OUR state's economy thrives on innovation. That innovation exists in many sectors — from engineers and designers, to writers and architects — and all of them depend on creative-thinking skills in order to succeed.
Thinking creatively is good for the economy. Creative employees have the power to imagine new possibilities. They can envision new directions in biotechnology and energy. They can create efficiencies in agriculture and construction. Creative thinkers make us stronger and more agile as companies, as communities — and as a country.
Arts education in K — 12 schools plays a major role in cultivating creative thinkers. Its ultimate purpose is not to develop the next Picasso or Beethoven — it's to foster creative and critical thinking skills for all students, at all academic levels. It's about developing skills in communication and collaboration, and supporting different styles of learning — kinesthetic, visual, experiential — that enhance conceptual understanding across all subjects, including science and math.
The earlier we introduce arts education — and the more consistently we sustain it through high school — the greater the rewards. National research shows that involvement in the arts has an immediate, positive impact on students — elevating academic performance, deterring delinquency and raising graduation rates. According to the Center for Arts Education, some students at risk of dropping out cite their involvement in the arts as the reason to stay in school. New neuroscience research documents the positive effects of arts learning on cognitive function.
Here at home, the Washington State Arts Commission recently completed a comprehensive report on arts education in Washington's public schools, "K — 12 Arts Education: Every Student, Every School, Every Year." The report reveals both progress and ongoing needs in the drive to strengthen arts education statewide. It surveyed nearly 500 principals about curriculum, assessments, professional development and community partnerships — uncovering sobering facts and providing active ways everyone can make a difference.
With more than 170 school districts participating from rural, urban and suburban communities, the report found that 33 percent of elementary-school students receive less than 1 hour of arts instruction per week; 9 percent of schools offer no formal arts instruction at all. State and federal law recognize the arts as a core subject and an essential part of a basic education — and yet 63 percent of principals surveyed were dissatisfied with the amount of arts education offered in their schools.
We applaud the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction's efforts to develop a world-class education system that includes the arts, but we need to do more to address the gap between strong arts-education policies and inconsistent arts-education practices. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said recently, "The arts can help students become tenacious, team-oriented problem solvers who are confident and able to think creatively." We need those tenacious thinkers here in Washington. So how can we get there, particularly in tough economic times?
Communities throughout our state have meaningful opportunities to expand arts education in our schools: Principals and teachers can work with parents to increase community understanding and support for arts education. Cultural organizations can showcase successful school partnerships and advocate for dance, music, theater and visual-arts instruction during the school day. Parents can talk to educators and policymakers about the ways arts learning has benefitted their children. And elected officials can continue providing funding and legislation that support the arts as an essential part of K — 12 education.
For all of us, the goal is the same: to create a vibrant future for Washington state. To reach that goal, we must recognize the significance of arts education for every student, in every school, every year.
Susan Coliton, left, is vice president of The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation; Patricia A. Wasley is dean of the College of Education at the University of Washington.
College of Education, University of Washington
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