Arts education advocate and consultant Russell Granet spoke to members of the New Vic Council about arts education and New York’s schools (edited with permission).
Russell Granet (RG): I worked for many years at the Center for Arts Education: The NYC Annenberg for Arts Education, and Rudy Crew, the former Chancellor of the NYC schools was on our board and he used to attend board meetings. I asked him why he attended and didn’t send a designee. He replied, “This work is really important to me. As an educator, our job is not to create young actors, dancers, musicians or visual artists. Our job, your job in arts education, is to give our kids, the kids of NYC, the imagination skills needed to imagine a better life. That’s what you all can do.” I think it’s an amazing thing, as a chancellor, to embrace the idea that we need to give kids the imagination skills to envision a better world out there for them. I appreciated that a lot. He was a great voice for arts education. He is missed; he is currently heading up the Florida schools.
New Vic Council Member (NVC): Has there ever been any sort of study that has shown what we all know to be true, how much arts help children in education, and what a difference it makes?
RG: What we know is that high-performing schools have arts programs. We don’t necessarily know they are high-performing because they have arts programs, but we know it is an indicator. We also know that most all low-performing schools don’t have arts programs. I wish that I could be more concrete about it. A lot of people want to claim that the arts improve test scores. I think we have to be very careful to not over-claim something that we can’t substantiate. It’s almost impossible to extract out any one thing to say that’s why test scores improved. We can say it’s an implication, certainly, we know kids who receive arts programming do better on tests, but we don’t necessarily know that it’s why they do better. We can say it’s a contributing factor.
One study out of Harvard Project Zero states that we can prove that students who study theater have a greater capacity for empathy than students who don’t study theater. That’s good for our work here. But some people will say, math teachers don’t have to prove that math does anything else other than teach math, so why do artists have to prove arts do anything other than teach art? There is something called the “21st Century Skills.” Large corporations from across the United States came together and created something called the 21st Century Skills. It’s what heads of organizations and corporations have said they need students to know and be able to do when they graduate. Howard Gardner will say, “Tests only test your ability to take a test; intelligence is your ability to take what you know and apply it to life,”
The 21st Century Skills stress the need for creativity, innovation, and imagination becoming a priority in our schools. We are a country of learners who do really well if there’s a single answer to a question, but we don’t do well if there are multiple answers to a problem. We are losing our foothold globally because other countries are beginning to understand the importance of imagination, innovation and creativity. Meanwhile, we’re just administering test prep all the time. There are kids who have test prep up to 3 to 4 periods a day; they’re being drilled to take tests starting in 3rd grade. That’s staggering. If you know the work of Daniel Pink, he talks a great deal about how our kids need to begin to understand there is more than one way to solve a problem and that artists are continually faced with problems. Visual artists have a blank canvas. Actors have an empty stage. Both are always problem solving. The arts are innovation, creativity and imagination.