Public Policy Forum Blog

Sharpening the focus on arts education

Milwaukee has no shortage of hot topics surrounding K-12 education – in what form it should take place (public, charter, or voucher schools), what should be taught, how to narrow achievement gaps, and how to hold schools and school districts accountable. These issues are contentious, in part, because there is limited community-wide agreement over the problems, causes, or solutions they address.

In a report released this morning – Every child is an artist: Arts education in Milwaukee and insights from other cities – the Public Policy Forum brings arts education into the mix. This is the second report commissioned by the Herzfeld Foundation that probes the following questions:

  • What does arts education in Milwaukee look like and does it measure up to what the community wants for its children?
  • Who is providing it, who is receiving it, how much are kids getting, and at what level of quality?
  • How have other communities approached these questions, and what have been the results of their efforts?

Questions like these may appear secondary to the intractable educational challenges mentioned above. Yet, there are some who see arts education as, if not an antidote,  then an important educational platform that is less encumbered by politics and ideology and that can unify the community around a vision of providing a well-rounded, high quality education for  all Milwaukee schoolchildren, no matter where they go to school.

In fact, in Milwaukee and across the U.S., educational leaders and arts advocates have argued that learning through the arts is a means to gain artistic skills, develop cultural awareness, and exercise self-expression. Beyond the intrinsic value, supporters of arts education point to documented links between the arts and a range of instrumental outcomes related to education – increased student achievement, improved student motivation and engagement, and development of social/emotional competencies and creative thinking skills.

In our first report, we took a broad view of 10 cities that had undertaken large-scale efforts to deliver arts education. In the report released this morning, we hone in on four that may be particularly relevant to Milwaukee: Boston’s BPS Arts Expansion Initiative, Dallas’ Big Thought, Denver’s Think 360 Arts, and Portland’s The Right Brain Initiative.

We find that the four cities are characterized by the following structural success factors:

  • Widespread community engagement that strategically elicits the input and offerings of at least three sets of stakeholders: top civic leadership, arts and educational institutions, and grassroots constituents such as parents, teachers, and teaching artists.
  • Civic leader champions such as mayors, school district superintendents, and school board members.
  • A “backbone” structure to help carry the community’s vision and to coordinate the overall effort, usually in close partnership with but external to the major school district.
  • Shared governance and accountability that is exercised through a number of different avenues from decision-making executive bodies, to working committees, to the use of formal agreements and contracts.
  • Data-driven advocacy and strategic planning that often includes a community-wide inventory that identifies arts education offerings and monitors access.
  • School district commitment and leadership including vocal support from the superintendent and robust financial investments in arts education staffing, external partnerships, professional development, and curriculum development.
  • Meaningful evaluation and shared measurement practices that show a commitment to engage and invest in ongoing evaluation of program effectiveness and impact.
  • Capacity to overcome common challenges to collective action related to the financial and political constraints on schools, districts, and arts providers.

The report also uses our observations of other cities’ large-scale arts education initiatives to assess arts education as it exists on the ground in Milwaukee today. Some of the assets we observe here – which might be used to build a larger community-wide initiative – are the commitment of the outgoing MPS superintendent and current Milwaukee Board of School Directors; the out-of-school time efforts at MPS and other providers; arts specialty schools throughout the city; networks of artists and teaching artists that could play a potential role; an effort to restore funding for arts specialists across MPS; committed private funders; and a vast array of arts program and professional development providers.

At the same time, the opportunity to study both the challenges and successes of other communities revealed some of Milwaukee’s potential gaps. Those include a lack of clarity on how to establish a governance structure for such an effort and which (if any) existing organization might head it up.  We also observe a lack of strong vocal advocacy for such efforts from the city’s political leadership, a need to continue to restore lost MPS arts instruction staffing resources, and the absence of a comprehensive arts plan at the state, city, or school district level.

Overall, we hope this report will inform Milwaukee policymakers and stakeholders about how established models in other cities have achieved success and spur dialogue in Milwaukee about how this community might pursue a large-scale effort of its own. 

Anne Chapman