The Art of Learning: As Education Leaders, We Must Be Able to See the Impossible, Build without Adequate Resources, and Think beyond the Current Structures That Hinder Quality Arts Education

Article excerpt

A recent conversation with the education director for the Museum of Children's Art in Oakland caused us to reflect on the culture of arts learning in the Oakland Unified School District. Arlene Shmaeff was talking about the most fundamental concepts of arts instruction when she said, "It's like red and orange make yellow." Her accidental misstatement caused us to ask the question: Why can't red and orange make yellow?

As leaders in arts education, we must be able to see the impossible, build without adequate resources, and think beyond the current structures that hinder quality arts education. In short, we have to find a way to leverage inadequate resources to provide quality arts education to more of our students, particularly the most underserved.

Solving complex problems in creative and innovative ways is exactly what artists and educators are all about. Even making yellow from orange and red.

The Oakland School District, like many urban school districts, faces the significant challenge of accelerating student achievement in an era of high stakes accountability. Our district--like many districts--began to focus its priorities and resources to meet this daunting task, and is showing improvement in student achievement. However, this reallocation of instructional time has impacted access to arts instruction, particularly at the lowest performing schools (California Alliance for Arts Education, 2005).

Arts educators and leaders now must ask two important questions: Do we wait for the current environment that limits traditional arts education to change? Or can we as artists and leaders think differently about our craft and provide quality arts education to our students in a way that helps them understand all subject areas in new ways?

* Make a plan: In 2004, the Oakland School District entered state receivership, almost assuredly putting an end to any efforts under way to build arts programs.

Instead, something remarkable happened: Randolph Ward, then the state-appointed administrator, commissioned a team to design an innovative plan that would over time create arts programs at each of the district's 110 schools, that would be responsive to the particular goals of each site and would allow quality arts instruction to reach all of the district's 41,000 students.

The implementation of the multi-year plan was funded initially from a parcel tax, school site matching funds and the new state funding for the arts.

The strategic planning process, supported by the Alameda County Office of Education, resulted in the site-based Arts Learning Anchor School Initiative. Over three years, the initiative has successively reached a third of the K-12 schools.

The components of this program include coaching for sites to develop and implement an arts-infused instructional plan. Each plan must include professional development in the arts for teachers utilizing credentialed specialists and artist/teachers from community arts organizations. The emphasis is on learning in and through the arts, as arts are integrated across the curriculum.

In addition to the Arts Learning Anchor School Initiative, there are some parallel initiatives that are changing the way the arts are being reintroduced into the district. We believe that some of the things we've learned can be applied to any district or school.

* Expand the role of the credentialed specialist: In Oakland, instrumental music is offered only to upper-grade elementary students, leaving lower-grade students largely without formal music instruction. There is much more work to be done in reaching K-5 students than the current staff of music specialists can possibly accomplish effectively. Additionally, our staff of itinerate music teachers perform their duties in relative isolation, not meaningfully connected to the school communities.

Three years ago, with the help of a one-year grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and a partnership with Music in Schools Today and the Music In Education National Consortium, a cohort of teachers designed the Music Integration Learning Enhancement (MILE) initiative. …