Energizing the 80


John’s book, The Influence of Teachers, is currently available on Amazon.

So, here’s the question: are the arts a core subject, or a frill? Of course, just about everyone says the former, because that’s a motherhood/apple pie kind of question. But suppose instead of listening to what folks say, we watch what they are doing? What then do we conclude? Are the arts alive and well in our schools? If not, what can be done about it?

In the last week or two I have been immersed in the arts, first at the annual gala of Americans for the Arts, held at Cipriani in New York on October 17th — and then, a few days later, over a long lunch with the dynamic Director of Education at Lincoln Center, Kati Koerner. (If you don’t know Americans for the Arts, you should. It’s a fantastic organization that encourages and supports the arts and artists in just about every aspect of life, but particularly for the young.)

My lunch with Kati Koerner and Lincoln Center Board member Allison Blinken triggered memories of my own high school teaching back in the late 1960s, specifically of the role the arts played in the best teaching I ever did. My high school was rigidly tracked, and as a new teacher I was assigned the ‘4’ level kids, the ones most veteran teachers didn’t want to be bothered with. I was team-teaching with a new History teacher, and we were struggling to connect. One day she said, “Let’s have them write a play.” “Why not,” I probably responded. “Nothing else is working.”

And that’s what we did. We invited the kids to come up with a plot (with a beginning, middle and end), some characters, dialogue, the whole nine yards. To say they ran with it is an understatement. Before long they had come up with a plot: misunderstood and disrespected students (resembling guess who?) were accused of shoplifting by a local merchant. They were innocent, of course, but no one believed them. Somehow (I don’t remember the details), the merchant discovered that the real thieves were the football captain and the head cheerleader.


As our students’ excitement grew, the idea of actually staging the play emerged, and that snowballed. In the end, they built two sets (the store and their own hangout), got the props and costumes, rehearsed and rehearsed — and then staged the play for the rest of the high school. They were heroes around the school (maybe not to the kids in the top tracks!).

So I know what most of you know — the arts turn kids on, motivate them to excel, and all the rest.

Inspired by my lunch and the Americans for the Arts celebration, I then read “Reinvesting in the Arts,” the call to action issued this spring by the President’s Council on the Arts and Humanities.

Here are a couple of paragraphs from that report, the first about the need, the second about the current situation.

At this moment in our nation’s history, there is great urgency around major transformation
in America’s schools. Persistently high dropout rates (reaching 50% or more in some areas) are evidence that many schools are no longer able to engage and motivate their students. Students who do graduate from high school are increasingly the products of narrowed curricula, lacking the creative and critical thinking skills needed for success in post-secondary education and the workforce. In such a climate, the outcomes associated with arts education –– which include increased academic achievement, school engagement, and creative thinking –– have become increasingly important. Decades of research show strong and consistent links between high-quality arts education and a wide range of impressive educational outcomes.

At the same time, due to budget constraints and emphasis on the subjects of high stakes testing, arts instruction in schools is on a downward trend. Just when they need it most, the classroom tasks and tools that could best reach and inspire these students –– art, music, movement and performing –– are less available to them. Sadly, this is especially true for students from lower-income schools, where analyses show that access to the arts in schools is disproportionately absent.

In other words, things could hardly be worse.

The President’s Commission makes five recommendations:

  • collaborate more;
  • do a better job of teaching would-be teachers about the arts;
  • bring more artists into the schools;
  • educate policy makers; and
  • use measures besides those damn bubble tests to prove that the arts make a difference.

I would sum those five up in a bumper sticker: (IM)PROVE ARTS EDUCATION. That is, make arts education better, and find better measures of its value.

Those five recommendations are fine as far as they go, but I don’t think that’s enough to win the day. I think the key can be captured in a different bumper sticker: “ENERGIZE THE 80”

“THE 80” are the 80 or so percent are the households that do NOT have children in schools, because we know that only about 20 percent of American homes have school-age children. (It’s 23 or 24 percent in some places, and lower in others, so I landed on 80.) The 80 percent are men and women of all ages and races with at least one thing in common: they do not have daily contact with students. They don’t know how terrific our young people are. They don’t know that the vast majority of our youth are eager to do work of value.

If we find ways to put our students and the 80 percent together, the latter could be the arts’ secret weapon, supporting, speaking up and voting for arts programs in schools.

The best way to energize the 80 percent is to get them involved. Here are a few ways. I am sure you will have more.

Students could create a photo gallery of the residents of their apartment building or their street, portraits posted on the web for all to see and talk about.

Art students could sketch portraits of business storefronts, or workers and bosses, also to be posted on the web.

Or imagine a school’s jazz quintet performing at a community center with the jazz trio from another school in a neighboring county — simultaneously on Skype — which is no problem as long as the schools are within 750 or so miles of each other, roughly the speed of sound (any farther creates a sound lag and bad music).

A video team could interview adults in a senior citizen center around a chosen theme (best job, favorite trip, et cetera), to be edited into a short video for the web. They could produce short biographies of ordinary citizens — thus learning all sorts of valuable skills like clear writing, teamwork and meeting deadlines in the process.

Music and drama students could rehearse and then present their productions at retirement homes and senior centers — but with a twist: involve some of the adults in the process (a small part in the play, a role in selecting the music, and so on).

Koerner’s Lincoln Center Shakespeare Project (the password is Hamlet) offers another possibility. In that project, middle school students recite passages from Hamlet. It’s compelling and fun. Now take that concept and invite local businessmen and women to recite lines from Hamlet, then weave it into a production that everyone can watch on the web. They could go down my block and ask the woman who runs the bake shop, Mr. Young at the dry cleaner’s, the hardware store guy, and so forth.

The end game here is to have the 80 percent buzzing about what’s happening in their schools. ‘Their schools,’ not ‘the schools.’ Have them saying, “Wow, I didn’t know the kids were doing things like that in school.”

And, of course, have them saying, “Did you see me in Hamlet?”

An Energized 80 could overwhelm the small group of folks who make the rules for schools, a group that seems to be dominated by narrow concerns over bubble test scores.

What do you think? Can we ENERGIZE THE 80 and, in so doing, rescue our kids from boredom and our current system of educational neglect?

22 thoughts on “Energizing the 80

  1. John,

    Here’s an interesting trend I’ve noticed over the last 30 years:

    We’ve made almost no progress in reading, writing, and math. Yet during the same time period, we’ve made enormous gains in drama, music, visual arts, sports, and a variety of other extra-curricular areas.

    We’ve had extraordinary reforms in the Three R’s. But no such meddling with the extra-curricular subjects.

    So why the big difference in performance gains?

    Here’s my theory:

    1. The Three R’s folks have been focused on a standardized curriculum and teaching methods that date back to the Sputnik era — and data about student learning that doesn’t inform instruction and often is used as a proxy for human judgment.

    2. The arts and sports folks have been taking their cue from professionals in their disciplines. As a result, they’ve been getting better as their professions have been getting better, moving forward not moving backward, using authentic performance data AND professional human judgment to make good decisions for kids.

    ALL — 100% — of my arts and sports experiences were taught to me by pros (or at least in sports, guys who’d played semi-pro and who studied pro coaching intensely). I saw my drama teacher act in professional theater productions in Equity productions many times. My band director was a living legend who routinely invited jazz greats to visit us in the classroom; he knew them all. My football and basketball coaches had illustrious careers as players and as leaders of players.

    Before getting an English degree, I was a music major. The school I attended was known for producing the best music teachers in our state. But all of them were professional musicians as well because to get a Music Ed degree, everyone had to pass a performance requirement — on their own instrument AND piano as well. Everyone “gigged” outside of school to pay tuition. Many still play professionally today in cities like Seattle, Portland, and Los Angeles — while they continue to teach.

    Have you heard a good HS jazz band lately? Have you heard a high school senior blow a solo on the alto that sounds like Bird Parker? Amazing. Have you seen a good high school musical? The annual production at my old high school is considered one of the best entertainment values of the year — citywide. Have you watched a high school football team run the Read Option just like they do in college? Or the West Coast offense? Have you seen the art kids are cranking out these days? In our town’s annual film festival, the number of submissions by HS kids grows every year.

    When kids are taught through the lens of professionalism, they soar. When kids are taught through the lens of nostalgia, they struggle to maintain minimal performance.

    I think there are four defining elements that have contributed to advances in the extracurricular areas:

    1. No standards, no testing, no minimum competency guidelines, no government mandates (other than safety).

    2. Professional “teachers/coaches” model their work after contemporary professionals.

    3. Public display of student work. Everyone can watch the football team, the musical, the art exhibit, etc. Students know they are on display.

    4. Kids are urged to reach for maximum potential not minimum proficiency. The extracurricular areas are intensely aspirational.

    I’ll call this “The Theory of Independent Public Professionalism”. And I think it explains a lot about why kids are doing amazing things in the arts, sports, and drama; and why we, as a nation, are doing so poorly in basic skills subjects despite unprecedented spending, government involvement, and work output by educators.

    In short, in the Age of Standards and Testing, school is no longer about being the best you can be, or even developing high levels of skill; it’s about achieving minimum proficiency, which we know from all the research on state cut scores is very, very low.

    Steve Peha
    President, Teaching That Makes Sense, Inc.


    • the arts and sports often value teamwork as well, just like life in the real world. In math and English, however, teamwork is called by another name: cheating.


      • Both of you raise excellent points. The goals in sports for the player is team excellence, whereas the goal in school for the student is grade excellence (not learning). Performance is obviously tied to goals, but there is a fallacy that learning is the same as doing well on a test. Most students forget everything once they are no longer going to be tested. This is why the recent cheating scandal is so laughable when people were arguing that students somehow adversely affected by having their scores misreported.

        Anyway, Steve raises many very good points. I would like to add, though, that arts education is completely incompatible with the rigid school environment of grades and autocracy. Because the arts are so essential, they have no place in school where they would teach kids to hate them as much as kids are taught to hate other subjects.


  2. The path the President and Arne Duncan have charted of course turns strongly away from teaching the reading and writing of literature, performance of plays, etc. This is a big feature of the Common Core curriculum.


  3. A really important blogpost, John, and critical that all of us keep raising the issue of the arts in education as a key to achieving everything else our policymakers talk about: 4th-grade literacy, middle- and high-school achievement, college readiness. Having worked for George Lucas, I learned to view the arts not as a subject but as a way of communicating knowledge. In that sense, all students should be learning about the role of painting, photography, music, dance, theater, and cinema in communication, just as they do with words and text. As your students did with play-writing.

    High Tech High is one of the best schools doing this integrated approach. Here’s an example of English-language learners in Arizona raising their reading achievement through the arts, specifically, opera. You have to see it to believe it. (I had to.)

    There is also a wealth of research on the value of the arts in education but it is not well known. Arts Education Partnership is an important organization for gathering research and best practice and working with policymakers, I spoke at their conference recently.


  4. As a social studies teacher who himself majored in music as an undergrad, I find using the arts in all domains probably makes a great deal of sense. Whether or not one agrees with Howard Gardner and his theory of Multiple Intelligences, most experienced teachers can tale you tales of students who when given an opportunity to use their love of or fascination with painting/poetry/drama etc. demonstrate a deep understanding of other topics.

    It seems to me that a person is not fully educated without some understanding of the various arts. They are a major part of our culture, and if I might also note, a major part of our economy. For those students who do not have the opportunity to explore their artistic potential outside of school, having that opportunity within school may be key not only to their persisting in school, but also to finding their life’s work. Not everyone needs to have the same kind of education, and we do our students and our society a huge disservice if we insist on pushing everyone into a common mold.


  5. Just a small correction, with Skype or anything else that travels over the fiber/cooper (ie the Internet) the distance between the people is meaningless since the signal is travelling over another medium (not air) and is not sound (it is electricity). So the delay is intrinsic in the medium – if you have a fiber optic cable between New York City and LA with no routing delays in between you could easily skype a quartet together.


    • What you say sounds correct but flies in the face of a demonstration I saw a few months back, where the adults in charge asserted that distance mattered. It certainly does in broadcasting, as anyone watching live reports from correspondents can attest. It takes time for the sound to get from the anchor to the correspondent and back. We hear the question a beat or two before he/she does. Same thing in musical performances, I believe, and that really screws things up.


  6. First, the question of mandated curricula is often flouted by best and worst, and most kids pass tests…eventually. So that, while real, is not the issue.
    More critically, the arts are not commonly seen as expressive media for all kinds of communication – too often they’re in the silo, away from the day-to-day.
    I had a remarkable experience as a teacher last night, purely because of opportunity, setting and timing. One of the too-many disparate things I do is coach a bunch of kids in online credit recovery courses. A very bright but previously shy African American kid was struggling with a fairly basic history unit, not passing tests he obviously could have passed. So we talked. He had always hated history, and was trying to work through what I’d call some “oppositional defiance disorder” with Abigail Adams. As he got up to take a break, he whispered that his real problem was that his mother made him homeless a few days before, and he’d been having problems with her for the past year.
    We went into the hallway, talked a little, mellowed out a bit; he went to get a snack. On returning, I suggested we look at a movie rather than fight Abigail again. Just then he got a call from a girlfriend and rescheduled their date. While he was on the phone, I called up Bessie Smith’s short, 1929 video, “St. Louis Blues.” She captured him. He kept muttering how the world has changed. Racism may continue, but not the way it was in 1929 in a Speak-Easy. When Bessie’s boyfriend stole her money from her stocking, he was shocked. I suggested he not show the movie to his girlfriend, and he giggled. We did a lot of history in a very, very short time.
    When the movie was over we talked about working through a learning contract that could build a view of US History from movies like that. He left in tears, and today I found him a place to live for the next six to twelve months.
    Now, I’m not sure if that was art, media, literacy, history, music, compassion, social work, or merely a sense of peace and awareness that he’s sure not like Bessie’s boyfriend. Breaking those into such components really isn’t necessary – it’s more than our learning contract will include. Yet it most surely is teaching a kid some history that he may well remember a very long time.
    Isn’t that the point?


  7. Dear John, I love your list of ideas about how to reach the 80, and am sending it along to the teachers at the Gloucester Community Arts Charter, a school I have been starting in Gloucester, Ma. The idea is to develop a k-8 curriculum that moves the arts and creativity to the center of the k-8 curriculum. Hope this idea takes wings. Jay Featherstone


  8. I love the idea.

    I especially love it in an effort to make my English curriculum more boy-friendly (I’ve got a lot of active, energetic grade 9 boys who need more than just sitting and discussing). You gave me the idea to have them get film clips of many community members (including their parents and strangers) reciting lines from Romeo and Juliet, which we read later this year, and put it together in one big “play.” Great idea and I can see the students really getting into — engaging.

    As for collaboration = cheating in English, that’s a terrible shame if it’s true. It hasn’t been my experience, as a believer in collaboration and a dedicated user of Harkness method (a specific form of Socratic seminar in which the goal is student-led discussion that earns a collective grade). I think it’s also very different in middle school, where collaboration is the name of the game. High schools and universities could take a real tip from middle school philosophy there.


    • Agreed, but I also think that middle schools could learn from elementary schools. It baffles me that, when our elementary schools are successful and our high schools generally fail, we are pushing that latter model DOWN.


      • Here here. I’m a career HS teacher and in my current school, it’s the first time I’ve shared a building with elementary. It’s fascinating and I’m scheming up all sorts of ways to take advantage of this.

        A wise veteran of education once told me that if I really want to learn how to handle group work, multi-tasking, and in-class assessment (all at once!), I should observe elementary teachers. Starting this quarter, I will begin to do that. Excited.


  9. John,
    Phyllis Bush, (Indiana) and I (California) met during the activities around education this summer in Washington DC, and started talking about the percentage of that 80% in particular who are retired teachers, and/ or grandparents. Many may not be aware of how different school looks for today’s children, and they are a formidable voting block if they took up the cause. We were not talking specifically about the arts, but about the narrowing and deadening of all areas of schooling. Reading your blog I realize how almost every academic area that has been limited or lost to the dictates of standardized testing used to be enriched and energized by the use of creative artistic expression. I like your ideas and will link to them at the discussion page we have started, as we consider going forward with our idea: finding “senior ambassadors” who would in a variety of ways update their communities about the mis-steps that have been taken in the last 10 years, and then get their voices heard in the political arena. You can see, and join in our beginning discussion at http://www.facebook.com/pages/AUGUST-TO-JUNE-with-respect-for-each-child/132828592068?sk=app_2373072738#!/topic.php?uid=132828592068&topic=18422


    • OK, but to be clear, that’s NOT what I am talking about. I want kids to be pro-active in their arts programs and get the 80% in the mix. See the point about Hamlet in my post and the Romeo and Juliet response from Alexis.
      I would pay to see my dry cleaner reciting Out Damned Spot, for openers! My block has lots of small shops: let’s give each owner and worker a couple of lines, then edit them together.
      Do this, and you will have created ‘senior ambassadors’ and not-so-senior ambassadors


  10. Music offers structure and the logic of sound, teamwork in any type of ensemble from string quartets to rock group, outreach to ethnic community groups and churches,
    technology that lies on the cutting edge of multi-media merge , memory muscle flexing, the autonomy of improvisation in all period genres. One has to be nuts and blind not to grasp its
    connections to the competencies and momentum underlying educational achievement. Okay, I spoke to only one of the arts. The others — dance, theater, 2-dimension studio,
    3-dimension studio, video and film — all offer similar deep structure analysis.


    • “One has to be nuts and blind….”
      How have we managed, then, to put so many blind nuts in positions of power?
      Who benefits from such arrangements? If we follow the money, would we find an answer?

      It’s not a magic bullet or a short-term solution, but “Energizing the 80” would help…


  11. I’m one of the 80% without kids in school.

    I’d love to be involved in my local public school, but I find sit in rows with your hands folded as distasteful as students do. The only opportunity the local school offers non-parents is to sit on a committee that meets quarterly. Even that sit in rows with your hands folded opportunity is not publicized.


  12. This may not be the best place to ask this, but I want to know if I can have a short sale and I can’t figure out how to find a good, local realtor… do you have any info on this realtor? They’re based out of sacramento, in the same city as my office and I can’t find reviews on them – Becky Lund & Associates – Sacramento Realtors, 8814 Madison Avenue #2 Fair Oaks, CA 95628 (916) 531-7124


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