Can Obama's Turnaround Arts Initiative Save Schools?


Friday, May 04, 2012

Last week, the Obama administration announced a new initiative to improve a handful of the nation’s worst performing schools through arts education. The Turnaround Arts Initiative has chosen eight schools to receive $14.7 million over three years to integrate art, music, dance, and theater into their curricula. The experimental program from the President’s Committee on Arts and Humanities, in conjunction with the Department of Education, hopes to prove that failing schools can reverse course by encouraging their students’ creative expression.

While the program has attracted the support of celebrity artists including Chuck Close, Yo-Yo Ma, and Sarah Jessica Parker, not everyone is impressed. “This is a teeny, tiny little band-aid on what is a giant, national festering problem,” says Diane Ravitch, author of The Life and Death of the Great American School System. “And it doesn’t begin to address the needs of the schools.”

Ravitch served in the Department of Education in the administrations of both George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. She was also a prominent supporter of George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law, before becoming one of its fiercest critics in 2006. As Ravitch sees it, NCLB’s stringent standardized testing requirements have forced schools and teachers to obsess over test scores at the cost of teaching critical thinking and creativity. “The very nature of standardized testing is that new ideas are punished," Ravitch tells Kurt Andersen.

“If we have a generation of kids who can’t think for themselves, our whole country is in trouble,” Ravitch warns. “Nations that have the highest test scores have the lowest creativity scores. The more we raise our test scores, the more we sacrifice creativity.”

But the solution, Ravitch says, is not more federal money for the arts in schools. “The funder of the arts should be and must be the local and state governments,” she says. They, in turn, must consider music and visual arts as valuable subjects as reading and math. "The arts are just as important in schools as the basic subjects — [art] is a basic subject.”

→ Is there a public school near you that’s doing a great job teaching the arts, in spite of funding cuts? Or one that’s been forced to give up? Tell us in a comment below.

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Comments [17]

piccolope from Portland, OR

As an art educator I am, of course, excited that the arts are being boosted in these schools- if even as a splattered sample of the overall population- to see how the arts influence a student's engagement with school and their own mind.
I am, however, weary of the assessment of the program as being a dull multiple choice test in "unrelated" subjects.
I teach a variety of art classes at the high school level outside out Portland, OR. I've included math, science, history, botany, anatomy, zoology, architecture, and music as needed, which is often.
I aspire to develop people who are observant, able to creatively and critically problem solve, and critique using an arts-enriched vocabulary, a wide variety of works, as well as their own.
I aspire to develop students who are self-reflective, who are able to modify their their work, who enjoy process as well as product, and can get "lost" in joy while working.
It saddens me when the arts are not mentioned as being as important, they are. All solutions can be, and should be- somehow, beautiful. Yep.
Just watch Between The Folds and you and you can see just one example- through the lend of origami- what I mean.
My school has a large engineering department; not one teacher has EVER come to talk to me, but I include design and construction in my curriculum.
I look forward to hearing the rest of the reports this week, and hope I don't want to pull my hair out.

Apr. 16 2013 09:24 PM
Rebecca McCoyer from Washington, DC

I am the parent of second grader at the Inspired Teaching Demonstration School in Washington, DC. It's a great example of a school that, despite operating on a shoe-string budget (the school just started up in the 2011-12 school year), prioritizes arts education as an essential, integral part of its curriculum and its teacher training. A partnership with The Phillips Collection provides teachers training in how to integrate the arts into their curricula. The museum also offers strategies for building lessons around specific museum collections - the children's unique pieces from these lessons showcase their own creativity as well as their learning of content, and artistic process. We also partnered with The Folger Shakespeare Library through the Shakespeare Steps Out program, which has provided excellent instruction and teacher support in both a content area and process which were new for many students. My child has come home with mind (and mouth) overflowing from all the connections, the new and deeper thinking, the "aha" moments, the experiences of being on stage and making decisions about what to include in a project, or what more he needed to know in order to complete a piece - be that writing, painting, or math solution. Our entire family benefitted - we're embarrassed to admit we had not visited either of these places until this year, so are glad the partnerships gave us the nudge we needed.

While the partnerships allow for amazing exchange of ideas between museum and school, the arts would still be a prioritized part of the curriculum whether or not the partnerships ever occurred. Master teachers and resident teachers thoughtfully plan instruction in and through the arts. They discuss children's pieces with them and have another way to observe students. My child's teachers talk to me on the playground weekly about specific works of his - painted, sketched, written or otherwise - and in every instance, he is the active, learning artist, not an audience member. We are all able to see and learn so much more about him and what more he might be than if we were only discussing his reading level or math scores. Our principal often says that "art is such an important tool for having students express themselves, and to get students physically engaged to draw them into the learning environment. Art should NEVER be considered merely a fun, special extracurricular activity; arts education should be a basic part of the school experience for every child."

We are very happy to see teachers engaged in the art of teaching, and very happy that this school serves as a demonstration model. Resident teachers trained in this approach to arts education go on to teach in other, lucky schools . . .

May. 12 2012 09:36 PM
JoAnn Davis from Brunswick, Georgia

All of Georgia, but especially the rural areas, are struggling to maintain arts programs, what with budget cuts to schools announced almost daily. The rural county of Glynn, whose school poverty is masked by Sea and St. Simons Islands, has been able to maintain an orchestra program by putting together school space with private donations. Our Coastal Youth Symphony, led by Maestro Luis Haza who retired after a 39 year career with the National Symphony, gives students from 3 counties the opportunity to play classical music. And, hours of volunteer time, has managed to keep the pipeline open starting as early as third grade with our unique Primary Violins program. Our local college, College of Coastal Georgia, is another partner. Yes, grades and attendance are up among children who are at greatest risk not to finish school. Wish we were eligible for Obama's program. Rural schools in Republican states are often not considered.

May. 12 2012 05:55 PM

RG from DC, arts education isn't about turning out artistically creative adults, successfully communicating ideas through the arts. It's about turning out creative THINKERS, people who are able to use their creativity to solve problems outside of the arts. Art teachers are not solely concerned with tutoring the next Rembrandt, da Vinci, Monet or least, I as an art teacher am not concerned with that outcome, although it is tantalizing to fantasize that I have a future artistic genius in my classroom...but no, my passion as an art teacher is to inspire students to value their creativity, to understand that memorizing material to pass a test is not the best measure of true success in LIFE.

May. 12 2012 05:22 PM
Cheryl from Maine

In our area of rural Maine, the arts are not highly celebrated by the majority of the community and I certainly do not believe anyone would classify our public school programs as “well-funded”. For this reason I must comment on the wonderful work being done at the small and rural Hartford Sumner Elementary School, which my son began attending this year as a 5th grader. I have been consistently incredulous over the amount of time and effort the Allied Arts Department puts into the curriculum there and how it is supported by teachers and administration throughout the school!

I would like to make note in the area of music particularly, as my son has access to violin lessons, a strings group lesson, and chorus all in addition to his regularly scheduled music class and all take place during the regular school day. His music teacher is tireless in planning events for all grade levels at the school as well as participating in activities off site, arranging field trips to orchestras and museums, and bringing groups to the school. This is all achieved through fundraising and hard work on the part of the teachers and parents in the school.

In addition, the elementary music teacher works hand-in-hand with the middle school/high school music teacher (literally - they are married) and so the music program from K-12 has become seamless and booming, reaching out to a great majority of students. They work together to include elementary through high school students when possible in their outstanding productions.

I would encourage anyone to learn more about what Meghan Andrews-Wright and Ethan Wright are doing to promote the Arts, specifically music and theater, in rural Maine. They obviously have a vision and are sacrificing great amounts of personal time to achieve it. Because of their expansive work, these teachers, along with their counterparts, are having an enormous impact on the arts in rural Maine and are shaping an entire generation of young citizens to appreciate and participate in the Arts.

May. 10 2012 02:22 PM
RG from DC

The problem I have with this segment is the dichotomy - arts are creative, core subjects are not. Piano can be just as test-driven and math, history, languages can be just creative. Second, very little is understood about how to generate creativity in any field. Is it genetic, is it parental, is it taught in schools? One of the pivot points (that we can control) seems to be a broad exposure to a variety of subjects - and then encouraging metaphors and analogies. My first instinct would be to ditch the piano lessons and incorporate "life studies", anthropology, psychology, even finance. Our graduating seniors already walk out of high school barely able to navigate the world, and you want to add painting to that? I posit that we learn creativity by practicing it, and we practice it by confronting and solving problems - about global warming, how to get along with a neighbor, how to balance checkbook. Free-form "now paint a picture" is not inherently creative because it's missing the creation part of the equation. If art is communication (a limited paradigm, granted), then what is your picture communicating to the viewer, and why? What change are you trying to bring about in me? The art instruction that I've experienced tends to spend 90% of the time in rote discipline and 10% on this unfocussed "create a piece of art" with perhaps some guideline about materials (watercolor, 10 minute dance using 3 partners) but it's almost sacrilege to give the student a problem. I thought Chinese students were renowned for their arts skills (painting, piano, violin) - doesn't make them creative though.

May. 10 2012 01:43 PM

inwoodite from nyc, not all students are good at taking tests no matter how well they know the subject matter or how "easy" the test is. And those who are good at test-taking, very few of them actually retain the information for very long after the test is over. When I was in school I was a very good test-taker - straight-A student - but when I took college entrance exams 20 years later, I had forgotten the basic order of operations in math and had to take a remedial math class before I could take the required college algebra course. many students can afford tutors? (If you're suggesting that schools provide tutors - is that really a cost-effective solution to reaching all students?) And now students are being taught the same material in a different way and I (straight-A student) was of little help in helping my kids with homework when they were in school. How many parents know the material or the methods their children are learning in school? Must they take night classes to prepare themselves to help their kids in school, on top of providing an income - food, clothing, shelter, and a loving home? You're asking an awful lot of parents and assuming that all children learn the same way. They don't. They NEED the creative outlets and the alternative means of learning basic academics that arts education offers...and very few parents can afford to give their children private arts lessons or live in a place like NYC where the arts are everywhere around them. MOST Americans live far away from any access to art museums, theaters, their children not deserve to be exposed to the arts?

May. 09 2012 12:49 PM
inwoodite from nyc

on the other hand, if a kid can't pass a simple formula exam, then how can he be expected to make his way through the banal bureaucracy of life ahead? These tests are not that hard! I took them all, and prepared for them by taking the same test over and over again, basically, using old regents' books, etc. It was a simple exercise in understanding what's expected of you, and doing it. Like learning to drive. Like paying your taxes. If kids can't manage these tests, there's something wrong here.

I also had the benefit of going to college in France, where people are "less creative." I have to say, I found it a little oppressive in its lack of creativity, but on the other hand, students were taught skills that served them forever. Creativity will out, after all. Picasso came from Europe. He learned everything there was to learn before striking out in his own direction.

The problem is that parents are delegating ALL the learning to schools. Show me a kid who's doing well in school, and I'll show you a kid whose parent(s) help then with their homework every day after work. It's the parents the DOE needs to concentrate on. Have classes for parents. Or spend less on everything and provide more tutors. I benefitted greatly from my math tutor. I still remember her fondly.

May. 08 2012 09:52 PM
Kira Evans from Washington, DC

I would invite you to learn about Fillmore Arts Centers in Washington, DC. Fillmore is a program of dedicated arts instruction in dance, drama, music and visual arts. The program was the brainchild of several foreword (forward-thinking) parents in the 1970's who saw the challenge of offering arts education with limited resources.

These parents created Fillmore as a way to pool the resources of several smaller D.C. public schools into a program that would give their students access to full-time professional teachers in spaces specifically tailored to support art production. By joining together these schools can offer a wide variety of classes across the arts disciplines.

Dance classes are taught in a proper studio with dance flooring and mirrors. Ceramics is taught in a studio with a kiln, and drama has a stage and props. The visual arts offer classes in sculpture, painting and printmaking in their studios and digital arts is offered in their computer lab. Music classes provide violins and guitars for student use.

Each teacher is not only a certified teacher, but also highly trained and accomplished in their specificarts discipline. There are currently two Fillmore campuses that serve 11 schools and over 3,000public elementary school students in DC.

The Fillmore program is a truly creative approach. Please come see it for yourself!

This video was made by Key Elementary students to help explain Fillmore to incoming students and parents at Key (a participating school in Fillmore):

This link shows photos of the impressive work from the last visual arts show:

for more info:

May. 08 2012 01:04 PM
Laura Marek from Page, Arizona

I am an art educator who was RIFed from my position in an elementary school because, while I am very highly qualified to teach art, I am not certified to teach elementary reading and math. After eight years of teaching and encouraging young people to think creatively, I was unceremoniously released because my principal could not use me as a reading or math teacher in addition to teaching art. It was not difficult for me to find another position outside of the public school system almost immediately, but I am devastated that the students I served (predominantly economically disadvantaged and culturally disregarded Native American kids) are losing out on a truly quality education. NCLB is a joke and it is my hope that Obama's Turnaround Arts Initiative is a pilot program that will ignite and catch fire nation-wide.

May. 06 2012 05:44 PM

I am also an art educator, and I was also so pleased to hear your program today. I posted it to my facebook right away. For the past few years, I spend the last few months of school chewing my fingernails and waiting to hear whether they are cutting my job or not. It appears I will be here for at least one more year, but probably not the next. I just received an email this morning that I am "testing" children who have already been tested over and over to make sure that they need more intercessions in order to finally pass THE test when they have to take it again. ENOUGH!!! I am having to miss an opportunity to give my students lessons in creative problem solving because I have to test them on route knowledge. Just call me a frustrated 2011 Georgia Art Educator of the Year.

May. 06 2012 02:17 PM
Jo from Cookeville Tennessee

You asked listeners to comment about Arts in Public Schools. My children have been fortunate enough to have excellent music education in elementary, middle, and high school here in Putnam County, TN. This is partly due to the university here, Tennessee Technological University, which has a fantastic Music and Fine Arts department (as well as the Appalachian Center for Crafts). In elementary school, my children participated in chorus with Clarissa Miller and performed at the Carnegie Center with a group of choruses. In middle school they all took up instruments: oboe for the oldest; flute for the middle child; trumpet for the youngest. Their band instructor is Carol Wright. Now, in high school, David Talbert is band instructor. All of these teachers are consummate professionals. Nonetheless funding cuts have resulted in the need for constant fundraisers, band fees from parents, and loss of such things as busses for away games (formerly provided by the high school football team).

This year, the high school band lacked funding for awards for the band kids: last year, all of the graduating seniors received plaques, and individual students from each grade got recognition for such things as "outstanding academic" (two) and "musicianship." This lack of special awards this year was a big disappointment to parents and students.

Going into Fall 2012, Putnam county schools are 2 million dollars down because of the expiration of stimulus funding. I am worried about further cuts to the arts in our public schools. This would be a huge loss.

I used to think of sports as a waste of money in public schools. Now I realize that like band, sports offer students a path to excellence and the possibility of lucrative college scholarships. My oldest child got a scholarship at a state university amounting to $1,000 on top of other scholarships. This makes a huge difference for her parents, state employees who themselves have been shorted by the state with lack of adequate raises allotted to state employees over the years.

Putnam County residents resist property tax increases; today's paper stated that an increase of only 16 and a half cents would make up for the deficit. This seems little enough to pay for the future of our young people. Arts in particular, as your story stated, are the first to be cut. When the Arts are cut, the futures of many students who would lack a constructive and creative outlet are also cut.

May. 06 2012 11:50 AM
Graham Walker from Bronx

Based on the Global Creativity Index Sweden is number one, not the US, and Sweden does way better than the US vi-a-vis regular test scores. Certainly, the US is number two but close behind is Finland and Denmark, both of which do far better than the US with respect to regular test scores. So the conclusion is that good test scores does NOT mean that a country is not creative.

May. 06 2012 11:36 AM

IS 528 in Manhattan is a performing arts middle school. The Art Teacher and the Dance Teacher produce amazing work with Public School Children in Washington Heights. Come visit!

May. 06 2012 11:18 AM
Kris Bevilacqua from Brooklyn, NY

I would like to highlight a most excellent arts program sponsored by Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation here in NYC. RUSH was founded by hip hop artist Russell Simmons and his siblings. It does incredible work in collaboration with public schools for kids who are passionate about the arts. The arts program in schools in directed by Meredith McNeal, a woman with vision and appreciation of the unique talents in every child. You should see what the RUSH alumni have gone on to do as they have grown. It's amazing and wonderful.

May. 06 2012 11:14 AM
Janet from CT

I'm an Art Educator from Connecticut. I heard this on NPR today and you made my day for putting this out there. Thank you. :)

May. 05 2012 04:46 PM
Karen from Doylestown, PA

Administrators and board members of Central Bucks School District in Bucks County, PA, have made changes to the middle school curriculum. Beginning in Sept., class time of core academic classes will increase by 10 minutes per period. One of the two class periods for "special" classes, which include music, art, computer science, tech, physical education and family consumer science will be eliminated. Computer science will no longer be taught as a separate class, with the intention of integrating this into the core curriculum. The net result is that 7th through 9th graders will be spending 40% less time in creative, open-ended thinking classes (55 minutes vs the current 90 minutes per day) to gain 10 minutes more per class in the "core" classes. The administrators and board members actually believe that more time in what they consider the important classes will be better for our children in the long run.

May. 05 2012 07:44 AM

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