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Kristen Paglia

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Book Review: Why Our Schools Need the Arts

Posted: 12/30/11 10:58 AM ET

What you do is you fake a stomach cramp and when you're bent over moaning and wailing you lick your palms. It's a little childish and stupid, but then, so is high school.

Advice from Ferris Bueller on how to get your parents to let you skip school. I am not embarrassed to admit my inner teenager still appreciates John Hughes for "getting it," because, based on results from a study sponsored by the Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation, two decades after Ferris and I attended high school the most common reason drop outs give for quitting school is still some version of it's "stupid and childish." According to Department of Education data, about 1 in 5 students in California dropped out of high school in 1986 when the blockbuster was released, and that statistic has not improved. In recent years, the drop out rate in the Los Angeles Unified School District has climbed as high as 1 in 3. Further, a University of California, Santa Barbara study found it costs California over $46 billion for each year's cohort of dropouts over their lifetimes. Still, year after year, district leadership and educational policy makers cite reducing attrition as a top priority while continuing to cut resources to the curricular activities proven to keep kids in school and doing well -- namely the arts.

In her new book, Why Our High Schools Need the Arts -- Fighting Attrition with Interest and Relevance, Dr. Jessica Hoffmann Davis weaves a masterful case for arts education as an antidote to academic disengagement, as well as a uniquely affective method of teaching the character and intellectual traits associated with scholastic, social, and professional success. A developmental psychologist and founder of the Arts in Education program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Hoffmann Davis boldly stands up for the intrinsic benefits of the arts. Her book pushes past a myopic approach to arts education advocacy that attempts to establish the value of the arts for enhancing whatever subjects or skills are educationally en vogue. Hoffmann Davis addresses the larger and most critical issues for public education reformers with regard to the arts, including inviting us to consider why we educate children in the first place, and the consequences to our society if we don't do a good job of it. To make the point, Hoffmann Davis highlights the current advocacy trend focusing on (disputable) evidence that the arts increase students' standardized test scores:

Arts education has been pushed so far to the margins that desperate advocates have fought for a place at the head of the table by arguing that arts learning even helps to increase student performance on standardized tests... These considerations, so extraneous and removed from the powerful learning that the arts provide, are a symptom of the time.

Why Our High Schools Need the Arts provides arts advocates with the substantial ammunition we need to secure a permanent place for the arts in schools. Hoffmann Davis presents a rigorous argument from a cognitive and developmental research foundation for why arts education is key to solving the drop out problem, and to nurturing high school students capable of becoming highly productive, prosperous, and conscientious members of our global society. Hoffmann Davis systematically presents the connections between participation in the arts and adolescents' natural drive to become independent adults, including describing in detail how the arts increase students' confidence and capacity to interpret, question, and influence their current and future lives. In each chapter, Hoffmann Davis deconstructs how the arts impart specific concepts and skills that are critical to promoting high school students' sense of agency, empathy, creativity, media savvy, and, most relevant to the high school drop out crisis, engagement. As further evidence for the importance of the arts in schools, Hoffmann Davis cites high school administrators, arts teachers, and students throughout the work. One high school student advocates for the need for relevance in his education by stating, "High school must engage me. It needs to have relevance to the life I am living and not just to the life that I will get to live if I make it through high school."

As someone constantly in the position of raising funds and advocating for the rightful place of the arts in schools, I understand the pressure to say that the arts increase test scores, but I resist using that as my main argument in spite of the trend. It's true there is a statistical correlation, but it's like saying that kids who get enough to eat do better on bubble tests. Of course they do, but it hardly seems the most important outcome of feeding them. Hitching the value of arts education to the current (and always fleeting) political wagon works against our cause as arts education advocates, and is unnecessary when scholars like Dr. Hoffmann Davis have provided us with solid evidence of the benefits of the arts as academic disciplines in their own right.

Leaders in education and arts advocates, along with teachers, parents, and anyone else who is interested in the welfare of children, need to read Why Our High Schools Need the Arts. Hoffmann Davis encourages us to advocate for elevating the level of arts opportunities and expectations in schools to that of all core academic subjects, increasing resources dedicated to the arts, increasing visiting artists in classrooms, and providing more field trips and cultural experiences to students. From my point of view, Hoffmann Davis' book also has the potential to change the paradigm through which the arts are viewed in our educational system and start a new conversation that places the core and irrefutable benefits of arts education at the center of research, practice, and public education reform. As Hoffmann Davis states:

The fact that something can be measured does not make it a priori more valuable than something else... Surely we value and categorize as beyond measure kindness, character, and a host of other human virtues. Why should it be so different in the education of what we hope will be motivated, caring, and responsible citizens?

 

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