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Life of Learning: American Education and the Arts

Local and national arts education leaders gathered in Pittsburgh this week for a two-day Arts Education National Forum. There, teachers and advocates discussed how to prepare students for a new America through the arts.

As part of WESA’s Life of Learning initiative, Essential Pittsburgh explored the state of arts centered learning programs in area schools, community involvement and the future of arts education.

While the discussion of access to arts education has often meant a lack of resources, Sandra Ruppert, director of the Arts Education Partnership said the problem often is money and a lack of faith in arts.

“In some places around the country I believe the arts are not being taken seriously. The arts are sometimes considered more of an enrichment than a core academic subject and a necessity. Sometimes the arts are viewed for kids that are at risk or for the gifted and talented and not for every child,” she said. 

Ruppert thinks the arts have academic, social and personal benefits for every child. Based on strong evidence based research, she said the arts teach all of the personal attributes that are important for success in the 21st century.

“When students learn in and through the arts they obviously learn something about that art form, but there are these other things that happen. It helps to build your creative thinking, critical thinking, your problem solving skills, your resilience, your self confidence, your ability to communicate, your ability to demonstrate what you know.”

Because of these benefits, Ruppert said some administrators see that the arts have a place at the table when talking about strategies to improve student achievement and climate and culture of schools.

Sarah Tambucci, director of the Arts Education Collaborative in Pittsburgh, said even when there is a willingness to include arts as part of a comprehensive education, availability of instructors is limited. Thirty to 40 years ago, there were devoted dance and theater instructors in schools, whereas now physical education teachers are certified to teach dance and English language arts teachers teach theater, she said.

“As a result we don’t have very strong programs in either one of those disciplines,” she said.

Rupert said a successful program is one that has documented outcomes but also a noticeable change in the student.

“You know when kids are engaged, you know when a teacher is making connections with a student. You can see the enthusiasm and you can see the difference in their work,” she said.

According to a US Dept. of Education survey of the 2009-10 school year, nearly 4 million elementary school children do not have access to visual arts education.

To lessen this disadvantage, Carol Wolfe, director of education and regional director of Western PA Wolf Trap Gateway to the Arts, said community arts organizations have developed from using education programs as a way to cultivate future ticket buyers into resources with robust programs and services.

But when arts programs are cut, Tambucci said other disciplines are also cut equally.

In that sense, she said arts have to be integrated into other areas of the curriculum.

“You don’t drag little Johnny down to the principal’s office if he is doodling while you’re teaching something. You ask the question, ‘what is he doodling and how is it connected to what I’m trying to get him to learn?’” she said.

Guests include: Sandra Ruppert, director of the Arts Education Partnership; Sarah Tambucci, director of the Arts Education Collaborative; Carol Wolfe, director of education and regional director of western PA Wolf Trap Gateway to the Arts; and Doug Herbert, special assistant at the U.S. Department of Education. 

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