Advocates say arts education should be a priority for K-12

by Jennifer Joyner ([email protected]) 556 views 

Pianist Simone Dinnerstein talks to students at Leverett Elementary School in Fayetteville during the 2016-17 school year. (photo courtesy Walton Arts Center)

Advocates for the arts in K-12 education say individuals should keep bringing forward the issue at both the state and district levels.

A focus on standardized testing in the past 30 years and a more recent push for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education has resulted in the narrowing of curricula and in some cases a lack of emphasis on the arts, according to a report published in September by the Arts Education Partnership of the Education Commission of the States. The AEP is an advocacy group whose website says it tracks and analyzes education research and policy in states throughout the country.

At the same time, research shows arts education and the integration of arts into core subjects “can have dramatic effects on student success — defined not just by student test scores, but also critical skills, such as creativity, teamwork and perseverance,” according to the report.

The arts can encourage new ideas and change the way individuals view the world around them, said Michael Riha, theatre department chair for the University of Arkansas. “They learn how to learn.”

That’s a skill that is valuable within many businesses, though in many cases the marketability of those skills, from communication to creative thinking, “somehow have not landed,” he said.

“Theatre is a business. … It’s not people just come together, have some fun, something magic happens and now we have [the wildly popular and award-winning Broadway musical,] Hamilton,” Riha said.

At the same time, Riha said, “It’s not just musicals — although those are wonderful, they represent just a small window into what a theatre degree can bring about. It’s working with Nike, it’s working with Chevrolet, it’s coming up with design ideas and using them in creative ways.”

Before joining the university, Riha worked for vendors and remembers applying his theatre training in putting together 15 trade show booths over the course of five years for the annual Wal-Mart Shareholder’s conference. Art education can inform the work individuals do at every level of Fortune 500 companies, he added.

Bryce Harrison, associate creative director at the Little Rock-based ad agency CJRW agreed. The two spoke on the subject during a panel discussion on creative place-making as part of the Arkansas Arts Roundtable in June at the Jim & Joyce Faulkner Performing Arts Center on the UA campus in Fayetteville. The event was presented by the UA, along with Arkansans for the Arts and the Arkansas Department of Education.

Speaking of the benefits of arts education, Harrison said, “This is not just social commentary. This can affect bottom lines.”

Information published by the Chronicle of Higher Education also shows employers look for the qualities that arts education instills.

“IBM, in a 2010 report based on face-to-face interviews with more than 1,500 CEOs worldwide, concluded that ‘creativity trumps other leadership characteristics’ in an era of relentless complexity and disruptive change,” according to a 2014 report from the organization.

Riha quoted famed physicist Albert Einstein as saying, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” The two go hand in hand, he said.

“Imagination without knowledge is like having wings with no feet,” he said. “We help our students develop that imagination around theatre arts training, and we also help them learn how to land.”

Riha also pointed to cultural awareness brought about by the arts and encouragement of empathy, especially in theatre. Also, studies have shown students who learn to read music do better in math according to AEP, and one study shows making art can change your brain.

According to research published in the scientific journal PLOS One in 2014, producing visual art improved psychological resilience and increased brain activity for the participants by the end of the experiment. The study looked at before-and-after brain scans of two groups of recent retirees. One group was given lessons by an art educator, and the participants actively created pieces of visual art, while the other group discussed art and interpreted selected paintings and sculptures. After a 10-week class, the retirees who made art showed increased connectivity in the part of the brain that deals with cognitive processes like introspection, self-monitoring and memory.

On a regional level, access to the arts in education has been an initiative of several organizations, including the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville.

Crystal Bridges earlier this year introduced a program intended to identify problems in K-12 schools and apply arts-based solutions to them. It is supported by the Windgate Educational Excellence through the Arts Endowed Fund, established by a $15 million gift from the Windgate Charitable Foundation.

Its first project is the School Partnership Program, a multi-year collaboration that in its first year will focus on professional development for teachers, teaching artists residencies and field trip experiences for schools from throughout the country to promote art as a support for social and emotional development and to academic outcomes.

Anne Kraybill, director of education and research in learning at Crystal Bridges, said Crystal Bridges has always offered field trips to students, but the new program is more comprehensive. Most notably, it measures access.

“Capturing this data will help, but there is more to it than capturing the metrics,” she said in an arts education panel at the Arkansas Arts Roundtable.

From there, Crystal Bridges would like to look at long-term effects.

“How does access to the arts change and impact student outcomes, not just immediately, but also later in life?” Kraybill said.

Kraybill said Crystal Bridges is interested in looking at the effect on arts in factors that are “not as easy to measure, soft skills. All of these things we believe lead to higher quality of life,” she said. Crystal Bridges also has partnered with Virtual Arkansas to provide online art-related classes for high school students. The courses are now available in 22 states, Kraybill said.

A key to cultural education is in student field trips to the area’s arts entities. Kraybill said it takes each of the organizations working in tandem and on their own to provide as many children as possible with art experiences.

“We are culturally rich here in NWA,” Kraybill said, but there is an inequity in access.

The key to improving availability of an arts education is doing it at the district level, she said.