arts education information quarterly
Starting the Conversation with School Leaders
The Arts Education Information Quarterly (AEIQ) is a new publication of Americans for the Arts, offering field-tested strategies for securing a place for arts education in local PreK–12 environments. Look for a new issue of AEIQ each quarter, written by a different, accomplished field leader who is affecting positive change for standards-based, sequential arts education in close concert with the cultural community.
In a recent Arts Education Coordinator Survey, 65 percent of respondents identified a lack of support from school employees who set school and classroom priorities as the biggest challenge to their work. Responses included:
- The biggest challenge I face is getting school administration on board to understand the benefits of arts education and financially support it within their district.
- The other roadblock is convincing parents, teachers, and administrators of the importance of the arts in the curriculum. The comment is, “We don’t have enough time!” We try to show them how they don’t have to “give up” time, but they are a hard group to sell.
There are a number of resources available to help us remove roadblocks so arts learning can flourish. These online resources provide research and talking points to help you articulate the benefits of arts education. They also include links to a number of additional resources:
- Americans for the Arts, Arts Education Advocacy
- SupportMusic Community Action Kit
- VH1 Save the Music Foundation Advocacy Resources
This publication will be one more resource: a quarterly, electronic publication written by and for local arts education professionals about influencing education decision-makers. Below, we will discuss some general strategies for influencing the priorities of our school leaders. In subsequent AEIQs, we’ll discuss how we influence specific constituencies—parents, school boards, superintendents, principals, and others. We’ll answer the following questions, peer-to-peer.
Which education decision-makers do advocates need to engage and why?
How do we make the case for the arts to this constituency? How do the arts meet their educational goals? What motivates this group? For example, which theories of value resonate and what advocacy tactics are effective? How have others won support from this group?
Why should we engage this group? What is the sphere of influence of this group in public education? What should we ask this group to do for arts education? Sample points of influence include instruction requirements, district budgets, capital projects, discretionary funds, scheduling, and professional development time and money for teachers.
It is through learning to support our beliefs with evidence and cogent arguments that we become truly effective advocates. It is knowing which approach, facts, or stories are appropriate to use when talking to this individual with whom you are speaking. Which of the many benefits the arts bring to a young person will impact this decision-maker?
Initiating the Conversation
Identify Your Audience’s Priorities
When meeting with a number of school administrators at a recent conference, I asked the audience about their priorities for the students at their schools. The group identified the following outcomes as priorities:
- Well-educated children
- Engaged, interested learners
- Children who work together
- Creative problem-solvers
- Students excited to come to school
- Parental involvement
- Improved test scores
I could not have crafted a better list of desired outcomes, as there is solid evidence that shows ongoing, standards-based arts education greatly enhances a student’s ability to achieve these goals. To be the best advocate, you must know which, if any, of these goals are the focus of your school administrators. Do the principals know that arts education fosters teamwork skills? Do the school board members know how the arts can increase parental involvement? Does your superintendent know how the arts contribute to improved test scores? Do they know that the No Child Left Behind Act identifies the arts as a core subject and requires that all core subjects be taught by a “highly qualified” teacher in each subject?
Many of today’s school leaders experienced K–12 education without the arts. The reductions and often complete elimination of arts education in the 1970s and ’80s have an impact on the advocacy work we do today. When preparing for discussions with school leaders, it is important to remember that your audience may not have had comprehensive arts education themselves.
Listening is the best strategy we have for knowing the goals and struggles of school leaders. Sitting in on two consecutive school board meetings will give untold insight into those goals that the arts might help the district achieve. Request a meeting with a principal or superintendent (or his or her staff), and ask what educational goals the school or district has set—this year or in the long term. Identify yourself as a listener by offering solutions at your second meeting, not your first. Be sure your audience is aware of the impact arts education can have on a student struggling in other subject areas—low achieving students often become high achievers in arts learning settings. By joining national discussions—listservs, conferences, publications—you can learn how the arts are becoming the solution to educational challenges all over the country.
Give school decision-makers first-hand knowledge of the impact of the arts. Providing an adult the opportunity to participate in a “first music lesson” can have real impact on his or her understanding of the focus, concentration, creative thinking skills, hand-eye coordination, and other benefits that learning an instrument can provide. Invite your hard-to-convince principal to participate in a drama workshop where an historical moment or book the students are studying is brought to life, and let him or her experience first hand the “ah ha” moments the students experience. Similar “demonstration lessons” can be created for various arts disciplines.
Mine for any personal experiences with the arts. Did this administrator play an instrument as a child? Might he be interested in observing or joining a rehearsal? Would she like a walk-on role in an upcoming school drama production? Is there a creative way to include your school leader in an art class? Even if your school’s decision-makers did not play an instrument, star in the high school play, or major in art history, there are many creative ways to encourage participation. Transformative moments can happen when a principal is given the opportunity to conduct a piece of music at a rehearsal or even school concert.
The advocacy ideas discussed here are relevant for every level of education staff. Proactive conversations, demonstration lessons, and participation in arts events will be effective with school board members, academic officers, and classroom teachers alike. Not every principal will feel comfortable conducting the school band in front of hundreds of parents, but many may jump at the opportunity. Tailoring your strategies to the individual you are working to “bring on board” is the key to successful advocacy.
Keep Coming Back!
In future AEIQs, authors will elaborate on the constituents discussed here, providing new information, unique ideas, and success stories about the advocacy taking place in our dynamic, challenging field. Here are a few statements to sum up this first AEIQ:
- Put what you know intuitively into words!
- Know the facts: use research and let data shape your requests.
- Determine the decision-makers who are your allies. Keep regular communication with them about successes in arts education, community events, and new research. Make sure they are supporting a sequential arts education and are speaking up both when and where you need them to.
- Ask early! Let decision-makers know that you and others care about the arts before the cuts are proposed. Give a presentation on new research on student benefits of arts education at the school board meeting.
- Know how arts education is currently funded in your community (tax levies, grants from local arts agencies, PTAs, or the district budget), and be sure to advocate that the most sustainable model is in place. Become familiar with school funding and ensure that arts education is funded by the district like all core subjects.
- Follow the local school board budget cycle; you can find out more at CounterPoint on SupportMusic.com.
- Publicize your successes to all the important decision-makers and thank them whenever possible. (You can see sample program marketing online.)
- Inform school administrators, classroom teachers, and community leaders that NCLB includes the arts as one of 10 “core subjects”; challenge the misperception that we can’t afford time or money for the arts in the climate of NCLB.
- Find out what the legislation says about arts education in your state, and be sure the school district is aware and complying.
- Rally local support: create an e-mail list of any and all interested parties. You can use this collective community voice to influence decision-makers when you need to.
Americans for the Arts is committed to finding solutions to a persistent challenge in our field—namely, how do we sustain and improve arts education in our schools and communities? It is important that we set the bar high. The higher, the better. And this applies to all children—rural and urban, high-poverty and low; every grade, every ability, every class, every child. We must be sure that we do not allow an excuse like “we don’t have the money,” to stop our advocacy in its tracks. If the arts are a core subject, school districts must treat and fund them as such.
It takes a lot of energy, but with steady, strategic work and the support of your colleagues from across the country, you can make sure that every student has access to a comprehensive arts education.
About the Author
Laurie Schopp is the director of programs and policy for the VH1 Save the Music Foundation, where she is responsible for overseeing the implementation of the award-winning national initiative committed to restoring music education to America’s public schools and raising public awareness about the benefits of music education. Schopp initiated and managed the launch of campaigns to completely restore music education in such cities as Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Louis. She has presented at numerous state and national educators conferences and currently provides consultation to communities throughout the United States as they face challenges that jeopardize arts education.