Omni Shoreham Hotel
April 9, 2010
I join with the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, and the Council of Chief State School Officers in applauding Sandra Rupert and the Arts Education partnership for putting this session together. Thank you, truly.
A preacher came home one Sunday and said, "I preached a great sermon today."
"Oh," his wife responded. "What was it about?"
"It was all about how the rich should give to the poor," the preacher answered.
"Oh," said his wife. "And were you very convincing?"
"Well," the preacher said. "I sure convinced the poor."
Since taking this job eight months ago, I feel a lot like that preacher: I spend an awful lot of time talking with people who already agree with me. We do that a lot in the arts. And we certainly do it in arts education. But I am encouraged to see new people joining the conversation, and many of them agreeing.
Growing the size of the choir -- to continue the preacher metaphor -- was one of the goals for founding the Arts Education Partnership, and it is one of the goals for another of the NEA's major investments in arts education: the Education Leaders Institute (ELI), which happens in conjunction with the Illinois Arts Council -- thanks to Terry Scrogum and his staff.
ELI is a chance for a state's key decision makers to come together around arts education: school leaders, state superintendents and boards of education, legislators, artists and arts professionals, funders, and academics. And I am thrilled to announce today that the five states that will participate in this summer's ELI are Illinois, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oregon, and Washington State.
In addition to the $3.4 million that we invest in leadership initiatives like AEP and ELI, the NEA also has an almost $8 million budget for Learning in the Arts grants, and we invest well over $4 million in arts education through our discipline grants and state partnerships.
Together, that's some $15 million, and I have challenged my staff to see if we can make sure that there is at least one arts education grant in every Congressional district. That's how important arts education is to my chairmanship: I want to know that we have reached every part of America with some support for arts education.
Why? Because we need more arts education in this country.
At the NEA, we will shortly be releasing data that shows that arts education drives arts attendance, and the producer in me thinks that butts in seats is reason enough to do anything. But there are more reasons: in addition to audiences, arts education creates arts administrators and artists.
But not every Belle Silverman will go through public school to become Beverly Sills. Some will, and that's great. But for the rest of us -- even those who never work in the arts or even regularly attend arts events -- arts education is important, as well.
Daniel Pink does a better job at laying this out than anyone, so I will simply incorporate his thinking by reference. And Howard Gardner is the godfather of multiple intelligences, so add his work in. And Mark Stern at the University of Pennsylvania has shown that the arts increase child welfare and create stronger, more active citizens. And any principal who has scheduled an arts class first period can tell you that the arts improve school attendance.
But I really liked Alan Brinkley's glib title in the recent Newsweek: "Half a mind is a terrible thing to waste."
The arts provide us with new ways of thinking, new ways to draw connections. They are important social capital, and they help maintain our competitive edge by engendering innovation and creativity. So an arts education grant in every Congressional district is an important goal. And if I were a cautious chairman, that's probably where I would stop my work.
After all, when I arrived at the NEA back in August, I knew a great deal about a very small corner of the world: West 44th Street in Manhattan. So, I knew that I needed an arts education myself, and that is why I have been visiting Detroit, Peoria, Philadelphia, San Diego, and lots of other places to see how art works. At each of those stops, I have confessed that, in many cases, my knowledge of the nonprofit arts world was "not even vestigial."
Turning to arts education, and attempting to extend yet another metaphor, my knowledge might better be described as "previously extinct." I was lucky enough to grow up surrounded by the arts -- a father who painted, an uncle who ran a bohemian cabaret, a jazz lyricist for an aunt, a brother who grew up to publish Art Forum. And during my public schooling in Clayton, Missouri, I starred as the dentist in The Diary of Anne Frank ... well, mom told me I was the star of the show.
I went on to get a solid liberal arts education, earn a doctorate with Bob Brustein, and even land a teaching gig at Yale for a few years as a theatre professor. But I have to confess that prior to coming to work at the Old Post Office, I had never spent any time thinking about arts education, per se, except to hold the solid, affluent, liberal position of being 100 percent for it (which is rather like being staunchly against cancer.)
Now I find myself chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts and expected to proclaim forth at gatherings like this, surrounded by people who know and have done far more than I could ever hope to.
I have had a crash course, meeting with arts education stakeholders at community organizations like Inner-City Arts in Los Angeles; charter schools like Miami's Design and Architecture Senior High; Stanford University's Arts Initiative, and just this past Monday, at a performance of Othello at the public high school in Jerome, Idaho. While somewhat exhausting, my itinerary is far from exhaustive, but enough themes have been repeated at each of those visits that I am beginning to get a lay of the land.
So let me share with you my own personal arts-education education to date.
Let me start by defining how I will use "arts education" for the next 15 or so minutes. For the purposes of this talk, I am focusing only on pre-K-through-12th-grade public school students. And it is the job of our public schools to provide every American child access to a complete, quality education. And the arts are an essential part of any quality education.
There was that painful public service campaign some years back that called for thefour R's of education: reading, 'riting, 'rithmetic, and (a)'rrrrt. Ouch. That actually hurts. But the point is correct, and it is the theme that Arne will pick up in his remarks. So I will leave that for him, and instead focus on the role for the NEA and the other nonprofit organizations and funders that are working in arts education.
It is our job to support and expand the work of our public schools. But the public schools need to own arts education — it should not be outsourced to us. No one would ever expect "teaching scientists" from the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History to replace the biology teachers at a public school. So our job is to work with classroom teachers and teaching artists to help extend their work. But we have a second job beyond that, a role in offering models for building better learning environments.
So let's take the first job first. I believe that everyone can agree on one thing: the best arts education is one that is offered by a combination of classroom teachers, art specialists, teaching artists, and art and community organizations working together with students and families. In order to effectively work together, we need a common language and shared expectations -- or to translate into the language I am just learning: "a sequential, scaffolded, standards-based learning system."
Let me take New York City as my example -- I spent more than 3 decades living there, so I have some familiarity with those schools, and Paul King (the head of the arts for New York City's public schools) and Cultural Affairs Commissioner Kate Levin have been very generous in sharing their work with me. The NYC Department of Education has developed a set of curricular guidelines with milestones, and they did this working in close partnership with arts organizations like Ballet Hispanico, the New York Philharmonic, the Theatre Development Fund, and Studio in a School. These guidelines (the Blueprints for Teaching and Learning in the Arts) have been written so that they can be used in school, during out-of-school time, and in conjunction with field trips.
This year, working with NYU, New York City added a quality rubric -- inspired by Steve Seidel's The Qualities of Quality -- that has been designed to be used by school leaders, classroom teachers, arts specialists, teaching artists, program officers, parents and funders even ... pretty much anyone who has a stake in arts education.
This is a model that deserves attention: first, the public schools have embraced arts education as one of their core responsibilities. Secondly, the arts organizations working in and with the schools are working within a shared pedagogical framework — one that they helped shape. And now when organizations and teaching artists start working with students, they have a road map for what these students can and should be expected to know.
I could tell similar stories from San Francisco's Arts Education Master Plan or Los Angeles's Arts for All, but the point is that no true partnership can happen without an infrastructure in place -- nonprofits can only effectively partner with schools that are ready to partner back. School-based staff and standards are essential.
At that Idaho Othello performance I mentioned, the school's theater and English departments had prepared its students with Idaho Shakespeare Festival's teachers' guides and tool kits. Arts exposure is fine, but unless students are prepared for the art, unless teachers are integrating the art into the students' overall learning for the year, it remains exposure, not education. Having a casual familiarity with something is not the same as being fully informed and knowledgeable.
As my favorite S.J. Perlman quote goes, "I don't know a lot about medicine, but I know what I like."
So public schools need to provide the infrastructure for providing arts education, and the arts community needs to work within it to expand learning opportunities. It's important work, and it's work that does not yet happen universally. So we could probably spend our time just focusing on getting more students more arts education more often. And a cautious chairman would probably stop right there.
But I'm not, so I won't.
I believe that there is another job that we need to take on, one that will actually help with the first. If we were to try word association, and I were to say "arts education," what would the response be? It might be somewhat varied and interesting in this room. But outside? If I were to say "arts education," I would be willing to bet that the near universal response would be "budget cuts."
I am worried that through repetition over the past four decades, we have inadvertently ingrained in the public's mind that arts education is tied only to budget discussions. We have trapped ourselves into incrementalism where we are constantly fighting to maintain the status quo.
When talking about my work at the NEA, I have repeatedly used a sports metaphor: I have no interest in playing defense. You can't move the ball down the field if you are constantly looking back over your shoulder to see who's about to tackle you. And I think with arts education, we need to run the ball down the field. How? The arts should be a model for education systems broadly writ.
Many of the schools that I have been visiting -- take the Lusher school in New Orleans -- do not think of themselves as arts schools per se, but they have the arts fully infused throughout the day and the curriculum. I dropped in on a Dutch history class that was intensely focused on Van Gogh.
Sarah Cunningham, the NEA's head of arts education, recently presented to our National Council on the Arts. She was provocative, and engendered a lively discussion among our council members, who come at the arts as arts educators, artists, journalists, and patrons. And it got me thinking: can the arts actually change learning systems, and more importantly, should they? The answer to both is yes.
So rather than just fighting for a place at the table, what if we actually helped build an entirely new table?
There is a huge focus at the moment on STEM -- science, technology, engineering, and math. And arts advocates have been fighting to insert an "A" for "arts," making it "STEAM." Yes, this needs to be done -- "STEAM" is incrementally better than "STEM," but there is an opportunity to make another point.
So, for a moment, let us rearrange the same letters and have a discussion about "TEAMS."
Collaboration is essential to a 21st-century education -- no one works in silos anymore -- and the arts provide that: from creating a stage production, to working as a seamless corps de ballet, to playing in an orchestra. Collaboration is central to the arts, and we need more of both in our schools. Solitary pupils sitting alone at desks is an outdated model, and one that doesn't begin to prepare students for the highly networked, constantly connected world they inhabit.
"TEAMS" and collaboration also call to mind the notion of "affinity spaces" -- places inhabited by people with a shared purpose and varying abilities and knowledge. Not a bad description of most classrooms, actually. And a fair description of many websites and online communities. But most traditional classrooms don't operate like Wikipedia and its cousins. Those solitary students sitting at their lone desks are taught by a master standing up front. And knowledge moves in only one direction.
Ask the leader of any jazz ensemble -- each musician brings unique insight to the piece being performed, and a good leader takes advantage of this to make a better whole. Ditto for an organization like the Philadelphia Mural Project, or Anne Bogart's SITI company. Affinity spaces create webs of learning with knowledge moving in many directions simultaneously.
Along with collaboration and affinity spaces, comes the notion of crossing genres. Those solitary students and lone masters cover science at 9 o'clock; English at 9:55; social studies at 10:50; and so on. But that's not how the world operates, and it's not how art works. A painter needs to understand the physics of color mixing, the mathematics of ratios, psychology, and narrative. Sometimes for a single brushstroke.
The same goes for producers, certainly. And for theater and opera directors. And it's what business people in the world at large do. In fact, thanks to technology, strategy is far more important than memorization. Data storage and retrieval has become so advanced and so easy -- even I am thinking about getting an iPad...granted, it's for my baseball games, but still...
Data storage and retrieval has become so advanced and so easy that rote memorization is going the way of the steno pool. Yes, there will always be things that we have to memorize. Students should know the things that happened in this country in 1776, for instance. And in 1861. And 1969 and 2001.
But more importantly, they need to be able to deploy those facts through strategies that are interesting and insightful. And the arts are all about creating strategies. Look at classical ballet -- it's a series of very basic, learned positions that can be deployed to extraordinary effect.
Students used to develop skill sets and strategies through physical play and the exploration of space. But as the world has gotten less safe, or as we have gotten more frightened, or both, the physical spaces that children have to play and explore have become more and more constricted. Reading a book, performing as a character, asking "what if," the magical transformation of object: these are the things that now expand psychic and imaginative space and allow students to go spelunking to create these skills and strategies.
So what does this all add up to? "TEAMS" was my jumping off point, and "project-based learning" would be an easy landing pad for me, and a natural one for the arts.
Casita Maria in the Bronx runs a project-based summer program. Teams of students work with a teaching artist and are "hired" for real world projects -- they develop a new logo for a senior citizens social service program, or design tote bags based on works from the Brooklyn Museum's permanent collection that can be sold in the gift shop. These projects require everything I just outlined: TEAMS collaborating in affinity settings around projects that cross genres and require synthesizing strategies to solve a challenge.
Project-based learning is great. But I want to push the idea further and end with a provocative thought.
What if we took a different lesson from the arts? One that would drastically re-form our learning environments. What if we took away the lesson of failure?
I am not talking about the still too many public schools that fail our students. Or the students who fail out of school entirely. I am talking about "productive failure," failure that stimulates adaption and helps students find alternate pathways to success.
I am talking about IDEO, the leading design company in the world, which has as its motto "Fail often and succeed sooner."
I am talking about Charles Schwab, whose businesses experienced so many failures, mixed in with a few key successes, that his company coined the term "noble failures."
I am talking about Butler, the team that "failed" on Monday night. Their coach (little older than a public school student himself...) certainly has them already training for March Madness 2011.
And I am talking about the video game designer who described his job as "making it fun to fail." If you die on level four of "Scorpion King: Rise of the Akkadian," what is any child's reaction? To pick up the joy stick -- or the Wii -- and try to get to level five. You can have a blast failing.
Productive failure ... fail often and succeed sooner ... failure as inspiration and drive ... failure as fun ... failure as permission to try again. These are the values of successful members of American industry. But we are not really talking about this in our schools. Many schools are not teaching the art of innovation, the art of the productive, noble, fun failure.
And this, of course, brings me to the topic of testing. Arne will cover this in his remarks, I am sure, so let me just say that of course we need testing -- we need to assess what our students already know in order to understand what to teach them next. Fourth grade is about the time that you stop learning to read and start reading to learn. Teachers need to know if students have mastered that.
But what we need in our schools -- what we don't have enough of -- is an environment where it is okay to fail, because that environment will make it okay to try. And, ironically, if failure is fun, if it is productive and noble, and if it becomes little more than permission to try again, our students will succeed more.
Oftentimes, it is just the affluent who have this luxury. If you are IDEO, or Charles Schwab, or even one of my brothers (my uncle Jay used to give us a dollar for every "F" we brought home), it is safe to take risks. But often the typical public student can't take risks, can't innovate, can't perform radical adaptations because failure is an end, not a beginning.
If I go to the gym and experience muscle failure at 100 reps ... (or, in my case, 10) ... does that mean that I didn't have a good workout? No, it means that I had the best workout possible for me at that moment. I pushed myself as far as I could, and tomorrow, I will see if I can get to 101 ... (or 11, as the case may be). Failure can be a beginning.
And I think that we can use the arts to give the luxury of failure to our students. The arts allow for experiment, for risk. The arts often engage students who are not succeeding in other arenas, those who know what failure is, and who navigate it every day. Therefore, the arts might be the key to moving student learning in this country to a new place, a place that might prepare them to be innovators and entrepreneurs. And maybe even great artists.
How many water lilies did Monet paint, trying to get them just right? How many times did we workshop Angels in America? How many times did Kurt practice hitting that high note in "Defying Gravity" on Glee?
Yes, it happens in other subjects, too: if Columbus hadn't failed in sailing to India, I probably wouldn't be here today. If Alexander Fleming hadn't failed to clean up his lab before an August holiday, we wouldn't have penicillin. We underestimate the role of chance, of luck, and of perseverance through failure.
So let me turn to Elizabeth Streb, as a final example. If she hadn't failed at using the traditional vocabulary of dance, she wouldn't have a MacArthur. For those who don't know her, Elizabeth Streb is a brilliant choreographer who runs what is most often described as a trapeze studio in Brooklyn. Early in her career, she attempted to use the traditional vocabulary of dance to express herself. She failed at that, persevered through it, and invented her own vocabulary of movement, creating the language of "action mechanics" and going on to create performances without precedent.
Her company now regularly "fails" at its home in Brooklyn. They fail while trying to do things like fall upward, dance with elephants, and generally attempt the pretty much impossible. Every once in awhile, they succeed. But most often they fail. And both the failures and the successes make wonderful performances.
They even did it on TV once: Elizabeth took her company onto "So You Think You Can Dance." They went with a piece that involved dodging two swinging cinder blocks. They failed to get past the first round, and the judges asked why there weren't three blocks. So, Elizabeth and her company went back to Brooklyn and started the piece again, this time with the third block.
This is exactly the kind of environment for learning that I would like to see recreated for our children. I think that the Streb Lab for Action Mechanics might very well be the classroom of the future.
So whether it's STEM, STEAM, TEAMS, or STREB, let's make sure that we remain in conversation -- the preachers, the choirs, and especially the unconverted. Let's make sure the arts are in our schools: every child/every day. And most importantly, let's make sure that we use the arts to inform every aspect of education.
That's a lot, and it's what I have gathered on my travels to date. It's not definitive. It's not set in concrete. But it is where my mind is at the moment. So, I would now like to invite Sarah Cunningham to join me on stage, and we are happy to answer a few questions before Arne joins us.