State of the Art
In the Chalkboard Jungle
Last week, President Obama touched upon some of his plans to address our country's increasingly disastrous education system. What garnered the bulk of the attention was the proposal of tying teacher pay to performance. Most teachers find this idea anathema, and many outside of education don't understand why. In the business world, it's easy to quantify someone's performance: It's all in the numbers. Education, however, cannot be run like a business, even though that’s been the trend for the past 15 years. The problem is: How is a teacher's worth determined? If it's solely tied to student performance, then good teachers who inherit struggling students could be penalized and poor teachers in good school systems rewarded. And what students have learned doesn't always show up in a test taken that same school year; it emerges over time as they learn to synthesize the information and skills into their lives.
The reason I'm writing about this in the Arts section is because, as an educator (I also teach English at CNM), I think the wrong issues are getting the most attention, as usual. Yes, teachers should be held accountable and students should do better, but people seem to think it's a simple lack of motivation. As if unless teachers get that 5k bump, they're just not going to teach as much or as well. The problem is that programs demonstrated to improve student performance have been deemed unnecessary. Arts, music and foreign languages have been cut. Not only does early and constant exposure to these subjects have direct correlations to success in other subjects (music helping with math theory, Spanish grammar improving English grammar), but giving students the opportunity to experience and succeed in these fields allows them to be engaged in school as a whole. With a dropout rate higher than that of any industrialized country, we first need to be concerned with getting the kids in the door before we can talk about preparing them for tests. Frankly, that pre-algebra class probably isn't going to do it, but band and theater and soccer might.
Other countries privilege learning musical instruments and languages, and their students are outpacing ours in every subject. This isn't coincidental. More money is great and bad teachers are, unfortunately, a reality. (I would also suggest getting rid of majors in secondary education, but that's another issue.) But without a clear focus of how to spend this money, we might as well give it to AIG. The money should be spent on bringing qualified, inspired arts professionals into the teaching profession. Those who denigrate the skill sets developed by arts education seem to have the same "tangible results now" myopia of Wall Street; financiers who were unable to look down the road a couple of years and see that everything, including inaction, has consequences.
The real goal should be a new model of education, one that is collaborative at every grade level, so that the English class' study of The Tempest works with art in creating scenery, with history in learning about the era of exploration and colonization, with science to examine weather patterns and the physics of a shipwreck. Small, often private, schools do offer programming like this—but this version of what education could (and should) be is almost never extended to kids who made the unfortunate choice to be born without access to vast reserves of cash. Engagement of these students is what will truly turn us around, not a bump in pay to professionals who have already made their ideals, not their bank accounts, the driving force behind their work. Having said that, please pay us more, too.