Lest recent buzz about science-and-tech education consume all focus on ways to improve schools, consider this provocative testimonial about the power of art to boost learning.
It comes from an unlikely source, the actress Kerry Washington, who writes in a Huffington Post column about her experience watching the change at Savoy Elementary, a long-struggling school in Washington, D.C.
Much of the piece focuses on Kechelle, a third-grader Washington describes as whip-smart but withdrawn. But after Savoy spent two years weaving music and performance into its regular curriculum, Kechelle blossomed, as did many other kids at her school.
This was no slap-dash effort. Savoy had hired an arts coordinator and part-time teaching artists. Math, reading and social studies teachers incorporated music and theater into their lessons. Kids had dance lessons every morning, and the hallways were lined with their paintings.
Savoy, where fewer than 20 percent of fifth graders read at grade level, was not alone. In 2012, it joined seven other schools across the country – including Martin Luther King, in Portland – as pilot sites for Turnaround Arts, a public-private partnership designed to measure the effect of arts education in under-performing schools.
Many of these sites hadn’t seen a music or painting teacher in years. The U.S. Department of Education reports that 6 million elementary students – most of them in high-poverty schools – have no access to arts instruction.
Meanwhile, all eight Turnaround Arts schools have seen scores improve in either reading or math, according to a recent report from the Presidents Committee on the Arts and Humanities. Most demonstrated better progress than demographically similar schools not using the program.
At Savoy, student suspensions decreased by 69 percent.
“This is not a fairytale, these are the facts,” Washington says.
There were obstacles, of course, chiefly related to time. Classroom teachers said they rarely had enough of it to coordinate lessons with visiting artists. They also worried that devoting time to arts diverted attention from other priorities. Like testing.
But it’s hard to deny the power of performance to excite kids. And that might be a great place to start.