The Case for the Arts in Public Schools: Where Else Are We Using Language This Rich?

And are we ready for what creativity will mean in our classrooms?

3rd grade genius; note every inch of the frame is suffused with art and intrigue. Contrast that with the 7th grade Social Science standards below. How many educated adults couldn’t meet that standard? And when did Social Studies become Social Science? Or more importantly, why?

California Content Standards, Social Science, 7th Grade

7.2 Students analyze the geographic, political, economic, religious, and social structures of the civilizations of Islam in the Middle Ages.

7.2.6. Understand the intellectual exchanges among Muslim scholars of Eurasia and Africa and the contributions Muslim scholars made to later civilizations in the areas of science, geography, mathematics, philosophy, medicine, art, and literature.

The recent surge of interest in arts education,

from the local to the national level, has some of its roots in the business community. There was a growing awareness in those circles that entry level workers seemed to lack initiative and problem-solving skills, and in analyzing this, many of the deficits were linked back to the 2001 adoption of the federal education law, No Child Left Behind. NCLB forced public schools into a rote learning model in many cases, especially in urban environments, where direct instruction exercised the most control over students and for a time produced high test scores in unexpected places. NCLB took its cues from the standards movement that reached a peak in the mid-1990s when many states adopted highly specific and rigorous sets of learning goals. From 2001- 2015, for fourteen years — only the first six of which were actually authorized — we danced to NCLB’s catchy tune, spoke its easy-to-remember language, looked at its charts and stats rising into the stratosphere and culminating in an idealized otherworldly perfection Plato would have admired (100% of the nation’s students were to be proficient in math and reading by 2012, four years after President Bush left office) and, believers or not, we had no choice but to get swept up in the rush of data and the consequences and rewards that were written into the law.

The problems were beginning to show up everywhere by 2004. Newly trained teachers came out of the universities and private online credential pipelines with little or no arts experiences as youth, and a message regarding the arts in the millennial era was actually made by default in the universities: they were hardly mentioned at all. The standards and the assessments dominated the landscape in those days. Interviewing teachers fresh out of college, reviewing their portfolios, there were few who did not organize their submission around the standards themselves, with early evidence of their work dotted with decimal-heavy notations, references to standards that reinforced a data madness that grew worse each year.

Creativity or Data Madness: What Does It All Mean?

During part of that time I led a school that was a California Distinguished School (CDS) one year, in Program Improvement (PI) the next. A least I think we were: the SF Chronicle said so, but I never received any official notification. I don’t think we ever got out of PI, and now all of that is wiped clean. We didn’t do much that was different in the PI year than we did in the CDS year. It was like the Rudyard Kipling line, When you meet with Triumph and Disaster, treat those two impostors just the same. Some of us might, but most bosses were not so sanguine.

Similarly, artists do little now that is different from when they were an afterthought in educational policy-making. These days artists are actually poised to have a major impact on public education. The huge success of Apple and the transparency of its process (those techie kids looked like artists!) may have had a hand in the resurgence, but so did the senior Boeing VP who told the California legislature a few years ago (paraphrased): ‘I trace my leadership abilities, my problem-solving abilities and my experience with collaboration, quick-thinking and cool under pressure to my days in high school when I stage-managed the school plays.’

That was a legendary moment in my circles, but the brunt of the work in getting the arts and the creativity they unleash fully ingrained in the fabric of public school classrooms is going to be done by teachers, and among other necessary pieces, this new curricular direction will come about if we are successful in getting the following messages across:

1. The arts can help close the achievement gap. In fact, if we had a valid measurement for the arts and used it as part of a student’s complete assessment, we may find that the achievement gap is a lot less than we believed. The struggling reader, in the context of the action of the play, knows instinctively what consternation means. On a sheet surrounded by other long words, it means nothing. The 16 year-old girl, a confused math student in class, is confidently leading a team of techies measuring the wood they are going to cut for a stage set. The boy with a speech impediment doesn’t stutter into the trumpet, and if he does it’s on purpose and sends chills up your spine. The quirky kid who seemed interested in nothing is suddenly enlivened when his teacher devises a dramatic role play and he gets to be the bailiff at the mock trial. No one, the kids say, ever got more out of that gavel. We have done a lot of things over and over in an attempt to close the achievement gap, with minimal results, and the arts deserve a shot. Some early data from the Turnaround Arts Schools, a Federal/State program in which the arts are infused into an underperforming school (there are multiple California schools enrolled), is very encouraging in terms of school culture data like attendance, discipline, and family participation. Michelle Obama put her name on the program, Kerry Washington, Frank Gehry, Tim Robbins and other luminaries have adopted schools, and we should be watching this carefully to see if there are some wide-ranging answers here.

This arts spurring achievement in other areas makes sense if we think it through — the arts generate energy, lay out context, inspire emotion, demand investment, require movement . . . . all the things we say students need to succeed, yet don’t exist in prominent ways in the majority of classrooms. We have to finally give up on the thinking that more direct tutoring toward the subject of the moment is the only tool that is going to get the student to achieve at a higher level. In many cases students have this for years without result and it’s just wearing them down. Worse: it’s keeping us from using strategies with them that delve deeper, promote critical thinking, and begin to give them some tools to solve problems and generate new ideas.

The creation of a valid arts measurement that would add to a student’s and a school’s overall assessment profile has been knocked around in a few states, California included. To craft a Creativity Index is a major innovation; to have it be adopted in a few districts even informally is a boldly defiant move against the artillery of the testing machine. What is measured is what gets taught is too true a maxim to write off cynically as the way of the world without addressing it somehow.

As recently as 2013, Governor Jerry Brown gave us a two year “pardon” from high- stakes testing. He boldly stood up to the U.S. Department of Education, refusing to test students on a curriculum that hadn’t been fully developed and dependent on technology that was not yet ready. But there was more to his position than that. He saw the culture shift in education after the millennium: people were losing their joy. ‘Everyone is asking for more data,’ he said in 2010. ‘They want new systems and fancy charts. When I ask them what they do with all this data, they tell me they study it and make improvements, but they’re very vague on specifics. I can tell you right now what improvements need to be made, I don’t think we need billions of dollars of data systems to study failure. Better that it goes to teacher training.’

Schools touted as highly successful with top scores often went to extreme measures to preserve their test score supremacy, eliminating extracurricular activities, elective subjects, cutting into primary school recess, using behavior control techniques that we should have abandoned decades ago (one notable school with a huge waiting list used dunce caps and derogatory signs for student to wear like ‘I forgot my math book again’ to single out offenders of their precious policies — and they had a waiting list) — anything to get that extra few points. That this is effective is a circular argument that only proves itself true when you are inside the argument, and even then only in some cases. Students are subjected to an intense training regimen to do well on the test. When the scores reinforce the methods that were used, there is the public moment of praise and recognition when the scores are first announced, and the cycle continues. What this means is exactly what I wrote at the top: business leaders are seeing kids emerge from our schools, regardless of their test scores, without confidence and initiative, without understanding context and circumstance and how things work in the world, and these leaders began asking questions, making it known that there was something missing — and now we are talking about creativity and how to get it into our schools.

Once we do, we need a simple way to measure it and publicize it, so that it continues to be visible and valued. But the generation of teachers who came of age in the NCLB era may get whiplash from the reversal; I note that many have a bit of PTSD from the tension and toxicity of those years.

Note the amygdala in the lower central region: the nexus of emotion, learning and creativity

2. The arts bring the community together in ways that little else can. (Sports can be equally engaging, admittedly, and in Texas football is probably more popular than even the arts are here. But there’s a brain science connection shared by the arts and sports that makes sense of this.) The school play can attract the entire school community. A music concert usually includes going out to dinner, or something social and familial afterwards. Grandparents attend, often from out-of-state, the real estate agent who sold the family its home gets a ticket, and hard-working supervisor Dad switches shifts at the auto parts store to see his son blow the sax the way he used to. In a time when we need more things to bring us together, let’s capitalize on the arts opportunities we already have. Writing teachers can assign concert, play or visual art reviews to their classes (great chance to slip in new vocabulary and descriptive metaphor: crescendo, juxtaposition, ‘the volcanic rage of the lead character’), the history of the music or milieu of the play can be part of Social Sciences curriculum — this is where we have it over football. I’m not sure how to integrate the 40-yard field goal or the West Coast offense into the regular curriculum, but both the arts and sports stimulate the amygdala, the part of the brain’s limbic system that increases learning potential by reinforcing the emotional component of an event or an idea. In other words, emotional reactions to whatever it is we are presented with solidify learning and memory. We have seen where in the brain this is happening. Now we need to consider how to design our lessons and school activities so that our students are emotionally invested. To include an emotional component to student learning is an intriguing professional development topic for which I am sure we have many great examples right in our own teaching force.

3. The arts give us a shared cultural experience that crosses generational, racial, economic, gender and political lines. This is an important function that the school can fulfill — but the economic part of this is not automatic. Theatrical plays, musicals particularly, can be costly affairs, but in schools the ticket prices remain affordable. Families looking for an event they can afford are appearing more and more at their child’s school or their friend’s child’s school for performances and family entertainment of their own. In recent years the idea of One Book, One City had citizens read the same work of literature at the same time so that we had a shared experience. We were to grow closer, discussing plot twists, new ideas and dramatic moments with people we did not know before. This was meant to enrich a city, unify it, to begin to build a common understanding of the human condition. Cities strive for a strong foundation of culture and communal activity to anchor its populace, and the arts are an essential part of that, helping to form a city’s identity and firm up its connection to history.

(Full disclosure: On October 6, 2016 at the San Francisco Main Library I interviewed the author of a book given the ‘One Book, One City’ honor. Carey Perloff, the Artistic Director of ACT, has written a gripping memoir entitled Beautiful Chaos, and the library event was the kick-off to the award. I had already written this section when Carey got in touch with me to ask if I would do her the honor.)

The product of an arts education, says the Boeing VP

4. Many municipal, non-profit agencies and even private foundations support the arts by opening up their budgets to supply the school district with funds to enrich arts programs: Mental Health agencies, Departments of Public Health, City Councils, Arts Commissions, individual arts providers, foundations of for-profit arts entities are just a few that have stepped up in recent years around the state. Obviously, not all of these are arts agencies, but they partner with us because of the arts. The arts are a catalyst, a binding agent, a portal through which we can reach the whole child. These partnerships create a valuable city-wide network that strengthens supports for youth, unites the various missions that drive this work in the public sector, and are stellar examples of ‘it takes a village’ beliefs about child-rearing.

5. The arts help us get to a place where we need to be, and we don’t have to use the word “Art.” Arts educators in the K-12 system know that not every student, not even some of our best, are going to study their current art form for their entire lives. The corollary is that some of our most gifted artists will walk right by us unnoticed and go on to have fame-worthy careers. It is the nature of working with youth that much of their natural human development takes place outside of school and/or before or beyond the years that they are with us. We have all seen the gifted pianist go to medical school and the electric actor switch from the arts school to play football. We are now discussing this in ways that are important to our understanding of the future and the role schools will play in it, but we have to act as if the world is changing, because it is. The instantaneous accessibility of information would seem to indicate that discrete facts and data bits don’t need to be much of a teaching and learning focus moving forward, but have we even conquered that idea in the use of calculators in math?

We also know, or should, that the use of the word(s) “Art” or “The Arts” can turn people away from our efforts to bring out the inspirational and spontaneous qualities in students. Terminology such as creative self-expression, innovation, and divergent thinking create a different kind of reaction in groups that may believe the arts are a private club something only elite “artists” can join. These terms stretch the boundaries of what we call a creative endeavor, and add a whole new category to arts listings. Technical innovations that communicate the artwork in new ways, but also change the nature of the work itself, are part of this new arts direction. Students are well-versed in art forms of which we have never heard. An extreme example of this is looping, a self-recording and playback loop that grows more dense as the artist builds layer upon layer of sound, until by the 5- or 6- minute mark the composition can wail like a 12-piece jug band or some kind of orchestral work from another galaxy, often with all the sounds being generated only from the human voice. Looping is the kind of innovation that makes an art form out of a transparent singularity, like Oz opening the curtain to reveal his fraud — except this is genuine, and it is recognized at the next level in terms of admissions and scholarships. This is a direct outgrowth of beat-boxing, sometimes more elegantly called vocal percussion, where students use their voices to provide a rough-hewn drumbeat, deepening the music and stabilizing the rhythm. Is it art? Yes, but we don’t have to beat people over the head with it.

6. The arts are an economic engine whose power and reach is often overlooked. National studies of the economic impact of the arts in communities range from a 3:1 ratio of money spent in local shops and restaurants as it related to the price of the tickets to the event to as high as 9:1. A conservative 5:1 ratio could bring nearly $1 million annually to a region or neighborhood if the arts and sports were considered. In the case of an arts school with a robust performance schedule, many generate more than that. In addition, beyond the funds, the presence of students and younger children in the Civic Center and Hayes Valley neighborhoods will be immeasurable. Their vitality and energy and engagement in the community will add an element that can be expressed more regularly once people experience it.

7. The creativity unleashed by the arts has significant meaning in the millennium when applied to other fields and professions. The senior VP from Boeing who has publicly stated that his high school stage management experience was the best preparation for the work he went on to do has framed this idea perfectly. The arts in schools give students opportunities to develop skills and abilities not always available elsewhere: leadership, collaboration, high-level organization, decision-making, time management, people management — all essential skills of the millennium, with the added benefit that because it’s the arts, educating students in arts concepts brings out their appreciation for beauty, their stewardship of man-made artifacts and creations and the ability to take these lessons and apply them in many ways and in many places.

8. Innovation is an essential American quality, not exclusively but ours nevertheless. American families are starting to get the message that the level of academic rigor to which we have been aspiring has dominated the landscape and robbed us of some in-depth opportunities to explore what students already know and are capable of. Our reaction to that is the commitment to the constructivist model in classrooms. Constructivism can be seen through pre- lessons, where students give their own experience as it might apply to the subject at hand, and construct knowledge from that base. It is here we become the greenhouse for the creative spirit of the next generation. Again, we create the conditions so that students are free and unencumbered to explore their ideas in depth. From this foundation, in a collaborative project, students solve problems by taking a unique angle of perception and shifting it a bit, sliding it into the next level of creativity, while remaining aware of the shifts others undergo as well and building the creation block by block. Creativity meets opportunity in a disciplined relationship that keeps the wilder side of things in check, so that we don’t end up with insanity or chaos. But the creative mind is also needed to keep rigor from becoming rigor mortis, as Governor Jerry Brown has said.

There is some loose agreement among those thinking about the arts and creativity that the world is shaping up this way, and one of the places where the issue is crystallized in the answer to this question: Are we willing to foster the conditions in schools so that students are solving large scale theoretical problems using their creative thinking skills, where answers do not easily fit into right/wrong categories and process may often trump product? Is it important to us that the arts support the larger societal goals that require a multiplicity of capabilities to exist in any single individual — leader and team member at different times; gatekeeper or divergent idea generator depending on the topic or the team; observer, actor, thinker, creator, all able to be called upon to achieve a goal, solve a problem, bring a complex endeavor to a meaningful conclusion? And are we willing to take this idea to the streets, so to speak, into schools that may look a bit chaotic and wildly student-centered, pods of students spilling into hallways and green areas, with student groupings shifting and re-forming organically, looking as if they are having fun (!!) — with accountability taking on a whole new look and feel, and with teachers supported and respected throughout this transition, given the space to grow, experiment, ask questions themselves, fail a time or two — the very things we say we value in our students. We can believe many things in schools, but we have to be aware of what they will look like if they come to pass. As I will recount in a bit, there can be some large disconnects in our world, where the phrase be careful what you wish for applies all too often.

Two telling vignettes will illustrate the reversals and surprises that we are encountering in exploring this new thought territory in the world of public education. The first is a cautionary tale, and I think any of the readers who have worked in a school will recognize the absurd yet very real scenario that could develop in a new world where we claim to be rethinking space and time. The conflict is that while we conceptually embrace innovation, we are still saddled with definitions of rigor and a belief system that mistakes obdeience for responsibility, as well as the systems schools have designed through the years to support and enforce these concepts.

Schools could look quite different less than a decade from now. There are pledges to re-examine the school day, to explore different uses of space and time. But this kind of innovation faces many bottlenecks and requires enormous amounts of training and self-discipline to implement, as well as an awareness of how former systems and current thinking will clash on the ground. Even Einstein had trouble with this one, the space-time continuum. Beyond that, it also sets off a seismic shift in things as deep as our core values. Do we not value bell-to-bell teaching any longer because we are on flex time with the student who will be part of a 3-hour performance that night and on that day his theater class is doing homework and some are listening to music simply to relax?

In the instance I recount here, a few theater students texted their arts teacher to say they were sleeping later due to the previous night’s technical rehearsal that lasted until 1130pm and wouldn’t be in until the afternoon. A few of the absent students missed a social studies exam and were given zeroes because the theater teacher was late in putting in the absences as excused, and the social science teacher’s written syllabus and policy hand-outs from Day One clearly indicated the consequences for an unexcused absence. After the exam, when the teacher went to enter attendance, seeing the blank spots where an “E” for “Excused” should have been, he recorded the test score was zero. There had been an e-mail with a list of students in this status, but this teacher had been overlooked. Now I know this is exciting stuff as we watch the information and response go through the system: like following a rodent down the gullet of a snake. The details are the star of this story; I hope they are clear and logical. Because this is a logical system: it’s just not a good one.

The attendance clerk when questioned knew nothing about the “approved” late arrival and the machinations of the internal teacher attendance recording procedures. She simply dealt with the data, certified it daily for the State (we do not get paid when a student misses a whole day of school, a loss of about $50 a day per student; a 5% attendance lag for an entire year in a school of 800 students results in a loss of $360,000 in attendance revenue), making adjustments as they come in for the record keeping function only, not for the actual behavior of students and teachers in real-time. She was a servant of the system, not the students. As the student calls and texts that morning to the theater teacher bypassed her, she was none-too-pleased about having to answer questions about it after school. At 300pm the social studies teacher left for home, as he usually did, while arts classes went all the way to 415pm, so he did not connect with any of his colleagues on that side of the schedule. Remember, we are talking about innovating in the use of space and time; and this is just the beginning, a simple adjustment to give hard-working students their well-earned rest.

At about 430pm, with only the theater staff and a few parents around, an Asst. Principal calls the theater chair and tells him that the zeroes given to two of the students resulted in their grades dropping below the standard required to be allowed to perform, and they should be pulled from the show. One of them was a lead. The social studies teacher did not return the frantic calls or texts from the Theater Chair. At 530pm the issue was still unresolved, and the call time was only 15 minutes away, the show 90 minutes from curtain. The performers would be walking into a combat zone as parents of the students in question and others had begun to show up, demanding answers from people who didn’t have any. The school principal was supervising the show the next night but on opening night the person in charge was the A.P. who was insisting the students be kept off the stage. It turns out that one of the students, the lead in fact, had an IEP (Individualized Education Plan, a legal mandate and a tool schools use to help students with learning disabilities navigate the landscape) that allowed him extended study time for exams upon request, but there had been no request, so the extension wouldn’t be honored, except that his court-appointed case manager showed up to confront the Asst. Principal, and the intensity of that discussion was taken up a notch by the appearance of the student’s enraged mother and a take-no-prisoners advocate. The other performer broke down in tears when her parent arrived, and was in such bad shape that the mother insisted on taking her home.

Recognize this? Does anyone have what they want in this scenario? Is there a good standard being set for the future? Could they possibly pull those kids and spoil the play for everyone? Creative leadership is a topic for another essay, but it couldn’t be exercised here because there was really no one positioned to show leadership at all. The Asst. Principal believed his role in supervising a show was to prevent mayhem among the audience, protect the facility, get everyone out safely and lock up. He didn’t expect to have to deal with the eligibility question, and when he did, interpretation or context were not part of his process. (Did he have an arts education?) The grade eligibility policy was a source of pride to the community, and particularly to the academic faculty, who could announce to the world that they had strong academic standards at their school that the school administration enforced, and that they were not mere afterthoughts to the performers and the arts teachers.

This is a prime example of a systems failure, the kind of thing that we need to be on guard for in larger systems, because they happen in a cumulative way, often beyond the visibility and authority of any one person. The goals of Vision 2025 and the systems within the school were not aligned, and when something new and out of the box popped up, a simple data entry delay (a super-busy teacher did not enter the absence codes) and the adherence to the letter of the law created a series of reactions and e- threats and the involvement of outside agencies that threaten to tear apart the fabric of what should be the school’s pinnacle of performance and achievement. By the time they were 15 minutes from the curtain the various parties still had no idea what would happen. The performers were costumed and ready to go back stage, an 11 year-old was quickly learning the few lines that the distressed student had been speaking, and someone out in the audience began chanting Free Spencer, referring to one of the disqualified students. Then, as if on cue, the fire alarm in the performance space screeched into the night, and in minutes two huge fire trucks rolled in. On their inspection, the firemen noted a few violations of such severity that they stopped the evening performance and sent the audience home, even though the alarm itself may have been set off as a prank. The repairs would have to be done in the morning if the next evening’s performance was to be held.

This tale illuminates an important point in designing for the innovative open-ended flexibility in an environment where the traditional controlled system has reigned. Much of our methods of behavior control in school is accepted without question: tardy bells, notes home, detention, the well-worn consequences for children who have to be taught a lesson, standing in line to get in trouble and staring at the NO Nukes fliers posted on walls . . . . that’s our turf. In 2025, we better figure out what to do about these old relics, or the scenario above will be played out in multiple locations with results and wounds we can only imagine.

The classroom of 2025:make music, make meaning

And the closing vignette:

A few years back, when these discussions were really starting to heat up, I was invited to join a group, at the time labeled a Task Force, calling itself Create California. Over 150 individuals from all professional fields and philosophical orientations were developing a document, Blueprint for Creative Schools, that we eventually delivered to State Superintendent of Instruction Tom Torlakson. Its goal was the acceleration of schools into more creative and richer entities that mirrored the world beyond the schoolhouse walls and utilized more of students’ skills. At the end of one particular two-day convening I attended the last workshop in a large classroom with about 18–20 participants. The last session of a multi-day conference can often be a scattered and poorly attended session, and presenters know they have gotten on someone’s bad side if they’re given one of these spots. This session, however, was spirited and thought-provoking. Entitled something simple like Creativity 101, it was a discussion about things like failure, and how the arts valued failure as a bold and noble effort to be learned from; how the goal was to build on the past to discover something new, but that creativity by its nature was rash and irreverent and often ran roughshod over conventional wisdom; and a topic that received a lot of response was how this would affect teachers, were they ready for this new universe of improvisation and unpredictability? At the end we gathered our things, said some goodbyes and exited towards our cars or airport vans. I happened to be walking through the parking lot with a fellow administrator when two science teachers excitedly told us how the session confirmed their belief that they were in a highly creative field. ‘We take chances, we fail, we try something new and bold, then scale back — we constantly adjust and monitor, just like they were saying the creative process requires.’ As the one science teacher was explaining this, two other men had drifted over to hear the animated discussion. When they joined in, however, they were not so animated. ‘We teach classical music in high school,’ one of them told us. He seemed confused, even shaken a bit. ‘And after that workshop I don’t feel creative at all.’ His friend chimed in: ‘Me neither.’ The first teacher continued: ‘We don’t have any guesswork or need a hypothesis, and a mistake is not to learn from for us — it’s to cover up and avoid.’ ‘And we just follow the notes on the page,’ the other teacher added. ‘Something written by someone else, performed as written, with very strict protocols and harsh evaluations. Doesn’t feel creative at all.’

We split up then, off to our planes and transportation hubs. The word art was never mentioned, and the discussion was hardly recognizable as a school-based topic — we could have been from a research and development lab talking with local symphony members. I had more in common with the swash-buckling science teachers than the button-down orchestra leaders, at least on this day. These ideas lingered for a few weeks following the convening. I even did some digging and found out that classical musicians in their day, composers especially, were quite adept improvisers. Sounds and sequences were developed through this, and motifs expanded and shaped, things I had never known. The new music chair at my school, ready to expand her role to include leading the classical sections, confirmed that this was the case and that our kids would have classes in improvisation in upcoming years. When we presented this to the parent community later that semester, it was like the first time Bob Dylan went electric — it was heresy, and they were having none of it. In an otherwise open-minded community, one that accepted new programs, new admissions policies, revamped curriculum, annual growth, expanded vision, championed racial equity, marched in Occupy with their kids, there was too much invested in the no-improv mindset and we had a battle on our hands. We’re still struggling with it. We can’t claim we want improvisation in everything (think: airplane mechanic). But in the bigger picture, issues like this arising and forcing everyone to re-examine their premises can be disorienting at times. The real inquiry behind much of this is what we believe about the future and whether an arts education or an arts-rich comprehensive education is worth what we are putting into it.

My answer to this inquiry is a resounding yes. The earlier points — achievement gap reduction, community engagement, shared cultural experiences — are easily defined, and occasionally measured. But then these ideas intensify, get a little more complex.

The complexity of reading music is a positive reinforcement for the reading of text, yet in California it is common practice for music classes to be replaced by remedial classes for struggling readers.

Classical musicianship and airplane mechanics aside, we want our students to take chances and push the envelope. We believe the world beyond our walls is demanding it. The answers to many questions about what is valuable in the future — what to know, what to be able to do, how to figure out directions when the compass is broken — are still developing.

But a truth emerged for me that afternoon in the parking lot with the joyful scientists and the morose musicians: the arts brought this group together to discuss creativity, and whether it’s rote memorization or divine inspiration, no one else, not in any place I frequent, is asking the profound questions quite like this.

The arts bring people together in unique ways, and they ratchet up the conversation to profound levels in ways rarely seen elsewhere. Where else are we talking about creativity and innovation, stewardship and beauty with such precision and subtlety, and with teenagers at that? Listen in on the conversation in an arts classroom. You will hear sophisticated academic and aesthetic language, ideas that are sharply delineated and exercise critical thinking faculties, all expressed with the irreverent passion of the street, and the occasional word or phrase from another language thrown in. It’s high-octane, it’s real, and it’s pure San Francisco. Cities like Oakland, San Jose, Denver, New Orleans, Nashville and Albuquerque, progressive or not, have their own vibrant versions of this. That in itself makes the case for the arts in schools and in our lives.

CA Arts Council Chair 2015-18; led Ruth Asawa and Oakland Schools of the Arts, 2001–16; USAF vet; father of 2; PARADIGM SHIFTER, TRUTH SEEKER;

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