The Arts Are a Powerful Dropout Prevention Strategy

This blog post is drawn from Mark Slavkin’s speech to the National Dropout Prevention Center ( conference in Palm Spring, October 24, 2017.

Good morning.  I’m delighted to be here and want to express special thanks to my friend and colleague Bob Collins for inviting me to participate.  His passion for education and his dedication to the importance of the arts only continues to grow over time.

I am about to mention several ideas that are part of this conference.  I want you to consider the following.   Are these actually four different things or could they be aligned and integrated as one thing?

Dropout prevention, career and technical education, social emotional learning, and the arts.

Even though we currently organize our funding and staffing as separate and distinct, this morning I want to suggest we start looking at these ideas as if they were connected, aligned, and integrated.

Now, before I make my case, I want to make a confession.  I was not always “the arts education guy.”   In fact, during my eight years as an elected member of the Los Angeles Board of Education, I gave little thought to the importance of arts education as a central tool for improving outcomes for students.   I tried to be supportive when we were considering cutting our elementary music teachers and I attended many student performances.  But that was about it.  At that time, for me arts education was, at best, of marginal importance or relevance to our core district priorities.

My ‘aha moment’ came after I left the school board and began a new career path at the J. Paul Getty Trust.  Thanks to their investment in me, I became much smarter about the value and importance of arts education.  My great mentors were Leilani Lattin Duke and the late Elliot Eisner, professor at Stanford.  In the twenty years since I began at the Getty, I have dedicated my work to advancing the quality and status of arts education across Los Angeles County and the state of California.  My point is that there is no use scolding people who are not yet arts advocates.  In most cases, that simply reflects a lack of prior knowledge, not a hostile or adversarial disposition.

So now, let me make the case, starting with an assessment of current reality.

In my experience, these efforts — Dropout prevention, career and technical education, social emotional learning, and the arts —  are too often organized and delivered in separate silos.  The tendency to work in silos is a recipe for fragmentation, initiative overload, and programmatic incoherence.  For policy makers, this means inviting the usual suspects to each meeting and preaching to the respective choirs, failing to see new ways to integrate and align with other efforts.  For principals, this means juggling different categorical funding streams with competing rules and guidelines.  For teachers this means a constant stream of new buzz words and jargon to accommodate, while still often holding to their traditional practices.  For students, this means more and more different cracks though which they can fall.

All of us tend to pull out and emphasize specific hot topics, as if they were not intertwined with everything else.  In fact, in the life of an effective school or in the mind of an engaged student, everything connects to everything.

For me, the big idea is to provide effective schools that prepare young people to make a difference in the world.  In the words of former Fresno County Superintendent Larry Powell, “we want schools where the rate at which students rush in in the morning is greater than the speed in which they leave at the end of the day.”   School should be fun, engaging, inspiring, and empowering for youth.  But instead, too often schools become places of dread, where the students who most need our support are made to feel inadequate and ignored.  Even when we know this and dedicate ourselves to improvements, we still subdivide our work into dropout prevention, linked learning, student engagement, social emotional learning, restorative justice, project based learning, etc.  Arts educators often behave as yet one more competing silo.

So how can we change this?  We want students to be engaged, to have a sense of agency and possibility, to stay in school, to gain essential skills for college and career readiness.    The arts are not a magic bullet.  But when done well, quality arts and arts integration programs can make an enormous difference.

Here’s an example.  During my time at The Music Center, we brought teaching artist Madeleine Dahm to work with newly arrived immigrant students at Fairfax High School.  Imagine being confronted with a new country, a new school, and a new language as a vulnerable teen.  Madeleine worked with their ESL teacher, Karen Ritvo, to create a safe space for these kids to share their stories and build a real sense of community.  The students’ culminating performance was featured on the blog of former County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and was written by Ms. Lennie Laguire on his staff.  You may read her moving account From pain, pure poetry in Room 219 here

The students at Fairfax described feeling invisible—or, even worse, too visible.
How shy she is in the center of this strange land
Everything she sees is unusual and unfamiliar
No one pays attention to her but she feels only tons of stares on the back of her head
—“Nothing Can Stop Me” by AiLing Lu

So why do you choose to be so rude
If all we want from you is your help to open up
I know you think I’m an alien
But like you I’m from earth
—Untitled, by Sheyla Jordan

“I learned that I’m not the only one who feels weird or feels sad in this country,” said Daisy Juarez, 19, also of El Salvador, who’d written about missing her mom. “They have their problems, too. It’s not only me. I learned not to judge.”

This project was one of the most meaningful in my career. When I try to unpack the elements or the “secret” sauce that made it so important, I think of the following values:

Great works of art – in any discipline or media – have a unique power to inspire, challenge, or provoke students. Engagement with great art, or music, or dance, or poetry should be baked in to the teaching of all content areas. The students at Fairfax read poetry by Pablo Neruda and viewed dance by Alvin Ailey, before creating their own work.

Students quickly grasp and appreciate that there is not only one “correct” answer to a creative task in the arts. And the arts class may be the only time in their school day that someone is truly interested in their personal story and perspective. And as students gain courage to speak out and express themselves, they may find they can achieve a level of impact and success that alludes them in other courses.

The collaborative process in the arts – especially music, dance, and theater – fosters a sense of community and connection not realized in a typical classroom. Students learn the give and take of being part of a team or ensemble, without ever being lectured about collaboration.
The affirmation that comes from a publicly presented product is baked in to almost every arts program.

All these examples and all these possibilities to include and integrate the arts, so what are the barriers?

Is it fundamentally about funding or about our attitudes and beliefs?
While I would answer the problem is a little of both, I believe the primary challenge is to change the frame through which we think about arts education.

We actually have a long American tradition that values the arts in schools. But it might be for the “wrong” reason. By that I mean we need to shift from an “enrichment” frame to an “instruction” frame.

Let’s consider the specific Attitude barriers getting in our way. I would ask you to consider, which of these attitudes may apply to your own thinking.
“The arts are nice to offer as enrichment, but are not central to instruction.”

This may be the biggest barrier to break through. When the arts are perceived as enrichment, they live outside the urgency of school improvement. In fact, when done well, the arts can be central to instruction, both as discrete disciplines and integrated across the curriculum. For example, when former Paramount Superintendent David Verdugo came to see the value of using elements of theater to strengthen reading and oral language for his elementary students, he made this an expectation and priority for all his elementary schools.

The arts should be offered as electives, for those with special talents or interests, but are not core for everyone.

This myth that only certain people have talent is a huge barrier. It is the opposite of the Growth Mindset. It means that access to the arts is selective and only really relevant or appropriate for those young people born with special God-given abilities.

The myth of the starving artist.

Since we need to focus on preparing youth for college and career, why waste time on fields where you can never earn a decent living? In fact, the Creative Economy is central to the economic success of many states and regions, especially here in California. The key is to understand the arts and creative economy include many more roles and possibilities than the celebrity we may see on stage or on screen. Think of video gaming, and music producers, fashion designers, and makeup artists. All of these career possibilities can become viable for our students once we give them access to the arts.

Here are a few highlights about California’s creative economy from the 2017 Otis Report: • Creative economy output totaled $406.5 billion (direct, indirect, and induced). • The creative economy generated 1.6 million jobs (direct, indirect, and induced), and those wage and salary workers earned $136 billion in total labor income. • Property taxes, state and local personal income taxes, and sales taxes directly and indirectly generated by the creative industries totaled $16.7 billion across all of California. • The largest direct job counts in California’s creative sector were in entertainment (171,500), publishing and printing (154,200), and fashion (119,800). Together, these three industries accounted for 60 percent of direct creative industries employment in California.

The arts provide a break from academic rigor.

If you imagine artists auditioning – whether for a school like Juliard or the LA Philharmonic, or a major role in Hamilton, the word rigor comes to mind. They must be at the top of their game and demonstrate mastery of their craft at the highest levels. Yet, within schools, we too often think of the arts as anti-rigor, or a fun break from the demands of academic courses. The fact is that arts courses are built around rigorous content standards, like every other core discipline. When done well, rubrics are used that help identify the elements of excellence for which students strive to achieve. While I’m sure there are arts programs where kids just goof around, those are not exemplars of anything, other than poor teaching.

Too much arts will distract from student focus on basic skills and remediation.

Because this myth is held so firmly by so many, the kids who would benefit the most get the least arts opportunities. Secondary students often receive a “double block” of math and language arts, leaving no room on their schedule for arts courses. When we ask the teachers for their biggest challenges – they often cite students who are bored and refused to engage as active learners. They mention a lack of academic vocabulary and an inability to speak with strength and conviction in front of others. Imagine if these students were given the opportunity of the kids I mentioned at Fairfax High School. Imagine if their day included a chance to be creative, to share your own perspective, and to experience validation and success. We need to stop seeing the arts as “instructional desert,” something to be sampled only after proficiency is achieved in other subject areas.

The arts are separate from school reform and school improvement.

Historically, this has been true. Arts teachers and their advocates have been isolated and made to feel like victims. As a result, they too often focus on what they need, rather than on what they can contribute to school improvement. This is beginning to change. Arts-focused school reforms are gaining visibility and momentum. I think of TurnAround Arts, where the very lowest performing schools are receiving substantial support and training to include and integrate the arts as a central strategy for improvement. The A+ Schools Program is a whole-school reform model that views the arts as fundamental to teaching and learning in all subjects. A+ Schools combine interdisciplinary teaching and daily arts instruction, offering children opportunities to develop creative, innovative ways of thinking, learning and showing what they know. I’m thinking of the many high school smaller learning communities and academies that have a focus on the arts. In terms of Career and Technical Education, the arts, media, and entertainment pathways are the most utilized among California high schools.

So let me end on a positive note. Rather than two ships passing in the night, I see the arts and other vital reform efforts starting to circle each other, sometimes touching and sparking new connections and collaborations. Still, we can do much better. I think the first step is intention. By that I mean making the commitment to ourselves that we will be advocates of new connections and try to combat silos when we see them. It can be as simple as speaking up when you see the next meeting invitation and replying with something like “have we considered inviting our arts educators to be part of this?”