An Education Reform Strategy Business Should Back
As 129,000 students at Duval County Public Schools embark upon a new school year, laments about the poor quality of public education ring out as familiar as ever. Despite business interests and others funding countless reform efforts since the 1983 publication of “A Nation at Risk” [i], the gap between educational outcomes of children from lower- and higher-income families, by many measures, has widened across the country.
A glimmer of hope appears in recent research out of Northwestern University that examines the larger school districts in Florida. The results present reason to trust that demographics are not destiny. Why? Because individual schools within Florida’s districts vary dramatically at closing the achievement gap [ii]. It’s not easy, but it’s possible.
One way to help students from all socioeconomic backgrounds learn is to treat them like the creative thinkers they are. In the midst of political polarization around education reform, there should be easy consensus that integrating the arts when learning other subjects works wonders and is cost-effective.
In arts integration, students connect an art form with another subject area and learn both. It’s not simply playing background music or doing a craft project. It’s about treating music, dance, theatre, media arts and visual arts as inherently valuable and then integrating these disciplines when learning science, math and other subjects.
Maya Angelou is often quoted for saying, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” Well, we know better – yet we continue to teach children as if we don’t understand how they learn. Whatever the reason for this, it’s surely not because arts integration is too expensive or too experimental.
Turnaround Arts is a federal initiative to integrate arts learning into some of the nation’s lowest performing schools. In its first three years, Turnaround Arts demonstrated a thirteen percent improvement in reading scores and a whopping twenty-three percent improvement in math scores [iii].
Closer to home, the Cathedral Arts Project offers a theatre and civics integration program for middle schoolers. In end-of-course exams, one-hundred percent of students in the integration program were proficient, compared to only forty-six percent and seventy-eight percent in the control groups for 2014/2015 and 2015/2016, respectively. This is the remarkable difference arts integration can make – whether it’s in civics, math, science or language arts.
With arts integration, learning is not about students passively receiving information. It’s about what happens in their minds as they interact with information and with one another to solve problems. It’s about connecting the dots, applying knowledge from one subject to another and discovering innovative solutions. You know … the kind of work they’ll be called upon to do the rest of their lives.
Employers routinely report difficulty finding job candidates skilled at problem solving and innovative thinking. To the extent workforce development is one of the goals of education, wouldn’t it make sense to help students develop these skills? We can’t expect individuals to magically know how to analyze a problem from different perspectives just because they start to draw a paycheck. These habits of mind must be taught from the earliest years and throughout their education.