Sustainability in Music and Arts Education

Laurie Schell • AdvocacyOctober 2021 • October 9, 2021

Photo by Fauzan Saari on Unsplash

Regardless of your role in the music and arts education ecosystem, sustainability is the proverbial grand prize. 

What Do We Want?
Imagine the day… Music and the arts are universally endorsed in public education policy and practice and included without question in school budgets. The arts would gain the same footing (and resources) as reading or math. Students would have access to the arts at all grade levels; school counselors would recommend multi-year study in the arts; scheduling issues would magically disappear; arts educators would be valued and celebrated. A quality education in the arts would be accessible to all. 

Why Do We Want It?
Apart from our certainty that kids thrive with the arts, supported by an ever-growing body of research, sustainability comes with other benefits: No roller coaster feast or famine cycles for arts education. No annual budget battles pitting the arts against everything else. No need to justify the value of the arts. No us vs. them. Absent annual budgetary and programmatic threats, greater sustainability in the arts would enable deeper conversations about equity and social justice in education. 

A Revised Vision of Sustainability
When I entered the field as a teaching artist in the 1980s, the arts and education fields had not coalesced as “arts education.” Over the past four decades, we’ve actually learned a thing or two, moving from silos of isolated activity to complex networks of mutual support. 

The world—and our view of sustainability—takes on a different hue depending on where we sit.

Students want more choices.

Parents want access to the arts and success for their children.

Music and arts education educators want programs to live beyond their tenure. 

Advocates wish for equity and sustainability in the arts as a core feature in education. 

School administrators want student success amid budget constraints and impacted schedules.

Funders look for music and arts impact that is sustainable beyond the grant. 

Policymakers want educational solutions beyond immediate political and budgetary realities.

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The arts education field is learning to listen to one another. We recognize the value of creating community. We rely on each other’s strengths and support one another in challenging times.

There is evidence of this cross-cutting work everywhere, from rural to urban sites, city, state and national. Dive deep into every endeavor and you’ll uncover hours of thoughtful conversation and earnest solutions-thinking among stakeholders.

A few noteworthy examples of allied activity and support, all with an eye toward sustainability:

Ingenuity, Inc. in Chicago is tracking increases in arts education access, equity, and quality in Chicago Public Schools with their artlook map.

National funders, such as the CMA Foundation and Save the Music Foundation encourage cross-sector participation and community partnerships.

MINDPOP in Austin, Texas supports a creative learning environment for general classroom teachers, integrates meaningful community arts partnerships with schools, and engages all levels of the system, including teachers, campus leaders, district administrators, artists, and communities. 

Arizona Department of Education’s Arts Education Office is staffed by an interdisciplinary team of content specialists, who work closely with communities by collaborating with educators, schools, community members, and policymakers to ensure every child receives a well-rounded education.

The Teaching Artist Certificate Program, offered by Teachers College at Columbia University and Young Audiences, acknowledges the important role of teaching artists in the schools.

NAMM, along with the National Association for Music Education and a host of partners, continue to advocate to secure a funding stream for music and the arts with the Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grant program (Title IV, Part A). 

Collective Impact Grants from the National Endowment for the Arts embrace systemic, multi-dimensional, cross-sector approaches to increase student access to the arts.

The National PTA has a position statement and state-supported programs, affirming the importance of the arts in education. 

If we agree that the entirety of our field has a role in sustainability, then we have more work to do. To achieve fully the richness of the arts, we must embrace a both/and mindset. We must continue to place students at the center, set a high bar for ourselves and be committed to mutual support of the broader community. 

We know this is a long game. Progress is always hard-won, often incremental and sometimes stunningly game changing. Every effort moves us toward sustainability and the gold cup.

Laurie Schell is a lifelong advocate for music and arts education. She is founding principal of Laurie Schell Associates | ElevateArtsEd, providing consulting services and issue expertise in coalition building, public policy and advocacy, strategic planning, and program development with a focus on arts education.

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