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Empty Canvases and Silent Orchestras?

Empty Canvases and Silent Orchestras?


            The educational system has always been a hotbed for debate.  Whether the object of discussion is the Scopes Trial of the early 20th century, the intelligent design debate of today, or budget cuts for educators and/or programs, people are passionate about schools.  They provide education for children and jobs for many adults with a passion for teaching.  There may be fewer jobs on the horizon, however; at least in the art and music programs.  With the current economic crisis and the demand for budget cuts to accommodate, many people may find art and music classes as expendable.  This may be a grave error on their part. 

            Numerous surveys have been conducted concerning the tangible effects of art and music education a person’s development.  There is an apparent association between increased cognitive ability and critical thinking, abilities that can be applied to various different areas of business and education.  The scores of people involved in classes concerning math and reading increase for those who are involved with art classes.  The Americans for the Arts organization lists a multitude of positive statistics concerning arts education.  Among them are: students being 4 times more likely to be recognized for academic achievement and are 3 times more likely to be awarded for school attendance. 

            The benefits of art education expand beyond just the academic.  Tony Wagner interviewed numerous business, nonprofit, and educational leaders.  The conclusions he reached from this research were that some of the biggest determining factors in looking for employees were critical thinking and problem solving, collaboration and leadership, agility and adaptability, initiative and entrepreneurialism, effective oral and written communication, accessing and analyzing information, and curiosity and imagination.  One can tell from some of the previous statistics in the article that arts education would improve people’s skills in many of these fields. 

            Many of the interview subjects for this article stressed how these skills could be improved through the use of arts education.  Diane Franken, executive director of the Iowa Alliance for Arts Education and teacher of visual arts for 30 years, said that this is the “Conceptual Age” and that the “Information Age” has been left behind.  She said that even though business leaders want people who can think, many major decision makers often don’t have any arts background whatsoever.  Arts education offers a respite from the standard lecture class in lieu of something more “hands on.”  Amy Pollitt, elementary music teacher for the Belmond-Klemme school district, says that this education goes beyond intelligence and creates a “connection to the soul” and develops students’ “emotion and empathy.”  Lynnette Clark, elementary art teacher for the Belmond-Klemme school district, stresses the all too important quality of being able to “think outside the box”, and how art education improves the inherent capability to do this.  Franken goes so far as to say that in order for the United States to compete for other countries arts education is an essential.  She says, “Businesses can not, have not reinvented themselves for the 21st century. They need innovative thinking people from quality arts education programs.  Statements such as these educators have made combined with statistical data seem to make a rather scathing indictment of the cutting of art programs.   

            The shape of the current United States economy has many areas in a financial crunch, however, the arts included.  To many, this area of education may seem expendable, so arts education has been struck especially hard.  In former US president George W. Bush’s budget plan for 2006 and 2007, he cut approximately $4.3 billion from the education budget.  From arts education alone he cut a massive $35 million, and this was before the full onset of the current economic crisis.  With the current budget crisis at the University of Northern Iowa, President Ben Allen has faced a fiscal reduction of a whopping $15.9 million for 2010.  The university website compiles a list of proposed financial strategies to come through, and although arts education is not yet listed as one of the affected areas, one must wonder what the future holds for the art, music, and theatre programs at UNI.  UNI senior and prospective music teacher Kevin Taylor says that budget cuts have affected the school’s ability to repair broken instruments or replace them with new ones.  Perhaps this is a taste of what is to come?

            Though the University of Northern Iowa’s art departments may not be reeling  from budget cuts yet, the grade school level seems to have fared much less kindly.  Amy Hunzelman, director of education at UNI, says that the Independence school district recently cut its art classes for grades K-5.  It has become more and more common for classroom teachers with art or music minors to teach these classes if they are not eliminated, which Hunzelman says will not work because these teachers do not have enough prior experience. 

            Clark said that in a recent hiring dilemma for the Belmond-Klemme school district the administration considered making Mrs. Kelley, a high school Spanish teacher with an art minor, the new teacher for these classes on top of her prior duties rather than hiring a new full-time teacher.  Although the Belmond-Klemme school district has not yet seen incredible difficulty, both Clark and Pollitt say that teachers they have met at regional education conferences have been affected.  There have been repeated cutbacks and eliminated positions.  Of the current methods employed by educational boards, Clark says, “Sometimes they kind of piecemeal.”  And this is only in the Midwest, a place where Pollitt says that arts are valued.  One must wonder at what may possibly be the deplorable state of these programs in other regions of the United States.  The state of arts education in Iowa is not ameliorated by the fact that the Iowa Core Curriculum neglects to list the arts as a core subject or ‘creativity’ or ‘innovation’ as one of their 21st Century Skills. Additionally, Iowa does not include an arts requirement for graduation and the new Iowa Board of Regents requirements make it difficult if not impossible for arts focused students to schedule the classes they need to be accepted as an arts major or to build a quality portfolio.  Franken also says that the dropout rate is higher than ever in the state of Iowa and that she has statistics that show the arts engage students in staying in school.  She points out that it seems people want to create, however, as the highest number of higher education applications are to art schools.  She also notes that theatre enrollment has gone down dramatically.  Perhaps legislators should give the people what they want and current studies say they need?

            Despite the current situation, Taylor is not too afraid of being unable to find a teaching position.  He says that many of the music directors in the state are retiring soon and that numerous jobs will open in the next five years.  He also says there seems to be a trend of teachers only staying with an art or music program for one to five years before leaving it behind because they don’t feel like doing it anymore.  Perhaps lower salaries are responsible for some of these decisions.  Taylor said that the salaries are low at small schools.  Pollitt said that in small communities teachers are spread thin, which may help to corroborate these claims. 

            Although arts programs are seeing a lot of strife, it seems there are some programs that are safe from the axe.  There are the basic “Three R’s”.  English, science, and math classes seem near untouchable by budget cuts.  Even physical education classes and sports teams are generally safe, due to the fact that sporting events bring in revenue for the school and the obesity crisis that has struck America.  Those who do not look into the evidence supporting arts education see them as less essential, which is a damaging move for the American educational system.

            In response to these circumstances, many people have started to raise their voices.  Famous film producer George Lucas (of Star Wars and Indiana Jones fame) began his own non-profit educational organization, Edutopia, contributing to art education.  There is an example of a man whose creativity and ability to think “outside the box” has made him millions.  Franken says that the Iowa Alliance for Arts Education has sent out advocacy materials to 100 schools across the state of Iowa to promote the benefits of art education and their continued funding.  Many unhappy parents and art students have voiced their discontent, she says.  Pollitt is a member of the Music Educators’ National Conference and the ICDA, organizations that support the funding of music education. 

            It would appear not all hope is lost for American arts education.  Franken says that although we’re on a “rocky road” right now, that more and more legislators and business leaders are beginning to support the cause.  She believes there are great things ahead.  Others are less optimistic.  Pollitt says that it is hard to say where arts education will be in ten to twenty years. 

            Though the future may be uncertain, hope should be held out that arts education programs will receive the attention they deserve.  If these programs are lost, perhaps the possibly ensuing educational disaster will act as a powder keg that will stimulate a return to keeping these programs well-funded.  The only certainty is that there will be change, either for better or for worse.



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