When cash-strapped school administrators hunt for places to trim, arts are often one of the first places they look. With so much riding on test scores, pity the administrator who pares back core academics, right?
Not so fast. For more than a decade, educators have had known that integrating the arts into as many academic disciplines as possible accelerates student achievement. There’s even evidence that arts integration, as the practice is known, makes a bigger difference for kids who are at risk of failing in school.
The Perpich Center for Arts Education is poised to do something about this disconnect. Throughout the month of November, the state agency, which operates a much-lauded arts high school in Golden Valley, is asking every school in Minnesota to reply to a survey intended to assess the state of arts education.
In 2008, Minnesotans voted to change the state constitution. The Legacy Amendment dedicates 3/8 of 1 percent of sales taxes to support arts, cultural and outdoor heritage, clean water and parks and trails. Last year, the Legislature, which controls the money, voted to give funds to the Perpich Center both for the Minnesota Arts Education Survey and an arts integration project.
Every school in state will be surveyed
Every school — public, private or charter — will be surveyed. Lawmakers and Perpich administrators hope the first-of-its-kind statewide arts census will yield data that can guide future decisions about spending the Legacy funds.
A national study released earlier this year noted that No Child Left Behind, the Bush administration’s controversial school reform initiative, has had a negative impact on funding and scheduling arts education, as well as on educators’ workloads.
Nearly half of educators surveyed by the National Art Education Association reported that funds were cut from their programs to shore up remedial instruction. Other complaints: reduced funding for staff and class materials, schedules interrupted by testing and struggling students pulled out of arts classes to drill for tests.
This frustrates Pam Paulson, senior director of policy at the Perpich Center. Test scores go up if arts are used in teaching math and reading, she said. Partly that’s because arts integration engages students, Paulson said.
“When they’re making something, kids tend to be more involved,” she said. “Their attendance improves, especially if they’re working in a group. They don’t want to let the group down.”
Petroglyphs and myths
By way of example, she describes how an English teacher at the center’s Arts High School took his class to southern Minnesota to look at petroglyphs: “They talked about myth, and its place in the culture. When they came back, they drew them and learned about the associated myths.”
Students then put the myths in historical context. What was life like for the people who made the drawings? Did they hunt buffalo? Finally, the class made up a dance incorporating the elements.
“It’s a very powerful way to understand history,” said Paulson.
Including arts in other disciplines also helps students approach academic subjects more dynamically. “Arts help with both deductive thinking and inductive thinking,” Paulson explained. “Math you drill down to the right answer. Arts do the opposite, they help you start small and go bigger. It is really modeling the creative process, where you make a decision and then you rethink it.”
There’s also evidence the approach has a positive impact on teachers, too. According to Paulson, a survey of teachers involved in arts integration in Minneapolis Public Schools found that many had changed their views of which students were capable and which weren’t.
Over the summer, Perpich began working with teacher teams at 10 western Minnesota schools to develop strategies for integrating arts into lessons across disciplines.
“It works,” said Paulson, “plain and simple.”