#WeAllDeserveArts: Robert Miller, Master Arts Educator

#WeAllDeserveArts: Students deserve arts education now more than ever

May 15, 2020

Written by Robert Miller, retired Howard County Public Schools Music Educator

Arts education advocates and practitioners have always faced plenty of challenges.The consequences of fighting the pandemic have felt like even more of a gut punch. Insufficient budgets will be further squeezed; educational leaders are focusing on online learning tools that are incapable of enabling students to have authentic artistic experiences such as group performances; parents are concerned about their students sitting or standing too close to other students or sharing materials. Accompanying these challenges are questions to which no one has clear answers: What will the “new normal” look like? When will it begin? How long will it last? 

It is too early to know, as these questions depend on so many unknown variables. However, it is important that our arts educators are actively involved as these decisions are being made. Often it seems as though the people making the most important decisions about education are those who are the furthest removed from students. Funding is vital, therefore arts educators must be at that table. Though the immediate funding picture is somewhat unknown, arts educators must be proactive as the situation unfolds and as district budgets are being drawn up. Meanwhile, in the midst of these challenges, there are some major opportunities to be proactive that do not require immediate funding. 

Do you know of a school or school system with arts programs that are operating far below their potential due to inadequate arts scheduling practices? Instead of simply accepting schedules that may be convenient for others to create, we need to work with administrators on schedules that will maximize student educational outcomes especially in the arts. Our arts education organizations at the state and/or county/city levels could establish best practice guidelines for each arts discipline and could then educate and support administrators at all levels in implementing these practices. Very significant progress in arts education can be made by improving the way that students are scheduled, without raising funding concerns by making improvements to staffing. The easiest way to schedule is usually not the best way, but by prioritizing the students’ outcomes, we can provide them with realistic opportunities for improvement through some administrative commitment and effort.

I am not a fan of the school rating game, but if it is the only game in town it is better to play than to sit on the sidelines. In March 2020, Forbes published an article entitled “Illinois Just Took A Big Step For Arts Education” that amplified a historic outcome of creating arts indicators for the school systems: 

“The state of Illinois made history yesterday when it became the first state in the nation to include the arts as a distinct, weighted indicator of K-12 performance in its school accountability system. At a board meeting on Wednesday, the Illinois State Board of Education voted to approve State Superintendent Carmen Ayala’s recommendation to add a weighted arts indicator to its Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) state plan. Adding the arts indicator could result in more funding and access to arts education across the state. Ayala’s recommendation was based on a proposal presented to the Board last year by the Illinois Arts Indicator Work Group. This statewide work group, co- chaired by Arts Alliance Illinois and Ingenuity, consisted of 27 members representing arts education organizations, teachers, administrators, and other key stakeholders…”

Forbes Magazine, Editorial by Michael Nietzel, March 19, 2020

Arts Education in Maryland Schools (AEMS) is working with Ingenuity, Inc. in rolling out artlookⓇ, a data platform that helps track access to the arts for students in their schools. Data about access to the arts should actually result in better and more opportunities for students. This focused effort around arts access could produce a similar result to that in Illinois which could hopefully lead to more attentiveness surrounding the quality of arts offerings in our schools. Incidentally, this could also validate the need to improve arts scheduling, where appropriate. If the rating of schools is mandatory, access to arts programs should be a legitimate consideration.

Furthermore, we should advocate for greater specifications regarding arts education funding in the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, as well as in the Code of Maryland Regulations (COMAR). Instead of general or impractical mentions, we should promote:

  • Standards that ensure students are provided equitable opportunities to participate in multiple artistic disciplines versus one discipline per school year;
  • The offering of arts curriculum at appropriate grade levels; and with
  • Consideration surrounding the quality of student arts experiences. 

It is true that these changes would require increased spending in some jurisdictions. Although present funding challenges could be considered in proposed legislative changes, they should not prevent the establishment of solidified arts programing.

Arts educators know that high-quality participation in the arts leads to results in personal growth, social connection, and academic performance that go beyond verbal description. We also understand that attempts at persuasion may not be enough to generate support from those who have not experienced art’s life-changing benefits. Living through the pandemic has caused many people to have a heightened appreciation for the arts. People who are now relatively isolated in their homes have increasingly looked to the arts for entertainment, fulfillment, learning, meaning, and joy.

Those of us who are arts educators do not need to be convinced of the importance of the arts – we have decided to dedicate our lives towards teaching one or more artistic disciplines to our students. For me the intersection of a love for music, and a passion for teaching led me to become a school band director and private teacher. I am one of many arts educators who would say that participation in the arts was a highlight, or was the highlight of our youth. The artistic, educational, and social benefits that the arts brought to our lives influenced our decision to make our life’s work teaching art to others, all with the hope that the lives of our students would also be greatly enriched. Almost universally, when arts educators are asked about why they went into the arts, they mention the impact of a past arts teacher. 

We should not allow the challenges of our present situation to prevent us from  providing the life-changing and life-saving effects of the arts to our students now and in the future. Even in our present situation, there are opportunities for us to effect change by improving arts scheduling, by advocating for changes in arts education policy, and by gathering support for these initiatives from a public that is now more aware of the importance of the arts. This unprecedented time can be used as an opportunity to devise solutions to ongoing challenges by doing what artists do best: create and act. 

#WeAllDeserveArts

Before retiring from his 34-year public school teaching career, Robert Miller directed bands at the elementary, middle, and high school levels in Howard County, Maryland, in addition to summer youth music camps and adult community bands. In retirement, Robert has continued to teach private percussion lessons and adjudicate, and is on the advisory board of AEMS.

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