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New York City
October 2003

Art is Core of Education

by Scott Noppe-Brandon

Several weeks ago I heard Chancellor Klein speak at a breakfast held at New York Law School. His speech was excellent, as were the questions that followed. The Chancellor articulately presented and discussed his vision, and, notably, assured the audience that his views were also those of the mayor. He highlighted such topics as Management-Based reform, which is to be at the root of a performance-based culture rather than an excuse-based culture. In underscoring the particular attributes of these reform efforts, the Chancellor declared that previously the school system seemed to deter innovation rather than embrace it; as for the current system, he said, there is a fear of differentiation at its core, which undermines innovation and change.

Unfortunately, there is a worthy item that Chancellor Klein did not have time to discuss: the recently distributed Guide for Parents and Families, a document which begins to detail the complexities of what is new and/or different in our schools this academic year. The Guide certainly merits comment. Let me start with: Yea! The arts are mentioned on the first page, side by side with the universally acknowledged subjects of prime importance: reading, writing, and math. In addition, they are presented as “a core element for teaching and learning.” Double Yea!!! The arts are a vital part of the teaching and learning in our NYC schools. Am I crazy or is that not the most important statement made about the arts in many years? It means that not only should the arts be part of the school day, part of the curriculum: they are a key component of a well-rounded, defined, articulated viewpoint of teaching and learning, they are at the heart of the educational process.

With that exclamation, allow me to express my hope. Chancellor, please make it happen! Make the arts central to the teaching and learning of every teacher and every student. All teachers must be imaginative, creative, focused in their teaching. All students must be imaginative, creative, focused in their learning.

Here is what I believe is happening this year in the NYC schools, and how I believe the scenario needs to play out. As expected, the schools must improve how they teach all of the core subjects, especially the vital capacities of reading and math. Time will be spent on these key areas to insure that teachers have a strong foundation in implementing the required/suggested curricula and that students have time to learn. Schools have more funds available for the arts, but maybe less time to make them part of the core.

We in the arts community must support the effort to make teaching and learning in reading, writing, and math a priority this year. All of us involved in the arts and education must press forward together; on our quest to better understand how the arts community can work together with the DOE to make the arts a core element of teaching and learning. We must join the Chancellor in his dream of eliminating the excuse-based culture by not being part of it ourselves. We must continue to embrace the challenge of making our diverse and powerful work in the arts increasingly relevant to the overall goals of teaching and learning.

In doing so, one of the things we hope to achieve is to make everyone who works in our schools better understand the ethical responsibility of treating students as human beings who have social, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual capacities that need to be developed and expressed. We know that students search for order, form, and pattern in their lives. They try to make sense out of experience and find appropriate forms for expression of a range of deep emotions. Those who work with, and care for, youth need to help them find faith and hope in a world that is complex, sometimes harsh, always infinitely interesting.

Through art, human beings struggle to give expression to their own experiences in interpreting their multi-faceted world. And through aesthetic engagement with art, we can equip children and youth to imaginatively engage with life as they encounter its challenges and its possibilities. As encapsulated by Dr. Maxine Greene, “If we are seriously interested in education for freedom, it is important to find a way of developing a praxis of educational consequences that opens the spaces necessary for the remaking of a democratic community. For this to happen, there must of course be a new commitment to intelligence, a new fidelity in communication, a new regard for imagination. It would mean fresh and sometimes startling winds blowing through the classrooms of the nation.”

In closing: as the work of arts educators and the arts community becomes fully integrated into the core teaching and learning values of the NYC schools, we continue to remember the challenge put forth by the Chancellor: we must be part of innovation, not fear differentiation, and make no excuses about what we must accomplish. We have to believe that the Chancellor and the Mayor want this as much as we in the arts do. We must be supportive and never accept less than what is right and necessary for the students of NYC: great schools based on great teaching and learning, with the arts as a core element of that practice.#

Scott Noppe-Brandon is the Executive Director of the Lincoln Center Institute.

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