It is a sad reflection on the current state of arts education in our public schools that every arts education program offered by an arts organization sounds good. "We bring children to the symphony." "We offer art classes for children." "We teach dance to at-risk children." Who can argue with any of these programs, especially when the large numbers of children served are mentioned in the next breath? "We serve 11,000 children a year." We bring the arts to 3,000 students every semester." At the Kennedy Center we boast that we serve 11 million children a year.
But what, if any, good are we doing?
In most cases, the level of arts education enjoyed by a class is solely a function of an individual teacher's passion for the arts. For example, if a third grade teacher loves the arts, the children are likely to have many arts experiences. When those same children get to fourth grade, they may get no arts education if their teacher does not feel it is important or do not know how to offer it.
Can you imagine your child coming home from fourth grade saying that there would be no math taught that year because the teacher did not like it? But we teach the arts in this episodic manner that cannot foster consistent, quality learning.
And there is a more insidious repercussion of this approach, or non-approach, to arts education. For those at-risk children for whom loss is a central theme -- they lose their homes, their parents, their sense of security -- we are offering a great gift one year and taking it away the next. The arts bring children into a wonderland that allows them to express themselves and be inspired and carried away. To give a child a chance to dwell in this magical place and then rudely take it away only amplifies this feeling of loss.
Arts education is particularly important at this juncture in our economic history. With manufacturing jobs evaporating, we need more than ever to train our children to be creative, problem-solving members of our economy. The arts allow children to exercise their creativity in ways other subjects cannot.
We must create a smart, affordable approach to arts education. I have been working for the last three years on a new project, Any Given Child, that creates a systematic arts education out of the current hodge-podge approach.
It is called Any Given Child because I want to ensure that any one child gets a solid, meaningful arts education from kindergarten through eighth grade.
This approach utilizes the resources in the schools, the resources of local arts organizations and other agencies, and the resources of the Kennedy Center to create a community-specific approach to arts education.
An audit of the community and the school system reveals what arts education does exist in the school system, what arts organizations and other community groups can offer, and how the school curriculum can help direct an arts education program.
Every arts organization is asked to specialize in a particular grade level and subject matter to meet the needs of the school curriculum. So the symphony might focus on the third grade's study of history and sound, the art museum on the fourth grade's look at other cultures, etc. The Kennedy Center's national arts education programming -- including online activities for teachers and students, access to satellite-distributed programming, etc. -- are used to fill in voids in available local programming.
The beauty of this approach is that it focuses and coordinates the education efforts of arts organizations while providing a consistent arts education approach. It is also inexpensive. Arts organizations are already providing education services; we do not need to add a great deal of cost to the system to end up with a far more effective approach.
We are hoping to test Any Given Child in several cities over the coming years.
If it works, we will have a new approach to arts education that must benefit every child, and any given child.