SUSD Must Re-invest in Performing and Fine Arts Education

Throughout my candidacy for a seat on Scottsdale Unified School District’s Governing Board, I have made my position clear that I believe the ultimate goal of a school district is to provide high-quality education and a diverse range of learning opportunities for our students. We need to show parents and children alike that not only does SUSD care about students’ needs and interests, but also that SUSD provides something for everyone – a place for every child to explore, learn, and grow.


This is a mantra that has been codified in my campaign platform since I announced my candidacy in March of this year. It forms the “ends” of my goals and provides the structuring for the “means” to achieving them.


One of the strongest ways in which we can achieve this goal from an academic perspective is by providing students as many learning opportunities as possible in order to ensure that they learn and have the necessary transferable skills to tackle the challenges of the future.

This includes a greater embrace of vocational education opportunities in our schools, dual enrollment (college credit for high school classes), viewing computer programming as a core curriculum subject, and bringing in unique in-school and after-school classes covering subjects students would not otherwise have the chance to study (e.g., “adulting” classes where SUSD community members could teach students “introductory” level courses on law, politics, astrophysics, accounting and the like). I also advocate strongly for working with Arizona businesses to offer summer internship opportunities to our high school students so that they gain experience they might otherwise not have considered or had the opportunity to undertake.


The aforementioned opportunities for SUSD do not mitigate the need for SUSD to re-invest in performing and fine arts education – especially those involving music, theater, art, and dance. For over a decade now, Arizona has continually underfunded its education which, in turn, rightfully sparked the RedforEd movement and the introduction (and unfortunate removal) of Proposition 207, also known as InvestinEd. The spending reductions enacted by our legislature were excruciating and severe for students, parents, and teachers alike and, predictably, funding for arts education in our public schools were one of the first targets of those cuts as they are seen as (1) too expensive to maintain and (2) providing few benefits to our children’s education.


However, these views are entirely incorrect. Strong performing and fine arts education, if implemented correctly, provides an extremely high return on investment that extends well beyond an individual’s pre-Kindergarten through 12th grade years.

The benefits of arts education (and for the purposes of this article I will focus on consistent music education) for students specifically have been supported time and again by data and in-depth research. Benefits include but are not limited to:

  1. increased graduation rates;

  2. fulfillment of graduation requirements;

  3. increased student attendance;

  4. increased test scores (including on college entrance exams like the SAT, on which students in fine arts courses score on average 11% to 13% higher than non-fine arts students);

  5. increased cognitive skills and learning abilities;

  6. improved reading and math abilities;

  7. a diversity of learning outcomes (e.g., consistent music education helps teach children about autonomy and instills the importance of self-discipline, responsibility, and diligence);

  8. the enabling students to work individually and as a group to accomplish goals and create their own body of work in which they can take pride and have for the rest of their lives;

  9. the closing of the educational gap between children of poverty and privilege; and

  10. improved learning and life outcomes for at-risk children who undertake at least two years of music education. [1].

While some might question the causal connection between such education and higher academic performance, studies which controlled for numerous variables (including the relevant question of whether students who achieve more academically are more likely to undertake fine arts courses as well) tended to corroborate these benefits.


And, for those concerned about economic considerations in re-investing in high-quality performing and fine arts education, evidence tends to support the view that cutting arts funding – while appearing on its face to be a good quick fix for budget cuts – actually costs schools more in the long run. Music courses tend to have high student-to-teacher ratios. Cutting these classes forces students into electives with smaller student-to-teacher ratios, which is, in economic terms, inefficient.


In a small-scale example which saw the cutting of 5.2 music Full Time Equivalent (“FTE”), the school district in turn had to hire 12.6 cumulative FTE to compensate and now form 63 smaller classes for the former music students handled by the 5.2 FTE. While this was done to create savings of $156,00, this actually generated an additional cost of $378,000 for a total reverse economic effect (from what was desired) of $534,000. [1].


In addition to this, there is the benefit of increased student attendance and a greater ability for SUSD to market itself to families which demand (as they should) curricular and extra-curricular excellence from educational institutions.


In 2014, for example, the Arlington Independent School District (Texas) accepted the academic, educational, and economic benefits of such re-investment and undertook and extensive campaign to create Texas’ finest public school fine and performing arts center which will serve its entire school district. Its aim, however, is to not only create performance spaces (a concert hall, theater, and blackbox), but to create an education rich learning environment complete with classrooms, art and dance studios, instrument repair center (where students can also work for vocational education and learn how to fix instruments for themselves), and gallery space. [2].


Although the project is not complete, the overall initiative is extremely bold and accounts for the fact that its students come from a diverse range of different backgrounds. The District raised bond money which in part will be used to purchase all instruments so that no child is prevented from participating simply because of their means and the District has already participated heavily in the United Sound program (which sees its students and teachers volunteer after school to teach special needs students how to play various instruments and perform music on stage) and creating dual enrollment opportunities for its students with local universities. [3].


Other innovative programs include the formation of fine arts and dual language elementary school academies starting in the 2015/16 school year, which sees elementary students not only undertake full language immersion classed (e.g., science taught only in French or Spanish), but also 90 minutes each day spent on dance, music, or art. [4]. AISD also pursued a vocational course on instrument repair, which sees students (including those with special needs) working with professionals in the music and music repair industry to learn how to maintain and repair instruments – a skilled profession which, like so many others in the United States desperately lacks qualified laborers. [5].


The purpose of the Fine Arts Center is to bring all of these amazing courses (and many more) into one space where students can learn (and, of course, increase the cost efficiency for AISD while doing it).


The point of this is not to say that SUSD can or should follow in AISD’s footsteps, but it does highlight potential ways in which SUSD can re-invest in its arts funding in ways which students can enjoy and from which they can learn and benefit in all the ways identified earlier, and work with its educational partners (e.g., EVIT) to do so. Hundreds, if not thousands, of our students already participate in dance, theater, and art on their own time. Would it not be an excellent way of bringing the community together and setting the gold standard for education in Arizona by creating those opportunities for all students at SUSD?


Ultimately, the most important takeaway is that SUSD would be creating a broad avenue of educational opportunities for all of its students, regardless of economic means, personal needs, and interests. The fine and performing arts are multi-faceted, and students are likely to find some element within them which they like and are drawn to. The greater the amount of options that are available to them, the more likely they will want to attend school, challenge their own skills, and flex their creative muscles, and the more likely they will learn for themselves (and expect of themselves) to work hard, study, and get good grades.


Students can be whatever it is they want to be: but to get there, the need to work hard. If that can be taught during classes where they get to explore their interests, that will slowly but surely translate into all other aspects in their lives. In turn, the concern over test scores will almost surely disappear, as the good results will come naturally once these traits are developed and implemented by each student.


 

[1] J L Earnhart, “Articulating the Why, Mission, and Data for Effective Music Education Advocacy” (2015) Praxis Electronic Journal for the Center for Music Education, Sam Houston State University, available at http://www.shsu.edu/academics/music/center-for-music-education/praxis/articles/earnhart_articulating-the-why.html.


[2] Arlington ISD, “Bond 2014: Fine Arts Center” (2018) available at https://www.aisd.net/bond/projects/campuses/fine-arts-center/.


[3] The Editorial Board, “Arlington Schools, UNT join on fine arts” (2016) Star-Telegram, available at https://www.star-telegram.com/opinion/editorials/article54761690.html.


[4] J Lindgren, “Fine Arts And Dual Language Classes for Arlington Kindergartners” (2015) CBS 11 News, available at https://dfw.cbslocal.com/2015/10/01/fine-arts-and-dual-language-classes-for-arlington-kindergartners/.


[5] S Jinkins, “Arlington instrument repair class hits right note with marketable skill” (2016) Star-Telegram, available at https://www.star-telegram.com/news/local/community/arlington/article103840326.html.

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