Dr. James S. Catterall and Frank Gehry (#_ftn1)
What if you read in these pages that reading achievement for American 13 year olds had rocketed up by two whole percentage points in total over the past 20 years; and that math proficiency since 1994 grew by less than 4 percent? If your math scores were decent, you would conclude that the nation had improved its schools by less than one quarter of a percentage point per year. In the case of some things that grow, like waistlines, you’d fail to notice change of this magnitude and be happy for it. In the case of education, there is little to celebrate.
Continuing, you also notice that these paltry gains are not shared by everyone. In a long era when anyone and everyone involved in education improvement has focused on problems of the inner city, even this barely traceable improvement is not distributed equally. Low income children averaged only about half of the accumulated achievement growth of their more advantaged counterparts. Let’s round this off to zero.
Well, guess what? You are reading these pronouncements and they are true. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, our most longstanding and reputable national yardstick of educational outcomes, has quietly reported these trends (well, flat lines) for about 30 years, most recently in volumes of The Nation’s Report Card, through the Institute of Educational Sciences at the U.S Department of Education.
We point to this grim picture not to personally fault anyone in the system (others do plenty of this), but to underscore the fact that systematic education improvement on a large scale has proved elusive, even with declared Education Presidents and Governors leading the way. Of course we’ve seen wins and losses. But a nationwide problem deserves more than we’ve mustered, and deserves whole new approaches to change.
School Turnarounds are the latest in a long string of school improvement models, an idea that will have to move resolutely to avoid joining a dozen or more school reform initiatives that have been disowned and cast aside since 1960. The President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities is launching today a second and larger flight of experimental school overhaul programs called Arts Turnaround Schools.
Time will tell on the longevity and effects of Arts Turnarounds, but there is much to like in this initiative. Here’s what we see:
· The visual and performing arts can be productive partners in language learning
· Music experiences have proven benefits for spatial reasoning, and in turn mathematics
· The arts engage children, and engagement in arts classes spills over into regular school activities
· The arts promote diverse ways of knowing
· The arts promote creative problem solving. And designs for solving problems
· The arts connect widely to diverse cultures
· The arts promote social and emotional development – including children’s sense of agency and motivation
· Students highly involved in the arts are more likely to engage in pro-social behavior such as community volunteering
· The arts promote collaboration and empathy
An important overarching point is that learning in the visual and performing arts not only connects to the academic learning at the center of our school improvement structures. The arts also cultivate more complete human beings who can accomplish and be much more than the content of their standardized test scores. When did we last see the captain of a school reform project lead off a culminating speech with a claim that the students grew in empathy, or in their ability to work together? And when did we last hear an employer say that what they most sorely wish for in their young adult workforce is higher test scores?
Will Arts Turnaround Schools achieve all of these things from day one? No. What these schools face can best be described as a design challenge. They need to create and implement learning and social systems that revolve around what they are trying to achieve and that work in unprecedented ways. Perhaps the first homework assignment, for everyone in an Arts Turnaround School community should be, naturally, designing the school.
 (http://#_ftnref1) James S. Catterall is Professor Emeritus at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies and Director of the Centers for Research on Creativity, Los Angeles/London U.K. Frank Gehry