Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Thoughts on Arts Education as an Economic Development Imperative

A few days ago I spoke at a reception for the Philadelphia region music education organization Musicopia. Because so many other speakers were already attesting to the value of their work (which IS wonderful - check out their website), I decided I would focus on the larger issue of the value of arts education, with specific emphasis on what sorts of direct impact on a community quality arts education provides. To me, and to those of us in the field, this information, this perspective may seem self-evident. But to many, this may not be the case. A corporate foundation director came up to me afterwards and asked if could share my remarks with her to be distributed to her board, so they could understand the larger civic and economic value of arts education investments.

Unfortunately, I spoke without notes, but I thought it might be helpful to try and recreate my key points on my blog, with links so others can use it if they wish.

Arts education is a crucial civic imperative for an array of reasons, none of which undercut its importance simply as a human right for young people to have the benefit of the arts as part of their educational experience, not just at home (where they may or may not get it) but at school as well.

But why should a funder, a legislator, a business-person care about arts education, especially in these challenging economic times when it can seem like a frill?

Quality arts education has an array of positive social benefits, that translate directly to positive economic benefits. First, there is the area of workforce development. A 21st century economy needs a certain kind of worker. This is NOT just a worker who has done well on standardized tests and is competent in math and English. This is a worker who is strong in so-called "applied" (as opposed to "basic") skills. A young person who is strong in collaboration and teamwork, strong in communication and self-expression, understanding of ambiguity and nuance (it is not a rote, hierarchical, assembly line world anymore; in today's world there is often no "right:" answer - just the best course of action with the information available). These are skills that we KNOW arts education develops. A study done a few years ago by the Conference Board, in partnership with a number of workforce development organizations, called "Are They Really Ready to Work," showed that employers felt that their incoming workers were very poorly prepared in these applied skills, but that they rated the applied skills as the most critically important workforce skills that they needed. A follow up report called "Ready to Innovate" - conducted by the Conference Board in partnership with Americans for the Arts and the American Association of School Administrators - looked at how the views of employers aligned with those of school district leaders. It found a truly overwhelming - nearly unanimous - agreement among both the hirers and the educators that creativity was an increasingly important workplace skill. Those doing the hiring, however, found that they largely cannot find the creative workers they seek. Both employers and educators rate arts study as a very high indicator of creativity (#1 for educators, #2 for business just behind entrepreneurial experience). A recent study by IBM found that creativity was rated as the most important skill for future success as a CEO. I remember speaking at a conference with a very senior executive from a large food service company, who indicated that their HR team found engagement in arts education and arts practice as being the best indicator of success in the workplace - not just for executives and managers, but all the way down to entry-level waitstaff, kitchen workers, etc. They found that workers who played an instrument, acted in plays or were otherwise engaged in the arts were better members of their team, stayed in their job longer, were more productive, and were better at customer service.

And in 2009 Dr. James Catterall, a professor at UCLA, released a study "Doing Well and Doing Good by Doing Art,"  that followed up 12 years later with 12,000 students studied as part of Champions of Change, an earlier, seminal study of the impact of arts education on youth (also still worthwhile reading!). They found that intensive involvement in the arts in middle and high school is associated with higher levels of achievement and college attainment and also with many indicators of pro-social behavior such as voluntarism and voting. And while they found that intensive involvement in other activities like sports, also had positive outcomes, there were special and stronger results with the arts. In their research they also adjust for socio-economic differences so they are not just measuring the results of students with more advantages attending wealthier schools more likely to provide arts-rich learning.

And anecdotally, we see this in our own City, Philadelphia, and our own youth. Our Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Everett Gillison, sees that the young people engaged in arts education programs like Mural Arts are much less likely to get into trouble, and end up "in the system." Engagement in the arts by ex-offenders - arts education IS a lifelong learning issue - also significantly reduces recitivism. The dollars that we invest in quality arts education programs are not only helping to enrich the lives of our young, not only developing workers that our businesses needs that will help drive our local economy. They are also frankly getting many young people onto a different path in life that will also save our society and economy significant investments in police and prisons.

In effect, the same things that arts education produces in young people that makes them better people, happier human beings, also produces a wide array of social and economic benefits that helps our City. Hence the title of Catterall's study, a play on the "doing well by doing good" philosophy of socially responsible business. The research is clear: investing in arts education is one of the best investments we can possibly make - it builds a 21st century employment-ready workforce that is needed by business; it builds better citizens, more likely to vote and volunteer; it strengthens our communities by producing young people less likely to drop out, less likely to engage in criminal behavior; it makes our schools livelier, engaging, welcoming places of learning, and combined with integrating the arts into other subject areas, fuels the joy of learning and ultimately academic achievement.

In these challenging economic times, education funding and programs are seriously threatened, at the federal level, the state level, and the local level. In this climate, arts education resources are especially at risk, as there is a thoroughly misguided impression that arts education and training in schools is an "extra", a "frill", an "amenity" that is OK to invest in when we are flush, but expendable when purse strings are tightened. Perfectly smart people who are all about data, achievement, competitiveness and jobs, somehow have a blind spot when they support disinvestment in arts education - which actually goes against all their principles.

This is not a partisan issue - arts education should be supported by anyone who cares about a future for all of your young people, and anyone who cares about the health of our local and national economy. Shouldn't that include everyone?

[Note: I know there is much more research out there than the studies I have cited. These are just the studies that came to mind first - this is not an academic paper. Anyone who is interested in more research can go to the Americans for the Arts "Art: Ask for More" advocacy campaign website, which has great concise data, and links to other resources. The site has excellent tools for parents, teachers and other advocates for arts education. Another wonderful research is the Arts Education Partnership.]

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