Thursday, July 29, 2010

Are We Insane Yet?

A few days ago, I found myself reading a recent memo from Vermont School Commissioner Armando Vilaseca. Its content was alarming.

The memo starts out with an upbeat tone, informing the reader of the Department's new mandates and goals (called "Transformation Goals") which position "the department to increase support for schools in ultimately improving outcomes for all Vermont learners. The structure we have defined is intentionally focused on mobilizing all of our staff to support schools in improving instruction and learning outcomes for all students."

Okay so far.

But then the memo gets to the real issues facing the education establishment: massive budget cutbacks, lay-offs and retirements resulting in a 20% workforce reduction, and--here's the kicker--yet another reorganization of staff around "new learning goals."


Gone are content specialists in social studies, foreign languages, art and music, gifted and talented programs, and physical education. Those people not let go who held positions in those areas have been reassigned to something called an "Integrated Support for Learning" team. The remaining content specialists in the fields of special education, math, English language arts, English Language Learners and science will stay put as they are "part of the statewide assessment system."

This sounds to me like we are paying more and more attention to "teaching to the test" than ever. Are we surprised, therefore, that student learning is at risk? Are we surprised that more and more parents continue to question the value and efficiency of our once-vaunted school system?

None of this is the fault of one person--especially not of Commissioner Vilaseca. He's been given an impossible job to do ("Fix Our Schools") and he's doing the best he can. But this memo reminds me of my favorite Einstein quote: The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

Surely, by now, we are all insane. How many more times are we going to refine, reduce, reassign, re-strategize, re-formulate, re-eliminate, re-focus, and re-incentivize (using made-up words is fun because nobody can refudiate them irregardless of how they are misinterpretated) our education system before we finally come to the inescapable conclusion that this is NOT the way to "improve outcomes for all Vermont learners?"

Surely, if this method worked at all, it would have worked by now...?! (And I'll stop calling you Shirley if you agree with me :)

So what CAN be done?

Let's start with this question: What do we want our children to learn and why?

This is an important question for policy-makers to return to often, because the answer changes over time. For me, at this moment in history, there are global issues to consider all of which impact the outcome of student learning (not to mention the human condition) in profound ways. Global Warming, Renewable Energy, Religion, Population, Food and Water Management are five that immediately come to my mind. But I'm not suggesting that we run out and create curricula around these issues for first-graders.

What we must do is develop curricula that will serve as a foundation for first-graders to lean on when, as young adults, they begin to focus on solving these thorny and sophisticated problems. For example, wouldn't it make sense to start teaching a second language to preschoolers and NOT wait until they are in the 7th grade (as is the current practice in the Montpelier school system)?

Everyone who has ever had a child (or read the research literature) knows that it is during these formative years that our "language centers" are at their most receptive. Regardless of what captures the imagination of a young learner enough to cause him/her to dedicate a career to it as an adult, being able to converse with colleagues from Spain, Egypt, China and Russia who are working on the same issue(s) will certainly be advantageous.

Science and math are important, no doubt. So here's another idea: why don't we go crazy and hire some Hispanic, Arabic, Chinese, or Russian teachers to teach those subjects in their native language once our kids have enough basic linguistic knowledge under their belts? I say kill two birds with one stone: learn the language AND learn geometry! I know it can be done because I know people from Spain, Egypt, China, and Russia, and every one of them learned geometry, and lots more besides.

So right now, what do I think the goal of education should be? Simple. To help every child discover for him or herself the joy of lifelong learning.

What feeds this desire?

The ability to speak more than one language
The ability to carry on a discussion about religion with a person from another faith without resorting to epithets or physical violence.
The ability to do sums in more than one currency.
The ability to weep at the end of Madama Butterfly.
The ability to weep tears of outrage about the lost boys of Sudan.
The ability to dance with a parent more often than at your own wedding.
The ability to return to William Faulkner novels again and again...and again.
The ability to read aloud to your child.
The ability to cheer your child's role as a triceratops in his class play about dinosaurs.
The ability to explain why you're supposed to stand when the National Anthem is played.
The ability to explain why you're supposed to stand when Handel's Hallelujah Chorus is played.

Our world is very small. Understanding how to navigate its complexity starts with language and culture. We need to teach a basic appreciation for all culture, starting with our own. This includes not just social studies, but the arts, music, poetry, dance, and drama that constitute our collective human expression. From this common understanding we can nurture our expertise in the sciences, in mathematics, in the constant quest for human knowledge. This is how to instill in our young learners a hunger for learning. This is what we must demand of our schools, of our teachers, and of ourselves.

To do otherwise is insanity.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Survey Says!

Summer in Vermont is the time when many of us put into action all the plans we have been fine-tuning since the weather drove us indoors last November. There is a lot to pay attention to.

Here at the Arts Council we are in the middle of taking stock of a couple of key items that have been commanding a lot of our attention.

The first is The Art of Action. We want to know from all of you who participated in it, helped organize it, or for any reason have an opinion about it, to let us know your thoughts. We are putting together a brief survey and would love to have feedback from you. Look for it in the next few days...

The second is the upcoming primary and election.

In part because so many important statewide offices are up for grabs this year (meaning an incumbent is not running), and in part because we were all quite surprised at the last-minute sales tax on tickets to non-profit performances that was passed by the Legislature in May, we felt that this was a good time to find out where all our candidates stand on arts-related issues.

A few days ago we issued our first-ever “Candidate Survey” on the arts to all those who have registered as candidates for Governor, Lt. Governor, and Vermont House and Senate, and asked them to please respond by August 2. This will give us time to tabulate responses to our questions and share them. [ Note: less than 24 hours after it dropped we already had 37 completed surveys submitted. Thank you!]

It is our intention to provide clear information about every candidate’s level of commitment to the arts and to arts education. We have also asked candidates who have already addressed the arts as part of their platform to provide a link to their documentation so that we may share that information with Artmail readers as well.

Since, as a 501(c)(3) non-profit we are not allowed to endorse any candidate for office, it is our intention to let the candidate’s own responses to our questions speak for themselves.

Some candidates have already responded by saying “I make it a policy not to respond to surveys…My record speaks for itself.” While I understand the frustration people running for office must feel about having to respond to surveys on many different subjects, my over-riding response has been to respectfully ask those candidates to reconsider their policy.

First, what "record"? In the Vermont legislature, issues involving the arts are usually buried deep in the Appropriations Bill, or—as is the case with recent 6% Sales Tax on nonprofit ticket sales—buried in a huge “Miscellaneous Tax Bill.” It is impossible to carve out an incumbent’s voting record on the arts because there are usually so many other material issues in a bill affecting a legislator’s vote. The only effective way to let the candidates speak for themselves about the arts is to ask them.

Second, I believe that there is too little attention paid by the media and, consequently, policy-makers, to the role the arts play in our economic recovery. Candidates from all parties talk about the importance of investing in vital communities, in improving communications infrastructure, creating jobs, curing whatever ails our schools, and in general improving Vermonters’ quality of life. But hardly ever does the word “art” or “culture” appear in their words or in print. (Yes, I may be exaggerating to make a point, but-ahem-my point speaks for itself!)

So here is what we need YOU to do. Between now and August 24th, let your candidates know that the arts are important to you and ask them whether they have responded to the Arts Council’s survey. If so, thank them; if not, ask them why. If they say it is not their policy, then make it YOUR policy to ask them how they would vote on increasing support for the arts, on increasing funding so that every schoolchild would have adequate resources to study the performing or visual arts during their K-12 years. Then let US know how it went…!

As soon as we have tabulated the results, we will share them. Look for them around August 10.

In the meantime, enjoy the sun, the showers, the fresh vegetables from your garden and take in a concert or a show. Or take in two or three—there is plenty to choose from!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

From Point A to Point Beyond...

"…there are no organic transitions, only edits. The idea of A becoming B, rather than A jumping to B, has become foreign."

Esa-Pekka Salonen

Though Salonen was talking about transitions in music, this quote also resonates in a larger context. The problem is that in life, some transitions, even ones we should be prepared for (where "A becomes B"), are extremely hard to understand, interpret, and read meaning into.

I recently wrote about three important arts administrators who had decided to retire (with at least two more that I know of in the coming year) signaling a huge generational shift in arts management. But in the past week we have lost two people whose passion for life, for their family, and for their community touched all of us at the Arts Council.

Mary Prior was a fighter; a truly engaged community activist who loved her Danville community with all the fire and brimstone she could muster (and, boy, could she ever muster!). I knew her initially as the proprietor of the Danville Historical Society, and a very committed member of the local arts review committee that oversaw the Danville Route 2 transportation enhancement plan. For the past five or six years, however, she became more and more aware of the Transportation Agency’s inability to break ground on this award-winning project, and instead of getting depressed and throwing in the towel, she’d call me up to strategize as to what other political tack we could take.

About a year ago she told me she was dying and probably would not see the Danville Project through to completion. She made me promise not to compromise, not to forget that a really great group of people put together a great plan back in 2000, and not to waver in my commitment to see it through to completion.

Craig Byrne was a different kind of community activist. I didn’t know him as well or for as long as I knew Mary, but it was clear from our first conversation, that here was a man cut from a different sort of cloth. It was through his constant but gentle reasoning that our collaboration with Lyman Orton and Janice Izzi around the Art of Action got off the ground and became what it is today.

Where Mary might use facts fearlessly to make her case in Danville, Craig would use persuasion and humor. Where Mary might cut right to the chase, telling one and all what needed to be done and what her strongly-held opinions were, Craig was full of empathy and willing to listen completely to all the viewpoints around the table before helping us all to reach consensus about how to move forward.

I don’t believe Craig and Mary ever met each other. But wherever they are now, if they discover each other and compare notes, I imagine them coming to consensus (thanks to Craig) that Mary was someone who liked A to jump to B, while Craig liked A to “become” B.

In the end, and in their own way, they were a pleasure to work with. On behalf of everyone at the Arts Council staff who worked with them in one way or another, I send my thoughts and prayers out to Mary’s and Craig’s families. These are two transitions that will be hard to get used to.

Requiescant in pace