Monticello Road is a community arts project in Charlottesville, Virginia. Through photography and a series of public events and conversations, we explore how an art can be an essential, integral and everyday part of a healthy community.

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Saturday, February 15, 2014

Robbing Art to Pay Reading

I received an email today from the Charlottesville City Schools Arts Coordinator (who is also a neighbor and Monticello Road collaborator) telling me that the school district is considering reducing his position to part-time (actually 10-month full-time).

This is an unsound idea but it also reflects a shortcoming that is consistent with much of what I read in the planning literature. There are two problems: it is strongly biased toward short-term metrics and it is negativistic. Let me explain.

The City Schools are facing a tight budget, like so many others. Yet, while eliminating content specialists, the budget adds more “educational coaches” who spend time with young children who have difficulty reading. So, while not quite a wash, the change is more effectively viewed as a resource shift. To the extent that budgets are financial manifestations of our priorities, both the message and the results are the same: beefing up reading dialing back on creativity.

I don’t mean to be overly reductionist—it’s a very complex issue. Indeed studies show that early investment in childhood reading yields very good social outcomes. But, in a zero-sum scenario (and we’ll leave aside for now the notion that it does not need to be zero-sum) is it smart to invest in reading at the expense of art? We can’t really know but be do know that since reading is obsessively tested and creativity is not there is a powerful incentive to allocate toward the program that is closely evaluated. Without any bad intentions, district planners must be sorely tempted to load resources toward measures that show good metrical results for the district. That makes everyone think they (the schools) are doing a good job.

But of course, there’s a big difference between showing good results and educating our children well. This misalignment of incentives is driving parents and teachers crazy nationwide but it’s not surprising. The planning process is almost built to fail that way.

I see the same thing in public policy planning, where economic impact is an overriding concern. Studies show (usually with heavy footnotes) that the arts have a mildly positive economic impact but it’s not akin to that of a water main, a road or communications trunkline. Arts are not for economic growth and so discussions that are heavily founded on economics won’t reflect especially impressively. It’s not that the arts look bad under economic analysis, rather more take-it-or-leave-it.

However, beyond the modest fiscal boost, arts do some essential things that have very fundamental—but indirect—ramifications. Arts promote vitality, optimism, trust and innovation, all preconditions for prosperity. So by sharpening the point of the economic spear into ever-steeper slopes of measurable return, we risk undermining the shaft that’s driving it.

That gets me to the positivistic/negativistic dilemma. The school district sees a problem (must raise test scores) and is reaching for an obvious response tool: coaching. But by pivoting resources toward this quantitative problem, it’s neglecting the qualitative question—the only one that matters: what kind of education should our children receive? What are we preparing them for?

The schools’ most essential job is to prepare children for the future—a world that doesn’t exist and jobs that haven’t been imagined yet. They will need the perceptive and creative skills that the arts teach so well. Cutting those programs is understandable given the incentive structure but it’s not in the interest of the child.

These are the mechanics of art getting short-shrift in the planning process. It’s also a great opportunity to change the conversation away from burnishing whichever metric is currently en vogue and toward a discussion about what kind of community we want to be.

Art does very well in that conversation if we allow it in. In this case, by proposing arts cuts, the district is necessitating the conversation. Perhaps a gift in disguise.

As part of my professional education and ongoing research, I’m fortunate to be permitted to audit George Sampson and Lindsey Hepler’s class on the Arts and Public Policy in the Architecture School at the University of Virginia. This post, and others in the series are reaction to our readings and discussions in which I find links between our readings and discussion and the front lines of community-based art.


clb4sm said...

I can relate to your conversation about the dichotomy of "showing good results and educating our children well." I attended a large public high school that seemed so focused on standardized test scores and meeting state requirements that many students became lost in the process of pure acquisition of knowledge for it's own sake and for personal growth. I hope school systems can recognize the vital role of the arts in the classroom and how they can promulgate great test scores as well as sound learning above the baseline exams.

dnc4xb said...

Referencing Caroline's comment above me, I too can relate to the difficulty of finding a solid arts education in a public school system. My small, rural public high school was more focused on augmenting drop out rates and eliminating drug and alcohol abuse, thus arts more often than not fell to the wayside. I'd like to find ways to incorporate the arts in tackling these goals because I believe a creative approach may be just what we need to get a fresh look at public education.

Peter said...

Just received this email:


Yesterday, the School Board voted to reinstate the Fine Arts Coordinator position to its current funding of 260 days (12 months). This is a testament to the support and advocacy of the cultural community of Charlottesville. THANK YOU for contributing to this success.

Next, the budget will go before City Council for approval.

Thanks again Peter!