By Donn K. Harris, Chair, California Arts Council
Executive and Artistic Director, Oakland School for the Arts
The 2001 federal educational law known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was a skillfully marketed attempt to balance all sides of the educational equation: for schools and districts, incremental gains in achievement were acceptable, as long as all subgroups gained at least the minimum required; low-performing schools were both stigmatized and forced into supports simultaneously; cohort groups were created in some states so that one could compare oneself against schools deemed “similar” based on transitory rates and socioeconomic data.
There were new credential requirements, a new designation called “Highly Qualified,” and in some cases teachers with credentials were not “Highly Qualified” depending on whether they received their credentials through coursework or testing — high school science in particular began demanding specialized credentials in Physics, Biology and Chemistry as opposed to the more general “Physical” and “Life” Science designations of the past. We seemed to be equating rigor with specialization, and achievement with test scores, and at times words and titles seemed to overwhelm reality. One school I visited had students enrolled in Calculus who could not even pronounce the word, but their boast was: every kid takes four years of math here.
The plan began to dissolve into a morass of regulation and compliance fear. Lists began to be published in local media as to who was in “Program Improvement” (the category for schools who did not meet their expected yearly gains), and when the time came to reauthorize the bill in 2006, things stalled, but the schools kept up with NCLB lingo and process for nine more years, an extended stay by any measure in accountability limbo, and by that time in California over 70% of the schools were in Program Improvement status.
My own school was a California Distinguished School one year, in Program Improvement the next. Then, finally, in 2015, Congress adopted a new law designated the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), billed as a deeper, more demanding curriculum that replaced the rote with the thoughtful, dictation with facilitation, commonly-accepted facts with challenging questions and then deeper questions. Mathematics was to be a communicative, collaborative subject, student teams approximating engineering teams with their creative energy, and the world seemed new again.
But what about the arts?
Much of the analysis around ESSA praised its arts friendliness and the use of the phrase “a well-rounded education” as evidence of that. Maybe there is some kind of code here, but that in and of itself is a problem: Why are we speaking in code as if hiding some dirty or dangerous secret? An even more intractable problem than language is the way school days are constructed and how artists are used in classrooms and other school settings: There is rarely the sense that the arts are on equal footing with the academic pursuits. Being special and different has its advantages most of the time, and the arts are branded as that no matter how many times someone screams “But they are core!”– and in a bureaucracy divergence and uniqueness are rarely seen as desirable qualities. So in some environments the arts are at a disadvantage from the start: The strange and unexpected behaviors of a young artist are not something we are comfortable with in schools, and when we give these young artists full rein to create, we often have an output that is profane, enraged, the opposite of tame. Are we prepared to unleash the demons that lurk beneath the surfaces of our children? Not to scare you off, but the arts may do that. Are schools as much places of truth as the church, or the community center, or the streets for that matter?
Not usually. Schools are places of convention. The word appropriate is probably used in schools more than anywhere else –- we expect young people to do the right thing for the time and place, and in schools that means to play to the middle ground, to community standards. Schools are the American social institution that has changed the least in the past 200 years, technology notwithstanding. Truth is often painful, and deep, and in the arts it knows few boundaries: There have been symbols in student art work that caused me to reveal the pieces only in private showings, with someone there to explain the themes, to prove the adults understand the limits and have found creative ways to express that. I once changed the title of a poem or was about to deny the student the right to read it publicly. We don’t censor, but we do control.
So will ESSA even bring this to bear in our schools?
Perhaps I am too hopeful, but I do lead an arts school, where every day something extraordinary is created. If many more schools are able to unleash student creativity, we could be awash in some kind of unpredictable youth movement. It seems we are already on the verge of one as it is. Will the ’20s be the new ’60s?
The real test will come when the Smarter Balanced assessments have built a few years of credibility and we start to look at schools that are struggling. Will the arts be cut right away? Will it be NCLB 2.0, with schools pushing even science and social studies into a corner to improve reading and math scores? Today I heard an awful thing: After just getting used to a robust economy and rising funding levels for education, there’s a new prediction that a downturn is on the way and we’d better build a nest egg, or remain cautious and wary even with the current high revenues.
ESSA is bound to be tested in these next few years, and the arts should be a measuring stick of our commitment to the new principles of creative expression and cultural relevance. The hope on my end is that failing schools are given more art resources to stimulate children and build engagement and investment in learning, rather than falling back on the ages-old fallacy that NCLB embodied: If you’re failing at something you do four hours a day, just add a fifth hour and everything should be fine, and if it isn’t, heads will roll. And it’s so much cheaper than keeping that art class going: There are no paints, or clay, or stage props, or special teaching artists –- just the usual books and paper, and maybe if we all try a bit harder it will click. History tells us probably not, though, and for me this is the test of ESSA: When the going gets tough, in achievement measures and financially, what is going to happen? The Every Student Succeeds Act is tied to the Common Core Curriculum, and the idea is that we are going to go deeper into subject matter, probe more aggressively, demand that students express a point-of-view. How much will that be worth when some data point is not reached, or when finances are low, or when the content of the expression becomes unnerving and controversial?
With NCLB, we never even got that far, so controversy itself would be a sign of progress. These are the things we should be watching. If the values are truly different in this new world of ESSA, the solutions to problems should look far different than they have up to this point. Maybe the student with a poor vocabulary will be assigned a part in an August Wilson play, and pure emotion and the adrenaline created by movement and purpose will nail home words he otherwise would never have understood.
Donn K. Harris is the Chair of the California Arts Council and the Executive and Artistic Director of Oakland School for the Arts. He also sits on the leadership council of the statewide arts education coalition Create CA and is a member of the Board of Directors of the national Arts Schools Network.