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Commentary: Another look at the arts

Education policy consultant Sari Levy suggests that it’s time to take a closer look at the importance of the arts in schools.
Sir Ken Robinson’s 2006 video on how schools kill creativity has been popping up on my Facebook feed about once a week for five years. It’s called “Ken Robinson says schools kill creativity” and has been viewed 9,525,119 times. You’ve probably seen it. I’ve seen it twice.

Education reformers frequently talk about “student achievement” – and critics of this kind of language argue along the same lines as Robinson does. They point out that that a focused emphasis on academic subjects has edged out the arts, that our schools may be squandering kids’ natural creative talents and that our economy will demand much more than just scientists and history majors.

My view has generally been that schools’ primary goal should be academic achievement, and asking them to catch kids up who are three, four, five grade levels behind is a pretty tall order. Demanding a strong arts program on top of this might be too much to ask. Some academically focused schools do include arts, but it hasn’t been a priority for others. Add to that budget cuts and the fact that there are only so many hours in a day, and I am inclined to defend those schools that have prioritized core subjects over the arts.

Recently, I’ve started to second-guess myself – or at least to wonder if there is a more deliberate way to include arts in the system.

For me, this second-guessing started with a trip to New York to see a show that a successful artist friend had created.

“Were you just born with talent?” I asked, even though it was a cliché.

“All kids are born artists,” he told me. “They usually just stop when they realize that what they’re drawing doesn’t actually look like the object in front of them. I was lucky that my dad encouraged me to keep drawing and helped me. Then I was able to go to a (private) arts high school. By the time I got to college, I’d already been drawing and painting for 14 years.” He’d followed his college education with several more years of art school, including an MFA from Yale.

It occurred to me that it was a very unique set of circumstances that had allowed my friend to follow his dream, that he’d had the kind of opportunities most of us didn’t. It occurred to me that these opportunities might not have been available to him if he’d been born poor and Latino in Denver, Colorado.

Maybe Sir Ken has a point.

In a strange coincidence, the day after I returned from NY, I got a call from Van Schoales, the executive director of A+ Denver, the education advocacy group that focuses on academic achievement.

“I’d like to look at arts programs in Denver,” Van said. “Do you have time to help? No one has done this in a serious way. How many kids at Rhode Island School of Design or Rocky Mountain College of Design are coming from DPS? Who’s feeding the pipeline for Colorado’s creative industries? It’s the fifth largest industry in Colorado.”

Let’s find out what opportunities (like Denver School of the Arts) are out there, who is getting in, and where those kids are going next? Are there places in Denver where students are learning to play in mariachi bands and create great short films? Where are they? How do people learn about them? Are there enough in Denver and do enough kids have access to them?

Last, what can we do to support more students to effectively critique, design, create and problem solve in all disciplines? What about a more integrated arts or team approach for some schools? Should the arts play as prominent role as literacy, math and science today? And should arts and music connect to education reform? And if so, how?

And so, over the next two months, Van and I are going to be talking to experts, visiting schools, looking at other cities and reading up on the literature. We want to continue this conversation where Sir Robinson left off: How can we give kids opportunities to live their dreams if those dreams are off the beaten path?

Your ideas, stories and contributions are welcome. Email me.

A version of this post first appeared on the TedX Mile High Blog.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.