The Landscape of Arts Inclusion in Public Schools

Emily Shallman and I started talking about exclusion in arts and education while we were both working on our respective Master’s degrees. Lately, I have been eager to ask her to blog about her extensive research in inequitable access to the arts in public schools. Her findings suggest that museums, along with many non-profit arts organizations, are needed as key partners in providing equitable arts engagement and learning for students. Emily’s research prompts me to consider the museum’s place in the “landscape” of arts access, best practices for partnering with schools, and if museum’s are achieving their full potential to impact students. How are different art museums sustaining partnerships with public schools in high poverty areas? Are museums offering comprehensive arts education that represents art across cultures and communities? With more dialogue about these questions art museums can become more inclusive parts of this “landscape” themselves. – Aletheia Wittman, The Incluseum

You can also read this post in its entirety on The Incluseum website, including additional citations and notes. The Incluseum is a blog and project to promote social inclusion in museums coordinated by Rose Paquet Kinsley and Aletheia Wittman. Art Museum Teaching and The Incluseum are co-hosting this post in hope that Emily’s work and observations can catalyze a broader dialogue among museum professional and educators.

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artwork-hangingArts education is a complex system today, as public schools–in conjunction with Parent Teacher Associations (PTA’s), local arts organizations, teaching artists, art specialists, volunteers, museums, school boards, the state legislature, and national policy–work in collaboration to deliver the arts to children. This intertwined web of arts advocates is a reaction to the worsening reality that the arts are no longer a stable piece of public school curriculum, with many schools excluding the arts altogether. The arts have had to react, and find a solution for inclusion in this landscape of severe budget cuts and focus on math and literacy. Rather than demanding to be included in the daily curriculum, with a mantra of “Do not cut the arts,” the arts have forged new partnerships to keep arts education alive in some public schools.

Let me paint the picture for you as best I can in an effort to make arts education more transparent, so that you can see how you fit into this landscape, and where there is room for improvement.

Schools, in the way they deliver (or do not deliver) arts education to children are highly diverse. This diversity means that public school A in Los Angeles, CA, is very different from public school B in San Francisco, CA, based on school population, size, parent involvement, student engagement and achievement, and of course, arts education. In the same way, public school B in San Francisco is also drastically different from public school C in San Francisco. Public schools are increasingly centered on the local, as arts education funding (at least in California) is distributed by local school districts. This distribution of funds, while on the surface entirely equitable, is not.

While each public school may get an equitable amount (based on school population and size, among other factors), PTA’s can quickly change the picture of arts education. More affluent schools tend to have more active PTA’s, and usually raise additional funds for academic programs that they value (and this sometimes includes the arts). Moreover, schools can decide how best to use the money they do receive—does this mean hiring a teaching artist for a week-long intensive for third graders in dance instruction, or does it mean buying new music stands and replacing outdated instruments, or does it mean using these funds to add to the overall school budget to help save a teacher from getting laid off (and hoping that teacher involves her students in arts learning)?

As you can see, arts education in public schools gets complicated quickly, and the picture can also seem rather bleak. However, I believe we are in a golden age of opportunity and collaboration.

Getting Arts Education into Public Schools

Local arts organizations, arts non-profits, and museums, have been afforded the opportunity to help deliver arts education to public school children. These institutions can provide a critical piece of learning to students, and if the success is documented, these collaborations can have a large impact on student learning. Unfortunately, there is no one model to follow when it comes to arts education delivery. As schools are centered on the “local” so is the delivery of the arts. The report from the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities (2011) summarizes this nicely, stating:

Photo by Michael Baltz

Photo by Michael Baltz

“Almost every community—indeed almost every school—that tries to address the vexing problem of how to get more arts into schools does so differently. A complex patchwork of arts education services across the country is the result, representing a mix of delivery models that include standards-based sequential arts curricula taught by arts specialists; formal and informal arts integration strategies; and short and long term teaching residencies for artists…There is no one model that works best for every community, and no single solution for the host of economic, pedagogic and logistical challenges faced by arts education advocates.”

Much progress is still to be made in terms of equitable and engaged learning with the arts, however. Interestingly (as based on my thesis research), a local elementary school in San Francisco with a high-poverty student population was a target of grant funding for the arts and actually had so many arts programs that the teachers were concerned about having enough time to teach other subjects. Comparatively, another elementary school in San Francisco, with an average socioeconomic student population (neither affluent, nor high-poverty) had very limited arts education, despite a very vocal and committed PTA full of arts advocates. Lastly, another elementary school in San Francisco, with an affluent student population and a highly involved and highly funded PTA, had hired a full-time art specialist (a very rare occurrence, I can assure you) to teach sequential visual art to all students for an hour each week. The national trend, however, is still that those students in the highest poverty areas are the ones with the least amount of arts education, and are those that could most benefit from them.

Pioneering Partnerships

There are substantial connections and programs to be cultivated with schools and outside organizations to bring quality arts education to all children. The arts, more than any other academic subject, is an area pioneering these partnerships. One successful example is seen at the Children’s Creativity Museum (CCM) here in San Francisco. At CCM, public and private elementary-school through high-school students can participate in creative field trips such as claymation, music studio, or innovation lab taught by museum educators.

art-collagesHigh school students can work at the museum in the C.I.T.Y. (Creative Inspiration Through Youth) Teen Program, a paid employment opportunity, helping run exhibits and getting job experience in an arts non-profit environment. In addition, CCM has a growing outreach program, teaching claymation workshops at after-school programs in the Bay Area. While CCM’s programs are quite established and the link to childhood and youth arts education is evident, I know of other arts institutions that are taking baby steps toward inclusion. For example, some art museums now have field trip guides (sometimes just a folded pamphlet) for elementary students to learn about famous artworks in understandable language.

Arts advocates, one school at a time, are inserting the arts, sometimes briefly, to change the landscape of learning. Hopefully this trend will continue to gain momentum. I know that it takes a whole ecosystem of arts advocates, from those working at the national and state level who make policy that supports equitable and quality education, to those at the local level, who raise additional funds for arts education to be taught in public schools, to teachers who understand the importance of the arts, to researchers who publish this knowledge, to people who have been impacted by the arts who share their stories to create more arts advocates.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a full-time arts specialist in every school, in addition to a visiting teaching artist and relevant field trips to museums, as well as after-school arts programs by local arts organizations? Just think of all those students could accomplish!

How are different art museums sustaining partnerships with public schools in high poverty areas? Are museums offering comprehensive arts education that represents art across cultures and communities? With more dialogue about these questions, art museums can become more inclusive parts of this “landscape” themselves.

Arts Education Advocacy Resources

EMILY SHALLMAN has a BA in Elementary Art Education with a Washington State Teaching Certificate and Reading Endorsement from Western Washington University, and a MA in Urban Studies from the San Francisco Art Institute. Emily has experience as an Art Specialist, teaching visual art to grades K-5. Her MA thesis researched the history of arts education in public schools, as well as case-study analysis of the inequality of arts education based on socioeconomic factors. Currently, she works at SFAI, serves as a Board Fellow for the California Alliance for Arts Education and runs a children’s illustration blog www.illustrationsby.com. She lives in San Francisco, CA with her husband and two cats.

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One comment

  1. CCM does amazing work and it’s really great to see them and their programs recognized!

    As a former public high school English teacher and a current museum education dept. manager who is trying to build relationships and partnerships with high-needs schools, having buy-in from school administrators at site and district level is really, really important for any kind of meaningful and sustainable work to happen. Teachers desperately need the time to think, work, and plan good projects, and admin can support this. Having once taught in the same district as where the museum I work for is located, I’m fortunate in that I already know a lot of good teachers and some engaged administrators to approach, but if I didn’t have these prior relationships to fall back on, it would be a lot harder to get attention from the school sites or the district; everyone’s so strapped for time and resources.

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