#WeAllDeserveArts: Mary Ann Mears, Founder of AEMS

#WeAllDeserveArts: Students deserve arts education now more than ever

May 8, 2020

Written by Mary Ann Mears, AEMS Founder

I was very optimistic 30 years ago when we founded Arts Education in Maryland Schools (AEMS) to address diminishing opportunities for arts education in public schools. Solid evidence was proving that the arts help kids in many ways. I figured that it would take a couple of years and the education world would see the light. It was clear that parents wanted the arts in their kids’ lives and that the arts are critical to achieving public education goals, whether student and family engagement, attendance, academic success, career and life skills, communication capacities, deeper learning, critical thinking, creativity, innovation and just plain joy.

We dedicated ourselves to high quality arts instruction and equity of access for all kids. As a partnership we engaged really talented, thoughtful, innovative, committed, wonderful arts teachers, education and civic leaders, artists, arts organizations, institutions of higher education in doing excellent work.  

Thirty years later, in a dystopian reality, I look back and recognize that often our progress was two steps forward and one-and-a-half steps back.  We really did improve the quality of arts education delivered by arts teachers, teaching artists, and classroom teachers using arts integration as an instructional strategy. Large and small scale research in education and neuroscience proved over and over again that the arts benefit students in ways nothing else does and that the positive impact on low income and minority children is particularly significant. We succeeded in putting in place regulations requiring standards based arts instruction for all kids in all arts disciplines – dance, media arts, music theatre and visual arts—every year Pk-8th grade. Our local systems have created models of arts centered schools that hit the ball out of the park by all measures. And our good work has been  acknowledged but there’s still so much more work to do!

Throughout the years, we have been a part of many conversations that often discredited the importance of the arts:

  • But with No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, we have to hire more reading and math specialists to get those test scores up – that’s what we are accountable for and they just don’t go up.” 
  • Yeah, you have the policy but we don’t have enough money so the arts are an unfunded mandate.”  
  • The Blueprint legislation, while it adds money for teachers and some important initiatives, doesn’t include funding in the basic formula which will enable schools to provide what the law says they should in the arts. And the Governor just vetoed the Blueprint anyway.”  
  • We have this COVID-19 virus thing now so we are trying to get kids the basics through distance learning and we aren’t doing that very well.  And all the education funding – how is that going to happen with state and local revenues tanking?”  

The implicit message is yes, the arts matter but right now we can’t deal with that.

Meanwhile, this crisis has revealed, as never before in recent history, the devastating inequities in our society and particularly our education system (from lack of access to the internet and distance-learning to lack of understanding of how to connect with students). Ironically, the arts are key to the effective use of technology in communication and education and that is only a part of their value.

The arts are now more critical than ever for all of us and especially our kids. All over the news and the internet it is recognized that the arts are vital to mental health, especially now. The arts are saving lives. Go to COVID-19 NeuroArts Field Guide for the science.

And in an awesome response, all over the state, the arts and arts education communities are devising amazing strategies and programs to bring the arts to kids. AEMS has been a big part of this working with MSDE, arts organizations and local school systems to compile and curate listings of ready-to-go lessons and other resources for teachers and families:  https://aems-edu.org/covid-19-resources/

artlookⓇ Maryland, an AEMS program developed with our partners to provide school by school program data, is now serving as an additional resource tapping into resources from all over the country through the   artlookⓇ Virtual Learning Library.

There has never been a more important time to reach children and families through the arts. We have the resources, the commitment and the creativity to work wonders and enhance children’s lives through dancing, singing, acting, painting, drawing, and making the world new. 

We need our partners who are leaders in government and education to step up and say, “Yes, we can and must do this.” We need the legislature to override the Governor’s veto. We need education leaders to open the door to our great artists and arts teachers so they can reach teachers and families who already know that every child must have the arts to thrive.


Mary Ann Mears has been committed to nurturing the arts and arts education in her work in the non-profit sector as a volunteer arts advocate. She is the founder of AEMS and co-founder of Maryland Art Place.

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