R – I have some shows that I have set from time to time to digitally record on my TV (American Pickers anyone? Hello???). I’m home intermittently, so when I do get to be home and watch television, it’s nice to sit down and be surprised by what got recorded. My surprise a few days ago was the Food Network show, Chopped. I forgot that I had recorded the Chopped All Stars a year ago (don’t judge me on that…) and a new round just got recorded this weekend and showed up on my TV.
A surprise “Chopped” episode. Timely, eh?
It’s the season for surprise chops to our arts programs around the country. And more often than not, we don’t see it coming beforehand. And consequently we end up being reactionary and wondering what we can do to combat the situation. Here’s the fundamental issue though: I have never met an administrator who didn’t believe the arts are “important”; virtually every single one, I believe in my heart of hearts, sees the arts as an important component of every single school system. The problem is that I can also count on one hand the number of administrators I’ve ever met who believe the arts are “essential”. And by essential, I mean essential to every single student regardless of aptitude or interest or grade level. So when it comes time to cut funding, why are we shocked and amazed that funding comes out of programs that others consider important but not essential? Cuts to arts programs are not problems, they are symptoms (problems vs. symptoms). Consequently, when it comes time to react to proposed cuts, there’s no way to win the battle. Reinstating cut funds or positions is the immediate need, but the problem itself doesn’t disappear, nor does it even get addressed anywhere in that process. You don’t fix the core issues by addressing symptoms; buying more kleenex won’t cause the flu to go away. And the problem is compounded when school boards or community members likewise carry the “important but not essential” thinking.
How de we address the core issue (important but not essential)? Here’s a few thoughts:
* For years we have largely utilized boosters organizations as fundraising entities. Not only does this philosophically undermine our argument that the arts are core curriculum (core subject areas are supported through the budget process, co-curriculars and clubs fundraise!), but it takes the focus off of what we need our boosters to be: ongoing advocates for the necessity of the arts in our schools for every student. Making this philosophical shift can be a powerful strategy. That’s just great if a parent organization raises money for our programs, but is there a hidden cost involved (a comment was once made to a district’s proposed music cuts that, “…they can absorb the cuts better than anyone else: they’ve still got the Boosters!”)? Likewise, does it dilute their real value?
* Aligned K-12 curriculum with rigorous standards and assessment practices that report each student’s academic progress in the arts puts us on the same playing field as the other essential subject areas. THAT’S the language of essential programs! This can be a daunting endeavor, but I checked on this and it turns out that there is a statewide initiative established to help every single arts teacher in Maine achieve this objective! Who knew!!! Seriously, the work being done all over the state in this respect is impressive and inspiring. Geographically we are very scattered, but in practice we do not have to be. Setting up curriculum to align with core expectations and then demonstrating student mastery through thoughtful, thorough and consistent assessment helps the perception of others turn the corner of “important” to “essential”. Data, connection to other academic successes and demonstration of student achievement – which is NOT subjective – lends credence to our argument. It facilitates changing the thinking of others in their perception of what the arts are all about.
* No other academic area is as public and “visible” as ours, and yet we get backed into a corner and often ask, “Gee, how can we reach the parents and the public?” There’s a disconnect there somewhere, isn’t there? Perhaps it’s time for all of us to reassess how we interact with our school and community when we do art exhibits or performances. We should always be educating them about our discipline, but we also must be educating them about why we are essential. ALL the time. Creative use of our physical programs that we pass out at performances, guest speakers/presenters at our exhibits, engaging the media in a more substantial way, all this can lead to more serious discussions about the role of the arts in our schools. Inviting administrators to attend isn’t enough. I don’t know of a single proposed cut where the administration or school board wasn’t aware of “what” was getting cut. We don’t need them to visit the products, we must convert them to the essentialness of the program by engaging them in the process that gets students there… and that puts the onus on us to educate more than just our students at every possible opportunity. It’s not enough to say “we’re essential”. We must also say, “… and here’s why!” If we don’t show the alignment between our performances and/or exhibits to standards, they’ll never see the alignment between our performances and/or exhibits to standards!!!
No two school systems are identical, and neither are the dynamics that lead to proposed cuts. When those proposals do come forward, getting in touch with the advocacy leaders at our state arts organizations is an important first step in the process of addressing them. But as arts educators, we must assume that every one of our houses are built on sand. Because of this, fairly or unfairly, a significant component of our jobs and responsibilities must be to replace those foundations with a more structurally stable and lasting material: “essential”. It’s not too late to begin this construction project, is it? Failure to do so will only lead, eventually, to an episode of “chopped” showing up unexpectedly. Let’s limit that scenario to our TV sets.