Where are we at?
The arts have been an important part of what has been learned in Iowa Schools for a very long time. Iowa has a rich tradition of outstanding arts education and it is a significant part of what has made Iowa schools special throughout our history. Schools in Iowa (and around the country) are finding themselves compelled to devote more resources towards a narrower curriculum that focuses on a small group of subjects that are tested and reported out to the state and federal government. Students access to related arts subjects and all types of electives has been reduced because schools are requiring more “core” classes for graduation. The word “core” has taken on all sorts of meanings in recent years. The exclusive emphasis on “core” subjects has made it harder for students to have access to learning outside of the “core”.
What are we facing?
Schools are making it harder for students to have access to fine arts programs. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan stated in 2012 that 100% of schools where a large percentage of students were on free and reduced lunches offered music classes in 199-2000; that number had dropped to 81% ten years later and that number is dropping. This drop in access has occurred during the time of No Child Left Behind as well as programs from the Obama administration that penalize schools for not meeting unrealistic targets over a narrow range of subjects on standardized tests. As schools look for ways to stretch limited resources they feel compelled to put more time and money into the narrow subject areas that are tested and reported out to state and federal government. This has led to schools reducing or cutting school arts programs in record numbers. Iconic Iowa music education programs like West Des Moines and Iowa City are being hard hit with staff and program cuts in the fine arts. Administrators from those schools are on record saying that, given limited resources and being unsure of future funding from the legislature they are forced to make “tough choices.” Because the related arts are not tested and reported out to the government they become expendable. It is not hard to see that schools are cutting related arts program at unprecedented levels.
What can we do?
First we must resist the urge to accept the premise that test scores on a narrow range of subjects can adequately represent whether a school is successful or not. What would happen if schools were required to report out to the government the number of students who participate in co-curricular and extra-curricular activities? How might our conversation change? What if we evaluated schools on the variety of courses that they offer rather than the test results of three subject areas? I believe that Iowans would tell you that they care more about schools providing their children access to more types of courses and extra-curricular options than they do about standardized test scores. Iowa can be a leader in making the arts and the related arts a focus of a broad based statewide curriculum that is rigorous and relevant.
What needs to happen?
First, the legislature needs to stop treating education as a political issue. Good schools are good for everyone. The Iowa Senate passed legislation regarding school funding, as required by law. The Iowa House of Representatives did not act on future school funding. It is time for the Republicans and Democrats to come together to enact a reasonable school funding scenario that allows schools to know more than a few months in advance what their funding will be. Schools are being asked to do more and more and by simply setting allowable growth for coming years as demanded by Iowa law, schools would be able to engage in long range planning in a way that is impossible currently. Over 98% of Iowa’s superintendents agree. Lastly, include the fine arts and other related arts in the Iowa Core. We must recognize that what makes Iowa great is that we understand that it takes a wide variety of skills and talents to make our state successful. Iowans want our students to have access to a wide-ranging curriculum that is rigorous and relevant.
It is undeniable that current trends are leading to school curriculums that are more narrow and focused on achieving better standardized test results in order to avoid punishments from the state and federal government. Is this what Iowa really wants? Our students deserve access to a wide range of instruction that will teach them to be the creative, disciplined and proud leaders that Iowa needs in order to stand tall in the 21st century.