists will be toting samples of professional and student artwork to show lawmakers.
Karen Bradley, a government affairs liaison for the National Dance Education Organization, said she has spent an increasing amount of time on the Hill as Congress’ Thanksgiving break draws closer, urging lawmakers to allocate more funding to and emphasize the importance of arts education in the revised bill.
“I tell Congress the message to school districts needs to be, ‘Incorporate arts into the learning day,’” she said.
Arts education was originally included as a core subject in President Bush’s 2001 law — a move the community considered a huge victory. But the arts movement struggled to find both funding and attention after reading and math tests became schools’ main focus. The law also does not require schools to provide the classes.
Studies have found that art classes can help students’ performance in other subjects and could even raise test scores. For instance, dance movement can be used to help a child learn rhythm and meter in reading classes, while singing can enrich the memorization of multiplication tables.
According to a 2005 Harris poll, 93 percent of Americans believe the arts are vital to a complete education.
The Business Roundtable and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce agree that arts education would help produce more creative, well-rounded students. According to the chamber, American graduates are beginning to fall behind other countries in creative skills, which could be aided by arts classes.
But the business community isn’t ready yet to move lobbying resources from their top education priorities, which still include rigorous testing standards for NCLB. Those standards, they argue, will produce a more globally competitive workforce.
So mastering the basics must come first, they’ve told Bradley. But she counters: “What they really want is to hire people who can think on their feet and have creative skills. Arts are a part of that, but they don’t get it.”
Sandy Kress, Bush’s former education adviser and a lobbyist for both the Chamber and Business Roundtable, said while much of the business community is quietly supportive of arts education, math and reading subjects must be improved before the sector is willing to launch a lobbying move for it.
Kress points to studies that show arts education hasn’t suffered dramatically under NCLB. The Digest of Education Statistics shows that 2005 high school graduates took more courses in noncore subjects like history, science and arts than 2000 graduates did.
“We don’t have a position on whether arts is good or not,” said Arthur Rothkopf, senior vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “I personally think the classes are a great idea, but if a youngster can’t read and do math at proficiency levels, he’s going to have a very difficult life.”
In Congress, enriching arts education gained bipartisan support earlier this year. Both the Senate and the House have passed resolutions calling music education an important part of a well-rounded education that should be available to every student in the nation.
Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), both members of the Senate education committee, requested in May that the U.S. Government Accountability Office examine how arts access has changed since NCLB was implemented.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), who originally voted for NCLB, has also criticized the law for depriving students of creative expression.
Although a number of politicians want to see arts funding, money for education is already a touchy subject in Congress, which is trying to allocate money for a host of other domestic priorities.
After making some progress in the Senate, art lobbyists are aiming their message toward House Education and Labor Committee members, especially Chairman George Miller (D-Calif.), whose NCLB draft is still under review.
The movement is also attracting future artists. Valerie Branch, a senior dance major from the University of Maryland, is one of hundreds of college students planning a lobbying effort for Congress. The 25-year-old plans to join a dance troupe after college.
“People think the arts aren’t important, but kids need to know that there are other vocational careers out there,” she said.
The Walnut Hill School, one of the oldest secondary high schools for arts in the nation, gathered arts educators and students on the Hill last week to meet with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), an avid arts supporter.
“A student whose life is enriched by the arts has a better chance of staying in school, achieving in school and succeeding after he or she graduates,” Kennedy said.