The following is the address Arts Corps’ Executive Director Elizabeth Whitford delivered at the 2012 La Festa del Arte on March 29th at the Triple Door in Seattle.
Arts Corps is not just about arts education. As it turns out, our work increasingly sits at the heart of a major tension in education—namely, a profound disagreement about what it will take to achieve equity in education.
Today we hear a lot of talk about the achievement gap. The achievement gap generally refers to the lower academic performance of youth of color and youth from low-income communities as compared to their middle income and white peers on standardized high stakes tests in math and reading. This disparity is real, and most definitely points to a grave concern about equity in education.
It is ironic, however, that the policy efforts that seek to address this achievement gap with a targeted focus on test score improvement, such as those that have dominated education reform efforts for the past 40 years and encoded in federal and local education policy, often manage to increase inequality in education.
Let me give you an example. I have a five-year-old son who is excited, and a little nervous, to start Kindergarten next year.
The school to which he is currently assigned–our neighborhood school–is situated in a low-income neighborhood in Southeast Seattle. The vast majority of students at this school come from low-income families, and they represent a diverse mix of racial, ethnic and cultural backgrounds. His school’s test scores are low, and falling, especially for those students from low-income families.
I was the only parent to show up to the Kindergarten tour this month. I was toured around the school by a generous and enthusiastic volunteer coordinator. It was a nice building, the students seemed quiet and well-behaved, the teachers kind, and the principal passionate about improving the school. I learned that the kids have only one 20-minute recess after lunch. They have no music or arts teacher. They have no science or environmental educator. Then I went to visit the after-school program. I asked them if it was play-based after school. “No,” they said. “We align with the curriculum. Kids do one hour of homework time after school, and then we do math and literacy activities. They get a short break to go outside.” I imagine my squiggly, enthusiastic, high-energy boy in this school. I imagine him focused on math and reading all day, 9-5 pm, with two short breaks for unstructured play.
So I picked up the phone and called my friend whose child attends a public school in a middle-income neighborhood of lower Magnolia. At this school, every student gets music class two times each week, 90 minutes of physical education per week and three recesses per day. Their PTA raises money to support visual arts and dance residencies and enriching after school programs. Despite this competition for classroom time, their low-income students’ test scores in math and reading increased far above the district average last year.
The situation at my neighborhood school is entirely related to the policies seeking to address the achievement gap. Through Title 1, our school actually has more per student funding than my friend’s school—but that funding is entirely constrained to strategies seen as most directly related to improving student performance on math and reading test scores. The after school program is likewise informed by similar funding pressures.
I think this example begs a new way of looking at this problem. We need to reframe the conversation to be focused on the opportunity gap rather than on the achievement gap. Because if all kids had equal opportunity in education, if all kids had a more equal education—with the same access to the rich learning environments we offer kids in higher income neighborhoods—we would have more equal outcomes for kids.
This is the work we are engaged in, and that the impact we are demonstrating.
National research has shown that low-income students at arts-rich high schools are more likely to graduate from high school and persist through college. Our own research has shown that students highly involved in Arts Corps come to school more often and perform better on the state math and reading tests.
This happens because our classes increase students’ critical and creative thinking skills, their persistence, and their discovery of their capacity to learn and grow their ability through effort. And it is these learning behaviors and 21st Century skills related to everyday performance that turn out to be more predictive of academic and life success than the high-stakes performance measured in our state’s standardized tests.
And we’re pushing further. Last year I stood here before you all and told you that we were coming through this economic downturn leaner but stronger and ambitiously moving forward. And we have done just that, launching new initiatives and drawing new investments that have brought our budget to $1 Million for the first time in our history.
We are partnering with The Road Map Project—a region-wide collective impact effort focused on increasing the number of students ‘on track’ to graduate from college or earn a career credential—to develop common ways of measuring growth in these key learning behaviors and 21st C skills—broadening the conversation beyond test scores. And we have been contracted by Seattle Public Schools to develop tools that district arts teachers can use to assess for student learning in these same key developmental areas.
Finally, I’m excited to announce today that next school year we launch the Creative Schools Initiative. Through this exciting initiative made possible by visionary gifts from the Paul G. Allen Foundation, J.P. Morgan Chase and Seattle’s own Dave Matthews, Arts Corps will be demonstrating a model for creativity-infused middle schools—with resident teaching artists teaching after school and working alongside language arts and social studies teachers in the school day to lead arts-based projects that develop students’ creative capacities and learning in both subject areas. We will carefully evaluate the impacts of this program on students’ creative capacities, learning behaviors and academic performance and share it as a model for creativity-rich schools.
None of these initiatives would have been possible without your support, and we are counting on you tonight to help us move them forward. We’ve been thrust into a clear leadership role on this vital educational issue. We’re ready, and because of you all tonight, we will have the capacity. Thank you for investing in our leadership.