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LAUSD schools face challenge of making arts part of the core curriculum

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Arts advocates and educators are excited that the Los Angeles Unified School District Board voted unanimously in October to make arts a "core subject."  

But making that desire a reality is complicated. Educators face a host of questions: What should be included in the arts curriculum? What should be classified as “arts?” How can the arts play a greater role in public education in a time of lean budgets, when political priorities are on improving test scores in areas such as math and English? Even determining the current amount of arts education is tricky.

The effort to redefine arts in school is not only happening in L.A.; it's going on across the country, as educators begin to implement new national curriculum standards.

The renewed focus on arts comes after what arts educators call years of curriculum narrowing following the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001; a focus on test scores has usually meant less time and resources for the arts, they say.

RELATED: Arts Education in Los Angeles

Hard to quantify

While there is general agreement that there has been a decline in arts education in the public schools, quantifying the situation is tricky.

“I’ve tried to get a simple survey done at school sites; I ask, ‘What’s your arts offering?’” says Abe Flores, a field manager for Arts for LA, a nonprofit arts advocacy community organization. “The question’s always, ‘What do you mean? It could be this. It could be that.’ Or, at the district level, ‘How much are you investing in the arts?’ ‘I don’t know. What do you mean? …It all depends on how you’re cutting the numbers.”

And then there are the courses themselves: Is architecture an art form or career technical training? Is fashion design an art class or a home economics course? Is dance considered an art or physical education?

Still, there are numbers that help clarify the picture. For example, in California, a nearly $110 million block grant for K-12 art and music education was made flexible in 2009 so that districts could spend the money on other areas.

At L.A. Unified, elementary school arts education has been cut by 40 percent.

Cuts in state funding since 2007-08, translated to a $60 million drop in elementary arts funding to a now budgeted $18.6 million. Last year the entire program was nearly eliminated.

L.A. Unified has 204 itinerant arts teachers who travel to a different school each day of the week. But they are seeing roughly 150 students a day, said Steven McCarthy, K-12 arts coordinator – just a small fraction of students in most schools.

As it stands, 53 percent of LAUSD students won’t receive arts instruction in elementary school.  That number jumps to about 75 percent of district students in middle school.

The LAUSD resolution calling for making arts part of the core curriculum prohibits further cuts to the arts and requires restoring funding to 2007-08 levels within five years.

Left to their own devices

Kids with less access to dance, studio art, and chorus in school have turned to graffiti art, makeup application YouTube videos, fan art, and manga outside of school.

“Man, it’s a free for all out there for young people,” says longtime arts consultant Eric Booth. “I don’t think there is a starving of the arts in the life of the young, but…that impulse mostly lives outside of our educational institutions.” 

“There’s a huge production going on right now with kids making their own videos, putting them on YouTube,” says Kerry Freedman, a professor and head of art and design education at Northern Illinois University. “There’s a huge amount of visual arts being made out there by undergraduates and high school kids that aren’t discussed in school.”

And, says Freedman, these kids are creating informal groups outside of school that are “doing a lot of teaching and learning.”

Redefining Art Education

The move towards extra-curricular and non-traditional art activities comes as the definition of art and art education is evolving. Since the mid-1990s, art education has undergone a period of reform that’s led toward a broader conception of art that incorporates more design and more popular culture, says Freedman, who is considered one of the leaders of this reform movement.

Booth points out that there are now conversations across traditional silos such as mainstream dance versus club and vernacular dance; in addition, younger musicians in the classical music world now play across genres and people listen to hybrid music.

 “The time to rethink education is now,” says Shannon Wilkins, a consultant in charge of educational leadership and visual and performing arts for the Los Angeles County Office of Education. 

“It’s not the same world of the industrial revolution that produced the last [system],” says Wilkins. “Things have changed."

Wilkins is a member of the Create CA arts education taskforce, a group appointed by California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson to write a “Blueprint for Creative Schools.” The group has taken up issues such as the educational requirements for dance teachers outside of a physical education credential or for theater teachers outside of an English major, says Wilkins. The report is due in January.

A new approach: “arts integration”

So how to increase arts education in tight budgetary times? One increasingly popular approach is “arts integration.”

“I’d describe this as the biggest experiment in arts learning in the country,” Booth says. “Almost every state has an experiment of one kind or another…And the early indicators are that it actually does work.”

Arts integration involves combining the arts with traditional subjects. When done properly , “learning in both subject areas goes further as a result of bringing them together,” Booth says.

But that’s not always the case.

“I have seen some failures in those experiments, where the arts become a handmaiden to pep up boring curriculum,” Booth says. “I remember seeing the dance of the fractions, in which kids perform the dance that accurately displays their mathematical understandings. It was a good kinesthetic math lesson, but those kids were no more engaged or interested in dance at the end of it than they were at the beginning.”

Freedman warns that arts integration has often led to “spotty” arts instruction, with specialist teachers reduced or eliminated. Often, Freedman adds, arts lose out to other subjects.

Steven McCarthy is the K-12 arts coordinator for LAUSD, and he teaches arts integration in the USC Master’s of Education program. He says he’s a big advocate, but rather than replacing specific art classes, he believes it should supplement what exists.

“But that isn’t always possible in our economic climate,” McCarthy says. “So given a choice of no arts instruction and arts instruction through integration, I’m going to take the integration.”

McCarthy says the “Arts at the Core” effort will include professional development to give elementary school teachers the fundamentals of arts education.

By next July 1, LA Unified Superintendent John Deasy must present the school board with a plan to enact "Arts at the Core," including funding strategies, ways to measure learning through the arts, and benchmarks for success.

A Timeline for Arts Education in Southern California

Tami Abdollah can be reached via email and on Twitter (@latams).

This story was the result of a collaboration with Engine30, an outgrowth of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism's Master's program in arts journalism that experiments with digital media practices, systems and tools, using L.A. as a living laboratory.

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