“Part of what arts education does is that it teaches people to see each other through each others’ eyes. It teaches us to respect and understand people who are not like us and that makes us better citizens and it makes our democracy work better. That’s something that I strongly believe in. That’s one of the main reasons we need to promote the arts.” – Barack Obama. April 2, 2008. Wallingford, Pennsylvania.

In February of 2008, then candidate Barack Obama published his Arts Policy Committee Platform in support of the arts. This document, greeted as a landmark statement by artists and educators alike, pledges to reinvest in arts education. The Obama campaign’s policy platform identifies three working aspects of arts education: expanding public private partnerships, creating an artist corps, and publicly championing the importance of arts education. As a lifelong beneficiary of arts education and someone who now works for a non-profit dedicated to youth arts education (Performing Arts Workshop “the Workshop”), this straightforward statement of support makes me want to jump for joy. However, there are a few issues with these ideas that I think the Obama team should take into consideration. In three blog posts I address each part of the policy individually, looking at how this scaffold of a good idea, could be built into a great one.

Part 1 – Expand Public/Private Partnerships Between Schools and Arts Organizations:

In the underfunded realm of arts education, this is music to our ears. However, the Obama document specifically cites Arts Education Model Development and Dissemination (AEMDD) Grants through the US Department of Education as its example of excellent public/private partnerships. These grants are typically given to school districts that partner with organizations of their choice. They involve a heavy quasi-experimental evaluation component and seek “scientific” evidence of the impact of arts education on student achievement. But in the current atmosphere of mandatory standardized testing, schools are already struggling to fit arts education within a year’s curriculum and around test content. Performing Arts Workshop found the San Francisco Unified School District unable to commit the large administrative capacity needed to conduct the research required by the AEMDD grants. So we took it on ourselves: we hired a third-party consultant to conduct the research and spent significant administrative time getting the buy-in needed from individual teachers and principals. Organizations without the administrative power to run such a large project on top of their regular work, and those without vetted relationships with their local school district will run into hefty obstacles when trying to conduct research. While AEMDD grants are infinitely useful in the arts education field’s struggle to legitimize its existence in the face of competing curricula and limited instructional time, they are not easily undertaken by non-profits and school partners.

Besides the infinite complexities of managing such a project, there is also the required “quasi-experimental” part of the AEMDD grants. In setting up an evidence based research project, there must be both a control and a treatment group. For those not familiar with these terms, a control group is one not experiencing the type of environment as the treatment group. For example: the Workshop’s Arts Residency Interventions in Special Education (ARISE) project, looks at the effects of our particular arts education model on special education designated students. Our control schools do not receive any arts programming through the Workshop, while our treatment schools see a Workshop artist in the classroom every week for the entire school year. Yet, in San Francisco each school is given a per pupil allotment of arts money with which the schools’ administration decides how to provide art to its students. Since both our treatment and control students are exposed to art, our control group has a number of variables similar to our treatment group. We accounted for this in our project design in order to provide the best evidence possible regarding the effects of the ARISE project, but this situation makes it more difficult to point directly to the true cause of these effects. That said, the Obama administration has made a move towards language based on innovation and improvement, but it remains to be seen how these ideas will affect the structure of the AEMDD grants.

The second half of this idea, engaging the foundation and corporate community to increase support for arts education work, is difficult to imagine with the current economy. In fact, it’s easy to find examples where in response to dropping endowments, traditionally big arts funders have moved away from the arts education, such as the Ford Foundation. Perhaps a presidential mandate could leverage more corporate money and foundation support, but with unemployment on the rise, social services are beginning to take up the space allocated for arts education. Foundations are choosing their causes differently. In tough times, soup kitchens trump artful classrooms. In order for partnerships between funders and arts education practitioners to weather the storm, this conversation needs to be prefaced with the concept that both arts education and social services are necessary for healthy communities, and often go hand in hand. Instead of a choice between one type of cause or the other, foundations and corporations could choose community arts and service organizations best able to work together toward common goals.