Arts in the Post-No Child Left Behind World: Watching ESSA Carefully

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.

#MyCreativeCA Video: Malashock Dance “Math in Motion”

We’ve created a series of short-form, documentary videos that celebrate creative expression in California. The videos follow art programming across California, from rural towns to some of the state’s largest cities, which are making positive impacts in our communities.

STEM + Arts = STEAM. In this week’s #MyCreativeCA video, watch San Diego’s Malashock Dance Company teach students math through movement at a local Title 1 elementary school.

#MyCreativeCA #CAarts40

#MyCreativeCA Video: Destiny Arts

We’ve created a series of short-form, documentary videos that celebrate creative expression in California. The series of videos follow art programming across California, from rural towns to some of the state’s largest cities, which are making positive impacts in communities.

The first video in our series comes from the Bay Area. Oakland-based dance organization, Destiny Arts first received California Arts Council grant in 1989. They currently receive support through our Artists in Schools and JUMP StArts programs.

#MyCreativeCA #CAarts40

40th Anniversary Celebration: Welcoming Remarks from Annette Bening

On Wednesday, January 27 the California Arts Council celebrated its 40th Anniversary with a special event at the Crest Theatre in Sacramento, hosted by former Council Member Annette Bening. Below is a selection from Bening’s opening remarks.



California Poet Laureate Dana Gioia and Annette Bening at the California Arts Council 40th Anniversary Celebration at the Crest Theatre in Sacramento. January 27, 2016. Credit: Tia Gemmell Photography

We have come together tonight to celebrate the arts – to honor the countless ways in which creative expression enriches our lives as Californians – whether through community transformation and social prosperity, cultural exchange or individual discovery, or lifelong learning for all generations. As we just saw in the beautiful film that shared a few stories from across our state, the importance of the arts cannot be overstated.

And we’ve come together to consider a question: Why should government support the arts? Why indeed…Of course it is the government’s role to serve its citizens, and as the film we just saw illustrates, the California Arts Council surely does that. But there is a larger purpose to public support of the arts, which is why, for as long as mankind has had governments, governments have funded the arts. Ancient civilizations are endlessly fascinating, but why is that? Without the paintings and the sculpture, the architectural marvels, and every art form from pottery to poetry, what would we know today about ancient Egypt? About Greece, or Rome, or Babylon … the list goes on and on. Art, it has been said, is the signature of a civilization.

To me, arts and creativity are an essential part of what makes us human. As an actor, I tell stories – stories that move audiences to reflect on, and empathize with, people who may be very different from themselves. Movies transport us to places far and near, real and imagined. There’s nothing more human than that. It is imagination—expressed in art—that lifts us out of the everyday and connects us to a larger world. As a member of the California Arts Council I spoke up for the rights of our state’s young people to experience the transformative benefits of arts education, as I did. And as a Californian, I personally take pride in the creativity that makes our communities such wonderful places to live.

The California Arts Council is a special agency. From its beginnings in 1976 to today the Arts Council has demonstrated why government support of the arts is so important. Public support is what brings the arts, with all their power to heal and inspire, to rural communities, towns large and small, blighted neighborhoods, struggling schools, prisons and hospitals, and everywhere the arts can make a difference – from Skid Row to symphony hall. The arts are an invaluable policy asset and prosperity generator for California. The creativity of our state sets us apart and gives California a special place in people’s imaginations. California’s scenery is matched by its spirit, and on this stage tonight you will see a sampling of what I mean by that.

Through the years, the work of the California Arts Council has demonstrated that beyond the arts’ sometimes intangible, inherent value to society, and beyond their value as the signature of who we are, the arts help the state succeed – through economic growth, education, tourism, health and public safety.

This has been the case from 1976 to today, and it will continue to be so for the next forty years.


Annette Bening is a four-time Academy Award nominee, two-time Golden Globe-winner, and a recipient of the Screen Actors Guild Award. She served as a member of the California Arts Council from 2004-2008.

Video Series: My Creative CA

We recently traveled across California to film some of the inspiring people making an impact in their communities through art and creative expression. Over the next couple of months, we’ll be sharing a new video here each week. Here’s a sneak peek that was previewed at our 40th anniversary celebration at the historic Crest Theatre in Sacramento on Wednesday, January 27, 2016.

As our host Annette Bening stated on stage at the Crest Theatre, “From its beginnings in 1976 to today the Arts Council has demonstrated why government support of the arts is so important. Public support is what brings the arts, with all their power to heal and inspire, to rural communities, towns large and small, blighted neighborhoods, struggling schools, prisons and hospitals, and everywhere the arts can make a difference – from Skid Row to symphony hall. The arts are an invaluable policy asset and prosperity generator for California. The creativity of our state sets us apart and gives California a special place in people’s imaginations.”

From the role of art in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) to preserving traditional and folk arts, this video shows the wide reach of California Arts Council’s grantees and partnerships to advance arts in California for everyone.

Featured California nonprofits include:

The videos were produced by Los Angeles-based, For Example Media.

‪#‎MyCreativeCA‬ ‪#‎CAarts40‬

Governor Jerry Brown: National Arts Leader

by Craig Watson, Director, California Arts Council

Not often (if ever) can you sing the praises of an elected official who took specific action forty years ago​ to create an enduring legacy—and then see that same person, in the same role, provide a current update to the story! But the California Arts Council will always be tied to Governor Jerry Brown…then and now.

Brown raised eyebrows during his first tenure as Governor by filling virtually every seat on the new Arts Council in 1976 with working artists. Whatever that first Council might have lacked in administrative acumen, they more than made up in artistic vision and passion. The early years were marked by fascinating discussions, ardent beliefs, and ultimately the creation of internationally-regarded, innovative programs serving Californians all over the state.

Fast forward to today and again Governor Brown is at the helm and in the limelight. Serving now an historic fourth term, the Governor was recognized today for his arts support by Americans for the Arts and the US Conference of Mayors in Washington, DC. He has been awarded the 2016 National Award for State Arts Leadership.

A Well-Deserved Honor

Governor Brown was chosen for this award for several important reasons:

Last year he signed a $7.2 million permanent increase to the base funding of the California Arts Council…this after signing a previous year one-time increase of $5 million.

In his most recent budget, he also signed off on $2 million earmarked for an inter-agency agreement between the Arts Council and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to build on pilot programs begun in 2014 which now represent the most robust Arts in Corrections work in the nation.

Governor Brown also signed exciting new legislation giving the California Arts Council authority to develop and implement a statewide certification and support program for Arts and Culture Districts. The Governor, having previously served as the Mayor of Oakland, knows firsthand the important economic development potential of the arts when targeted investments are made in cultural development. He tested this notion in a highly visible way by creating the Oakland School for the Arts (OSA) while Mayor. OSA is now a national model for arts and community development.

Forty Years and Going Strong

As the California Arts Council gets ready to celebrate its 40th Anniversary in 2016 with a sold-out kickoff celebration at the historic Crest Theatre in Sacramento on January 27th, we know that Governor Brown is a true champion for the artists and arts lovers of the state. In his own words:

“Government investment in the arts is critical to support the expression of new ideas and cultural diversity across our society. The arts and creativity play a key role in ensuring California remains a vibrant, thriving state to live in and visit…our state’s artists and creative communities are among the many features that make California so unique.”

Thanks, Governor. We couldn’t have said it any better!

Top photo: Governor Brown delivering his State of the State address on January 21, 2016

craig 2015

Craig Watson is the Director of the California Arts Council. He can be reached at

Unintended Consequences: The “Every Student Succeeds Act”

By Joe Landon, California Alliance for Arts Education

If you’re like me, you’ve had more than enough time – fourteen years – to contemplate the unintended consequences of “No Child Left Behind,” such as making schools less engaging and creative, marginalizing the arts, social studies and science, and neglecting the values and skills that help students develop the ability to solve problems.

As we bid adieu to 2015 and “No Child Left Behind,” I am ready for a change! Let’s start contemplating the unintended consequences of “Every Student Succeeds.” Granted, the legislation was just signed into law last week, but there’s no time like the present to envision the future…

First, I envision the unintended consequence of this legislation being that the arts become an essential component of a comprehensive education that every child receives. The language in the bill specifically states that arts and music are included in a definition of a “well-rounded education.”

What if we were to bring the arts into our classrooms as a strategy to address key elements of school and student success, including student engagement, parental involvement, school climate, student achievement and outcome? What if we were to envision an arts education delivery system which included credentialed arts teachers, teaching artists, and teachers trained to implement arts integration across the curriculum?

This is the case we’ve been making for the past four years at the California Alliance for Arts Education as we have advocated locally, statewide and nationally that Title I funds may be appropriately used to support arts education strategies that target Title I goals. Those goals include academic achievement in math and literacy, student engagement, parent involvement, and improving school climate.

The body of research that accompanies these strategies makes the evidence abundantly clear – properly implemented, the arts can transform student learning and achievement. We need to recognize and promote the essential role of the arts in a ‘well rounded education.”

A second unintended consequence of “Every Student Succeeds” could be a more equal distribution of arts learning, regardless of a student’s economic status. In 2007 the research study An Unfinished Canvas – Arts Education in California reported that “in California’s more affluent schools, almost twice the percentage of students received instruction in each arts discipline compared with the high-poverty schools.”

Where the arts don’t exist in schools, the education picture can look dreary in other aspects of school life, including higher dropout rates, less availability of high-level coursework or effective teachers, and poor academic performance.  Just as we expect schools to deliver math and literacy, they should be expected to provide the basics of arts learning.  Every student, regardless of where they happen to live, deserves access to high quality arts education!

Finally, what an unintended consequence it would be if  “Every Student Succeeds” were to ignite students, parents, teachers, administrators, school board members, arts organizations, community and business leaders, to seize the momentum of this ‘sea change’ in education, where we share a recognition that the laws of the past have not served our students adequately, and as advocates for arts education, we are raising our voices to communicate what we know so well – the arts can unlock student learning and promote success in school and in life.

What if student film makers were to respond to our Student Voices Campaign, sponsored by the California Arts Council and Sony Pictures Entertainment, by submitting short films capturing the value of arts education in their schools; what if arts education advocates, equipped with the resources provided by Arts for LA, Arts for All, and the California Alliance, were to show up at school board meetings, urging board members to include the arts in their district LCAPS; what if school districts were to follow the example of Chula Vista Elementary and San Diego Unified, by prioritizing arts education in their curriculum?

As the new year begins let’s commit ourselves to the positive consequences of  every student’s success.

(Pictured above: With a grant from the California Arts Council, Luna Dance Institute’s Oakland School & Community Alliance project builds partnerships between artists, teachers and schools to implement K-5 standards-based dance education programs.)

Joe Landon

Joe Landon is the Executive Director of the California Alliance for Arts Education. He can be reached at

Shelly’s Musings: Meetings, Convenings, and Cultural Equity


Shelly Gilbride

In the fall, I’ve been on the road and in the air much more than usual. In the span of 30 days, I workshopped best practices in arts education with my fellow Arts Education Managers across the country, learned about the most recent research on cultural equity and creative placemaking with other Grantmakers in the Arts, been inspired to nurture diverse arts leaders in the future with the Western State Arts Federation and helped the California Arts Council to allocate $9 Million in grant funding in the coming year.  Meetings, panels, presentations, think tanks, work groups, agendas, action items, work plans, reflections, to dos – it’s been inspiring, exhilarating and exhausting.  There is one tie that binds these events together, a constant theme and omnipresent issue that grantmakers, artists, educators and cultural workers are all grappling with – Equity. Equity is the central issue in the arts and culture field around which all other topics like evaluation, data collection, sustainability and artistic ingenuity revolve and return to.

What does Cultural Equity mean?

Cultural equity, racial equity, educational equity, structural equity – the quest for fairness and justice needs many modifiers. I’ll focus on that first one –what exactly is cultural equity? I ask that question for real, because the term seems to mean different things to different people. For some, cultural equity is inherently about race and ethnicity. Some think it’s about the preservation of cultural forms.  For others, it’s about cultural sensitivity. It can be about one of those things, and often it is about all of those things.

I’ve looked for a stable definition for cultural equity – one that is from a reputable source, that is not full of jargon, that any grownup can understand, and that is distinct from the public understanding of diversity, inclusion, multiculturalism and access.  Has cultural equity become the jargon basket that holds all of those terms? A friend of mine recently asked me what I was working on and I responded that I was working on a new cultural equity program. She looked at me quizzically and said, “like a diversity program?” That question could have easily been “like a multicultural program, or an access program?” Well, yes, it is a diversity thing and an access thing, and a multicultural thing and an inclusion thing.

I couldn’t find a definition for cultural equity that I liked (and please send good definitions my way), but here is what my colleague Jason Jong and I came up with: Cultural equity refers to “the effort to minimize disparities in accessible and relevant arts opportunities to all people.” For the California Arts Council, cultural equity reflects a desire to address inequities within the cultural landscape of the state, and to promote cultural practices that are representative of all of California’s diverse communities.

Where did all of this come from?

Holly Sidford’s seminal study in 2011 reported that large cultural institutions with budgets over $5 million most often steeped in Euro-centric artistic forms comprise less than 2 percent of the universe of arts and cultural nonprofits, yet receive more than half of the sector’s total revenue. Since then, research about the disparities in the field has grown and the depth of knowledge has deepened. As the LA Times recently reported, the diversity and multicultural programs of the past thirty years have not led to significant change. The 2 percent universe that Sidford describes is the reality after many years of diversity programs. What is the California  Arts Council’s role in that universe, and what can we do about it? An overwhelming majority of California Arts Council applicants and grantees have budgets of less than $500,000, let alone $5M. I don’t feel like we directly perpetuate the cultural ivory tower, but we are still very much a part of this inequitable reality—and we need to be a leading part of the solution.

Former California  Arts Council Director Barry Hessenius summed it up nicely in his eponymous blog about the opening of the Grantmakers in the Arts conference: “funders are trying all kinds of approaches, and it’s too early yet to pass judgment on what might work and what won’t. But time is part of the problem, for delay in equity is denial of equity and the field must make some giant leaps to address the inequity issue.”  At the California  Arts Council, we are working to figure out how best to make those leaps to address equity from within the institutional walls of a state arts agency…so maybe we are climbing rather than leaping.

What do we know? A Programs Perspective

Since we have defined what the California  Arts Council means by cultural equity, we are taking every opportunity to engage in this discussion. We sent Jason Jong to Policy Link’s amazingly comprehensive Equity Summit in Los Angeles, where over 3,000 equity-minded folks from across the country engaged in this discussion. We are taking stock of where the California  Arts Council is in relation to equity and where we are going.

Where we are now: Scratching the surface

Our history with the Multicultural Entry and Advancement Program, our work in Corrections and Juvenile Justice, and our signature Local Impact grant program indicate a philosophical and mission-driven focus on equity that is authentic and real. The Arts Council programs staff knows intrinsically, if anecdotally, that we serve a very diverse cohort of grantees, even if we have a difficult time proving it with demographics data – a lack we are beginning to address by revamping our final reports to include more specific demographic and quantitative questions.

Applicants to our grant programs tend to be small grassroots organizations, or lean mid-sized organizations. 40% of organizations that apply to our grant programs have no full time employees—zero! With that in mind, our programs staff is keenly aware of the burden that grant applications and reports put on an organization. Weare working to minimize or abolish the possible inequity that we may be inadvertently perpetuating through our grant application processes. We are always working to improve our processes – revising final reports to include more quantitative and demographic data, and streamlining application questions. We are considering how we may provide bilingual materials, build more robust technical assistance tools for applicants, and receive more timely and constructive feedback on the application process.

Where we are going: Cultural Pathways

We are also addressing cultural equity through a new pilot grant program called Cultural Pathways (guidelines coming soon!). Jason has enthusiastically and thoughtfully dived head first into these cultural equity waters, consulting with experts as well as community members. Sometimes it feels like this cultural equity conversation is happening around and about people and communities without their actual engagement in the discussion.  We hope that Cultural Pathways will raise the volume for voices of some unheard communities in the state, and bring those communities authentically to the table.

Cultural Pathways will only be open to organizations and artist groups that are not current or recent California  Arts Council grantees. This acknowledges our need to reach different communities in addition to those we currently serve. In the pilot phase, Cultural Pathways will be a two-year grant program for small cultural organizations that serve communities of color, recent immigrant and refugee communities, and tribal groups. Adopting a “grants plus” strategy, the grantee organizations will each receive $5000 a year of general operating support as well as a host of technical assistance and professional development services. We are trying to address all of the potential barriers to access—like language, technology and communication—as best we can, knowing that we will learn a lot in this first pilot year.

The travel is over, and my feet are on the ground here in Sacramento for a few weeks. The implementation of the Cultural Pathways program feels like a giant leap into the equity fray sometimes, and at other times it feels like a teeny baby step. At all times, it feels like good forward motion, sharing the knowledge and putting the learning to action so the California  Arts Council can help lead the charge to an equitable cultural future in California.

Blog5-ShellyHeadshotShelly Gilbride is the Programs Officer at the California Arts Council. She can be reached at

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