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Arts in the Schools -- An Interview with Carol Fineberg, Ph.D.

Dr.Carol Fineberg evaluates arts programs around the country.

What do parents need to know about arts programs in the schools?

For starters, parents need to know what kind of school day kids have -- how much time kids are involved in the performing and visual arts. Is there an artist in residence at the school? Do local symphony, ballet and opera companies include the school in outreach programs, and if not, why not?

How do you distinguish different kinds of arts programs?

I make a distinction between "exposure" programs and "creative programs." In exposure programs kids go to view a performance, a concert or dance . There may be some interaction with the performers, but essentially it's an apprehending experience, a chance for kids to look or listen and reflect. These programs are great, but limited.

Creative programs go beyond and engage kids in creative activities. These programs engage kids in problem-solving, which is at the heart of creativity. For instance, if a school has a program where a muralist is contracted to convey a historic moment or mood, the kids are included in the activities involved.

What do you look for in creative programs?

There's a difference between a challenging creative program and one that just skims the surface. In the skimming programs the original thinking is all done by the artist. The child just follows directions. For instance, there was a program where each child made his or her own pop-up book following specific directions. The artist had the concept and the kids were just implementing the artist's ideas. Kids made only the most minor decisions.

A genuinely creative program enables kids to tell their own story. The challenge is to create a frame and for kids to work within the frame. We fail kids by not challenging their real creative capacities.

Is it the people who make a program really work?

Many school reform models are based on unusual people doing unusual things. We need to replicate programs created by people who are inspired in order to help regular people do extraordinary things. Without that, the programs don't continue to work.

What is the current status of arts programs in schools?

Parents need to be educated to determine how arts programs work. Now key policy makers are recognizing the value of the arts a means of social change and for meeting intellectual objectives. They're also seeing the value of art as art.

However, along with art becoming a vital part of the curriculum is the desire to test kids in art. I'm ambivalent about that because of the danger of making art knowledge-based and academic; forcing kids to conform.

What is the history? At one point weren't programs being cut?

In the 70's public funding was cut. The public school population was declining. Teachers, including arts teachers, were let go. Gradually over the past 10 years there's been more focus on the arts. There are many arts advocacy groups. Local councils, the National Endowment and organizations of artists have all played a part. Over the years Rockefeller, Getty and Annenberg have supported the arts. There's always the interplay between those who advocate and those who fund.

Who are the groups that decide what goes on?

The Regents or Board of Trustees make policy. The State Alliances for Arts Education advocate for strong arts programs. The groups consist of parents, school people and arts people. They are all aligned with the Kennedy Center which gets money from Congress to support state initiatives. These state groups vary in how vigorous they are.

Almost every locality has an arts council. They get money from the State to do advocacy. New York has a Department of Cultural Affairs. In some cities there are Commissions of arts and culture -- it varies by state. For instance, Kaw Valley, Kansas has a advocacy group for arts education. The New Rochelle Arts Council sponsors arts events in schools, contests and other activities; they underwrite opera at the local library.

How are arts programs evaluated?

The evaluation component is written into grants. A grantee will hire me to do a complete analysis of what works and what needs work. Over the past 10 years there's been a separation between program evaluation and student learning -- the two are evaluated separately, though we look at the bridge between the two.

For instance, in a program where kids made soap stone sculptures we might look at what they've learned about animals and habitats. Classroom teachers need to work in collaboration with artists. Now there's a move toward alternative ways of assessing progress, for instance portfolio assessments.

How have back to basics and frequent testing affected arts programs?

In schools where people are worried about the tests the teachers feel the pressure. Good schools don't force teachers to teach for the test. Instead, in those schools skills are taught in a context that makes sense. When kids don't get feedback on a regular basis, the standardized tests take on overwhelming importance.

How much emphasis is placed on each area of the arts?

Vocal music and music appreciation have been staples of the curriculum for a long time. The visual arts are also considered basic. Dance and drama are newer, but film and video are the newest.

What about writing?

Writing has traditionally been taught by English teachers, but now schools are bringing in poets and other writers to supplement the programs.

What about age level? Are arts there through all of schooling?

Most of the new good stuff is happening in the elementary and middle schools. In high schools the best programs are in the specialized schools, the "magnet schools" for the arts. The arts requirements in most regular high schools are still minimal.

What should parents look for in an art teacher?

Some teachers want kids to do what they do, to only use their tools and approaches. The best teachers are those who want each student to find his own voice, and who give kids practice problem-solving.


If you want to learn more about Dr.Carol Fineberg, please contact us. Tell us about your experiences with arts in the schools.

Copyright© 2000 Dr. Istar Schwager
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