So much of the focus of transforming low performing schools centers around academic metrics. Even more narrowly, those academics are usually defined only as math and reading. Interventions in these two subjects alone are the focal point in most school turnaround efforts. New positions are hired in the form of Academic Deans and Data Specialists and Math and Reading Interventionists. New math and reading books, software, and programs are purchased. Teachers are trained on new math and reading strategies. Educator effectiveness is measured based on student performance in math and reading. Attendance is perceived as a numbers game with particular emphasis on the importance of instructional time.
I would never argue that these tactics are not important, but I would argue that this approach is limiting and unbalanced. We have major work to do on the culture and climate part of our ecosystem, which has long been ignored by traditional school reform attempts. This has resulted in teachers and students who don’t feel connected to or inspired by the process of learning or by each other, and therefore are not prepared to teach, learn, or retain the academic content that is expected. Until a school looks and feels different to its parents/families, students, and teachers, it is unlikely to perform differently.
Four Milwaukee schools are closing out their first year in the Turnaround Arts program, a model that uses the arts and arts integration to help turnaround schools. As we reflect on the whirlwind that was year one, we find that the most impactful work we did, for both teachers and students, was around building joy, engagement, relationships, and celebrations, as well as diversification of programming and exposure for teachers to the potential of arts integrated teaching. The majority of the work wasn’t directly targeted at academics, but rather at school culture and climate, because that is where we saw the greatest need.
While it may be too early in the process for the four Milwaukee schools to gauge impact on traditional school improvement indicators, what we did observe was teachers who started collaborating more, and teachers trying new strategies that reinvigorate the classroom for them and for their students. We saw students who had previously struggled with behavior taking the lead role in the school musical; and students who once engaged in daily arguments and fights shift to having critical conversations and deep dialogue based on works of art with their peers. We saw community arts organizations who became true partners in transforming the school. We saw parent/family attendance at open houses go from an average of 10-20 people to hundreds of community and family members at school performances. These things may not be quantifiable now, but we believe the payoff is coming.
We do this Turnaround Arts work of school transformation through the arts in Milwaukee and across the nation, because we believe the arts unite and empower school communities and individuals. We believe that the arts and arts integration are not an add-on, but rather an integral tool to creating the kind of communities in which our students can thrive, both academically and socially. The two—academics, and culture and climate—should operate in balance, meaning equal training and support should be given to teachers and school staff in both areas; measurements and continuous improvement strategies should be implemented in both; and policy and funding should be equally concerned with culture and climate as they are with academics.
Keep your eye on the Turnaround Arts program. We have something to show the field of education reform. Just like artists have done throughout human history, we lead the way in voicing constructive critique of systems in need of reform and using creativity to bring about change. Most importantly, the arts are the expression of our humanity and school should always be a place where the humanity of our students and staff is of the utmost concern.