Tunnel Vision in a Broad Field: The Seattle Families and Education Levy

Cham Ba, former Arts Corps youth and current Teaching Artist speaking at the Mayor’s Townhall Meeting on March 13, 2012.

I started this blog to highlight what is being achieved and how, but this post is about what isn’t being done and why. Sometimes you have to point out the empty part of the glass, to make sure the water that’s left doesn’t evaporate past the halfway mark.

Last November, Seattle voters passed the Families and Education Levy. You probably voted for it, assuming, as I did, that the Levy would continue funding school enrichment services the way past Levies had, and that some of that money would go towards arts learning programs such as those provided by Arts Corps. After all, the stated purpose of the Families and Education Levy was “renewing and enhancing Education-Support Services to improve academic achievement.”

However, this year the city has laid out parameters for funding from the Levy that have effectively excluded all arts enrichment programs.

Earlier this month, qualified applicants were notified, and no arts organizations were on the list. Not Arts Corps. Not 826 Seattle. Not Writers In The Schools. Not Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra–all nationally recognized groups that have worked successfully with Seattle Public Schools in the past.

Perhaps feeling the weight of criticism over the failure of past levies to close the achievement gap and improve academic growth, last December the Office of Education put out a Request For Qualifications (RFQ) asking that all organizations hoping to receive funding from the Levy provide data showing that their programs provide the desired “Outcomes and Indicators” for intended focus students (those being children of low-income, minority, or English Language Learner (ELL) status).

The criteria needed to qualify under the category of Elementary, Middle and High School Expanded Learning Opportunities now includes “experience tracking data points that can be linked to achieving Outcomes and Indicators,” the ability to “access and use daily or weekly academic, grade and/or attendance data” while demonstrating “the capacity to effectively use data to inform its work.”

These Outcomes and Indicators revolve around higher test scores (primarily in math and reading), enrollment, and attendance, all of which require access to school data records. The arts education organizations Seattle schools have worked with previously haven’t had access to this data, nor is data gathering what most arts organizations are about. They tend to be more focused on things like inspiration, innovation, creativity, internal motivation, team building, problem solving — all vital components of success in learning that aren’t tested or graded. By putting the onus of proof on the organizations themselves, it seems as though the city is pulling the rug out from under those it lured in with the possibility of a boost.

Prior to the Levy’s passing, a Levy Advisory Committee (LAC) was formed to develop a list of recommendations. These recommendations were based on “research, national and local best practices, and previous Levy experience to develop and recommend a comprehensive set of strategies to best meet the needs of struggling students” in making them “college and career ready.” The LAC recommendation letter prioritizes 13 educational issues, including curriculum that will:

  • Address and accommodate multiple learning styles, provide more enrichment options, and have more experiential learning opportunities
  • Increase the availability of elective classes (e.g. art, music, foreign languages, etc.).

Did the Office of Education miss that part, or did they figure it just wasn’t important enough, as priorities go.

Academics are important, but there is more to learning than what shows up on standardized tests. Much more. And there is data available showing that the arts improve student performance overall. I have heard of two studies released in the past few months, one in San Diego and another in Chicago. More research is being done as we blog. Just not in Seattle. Not by any of our not-for-profit arts organizations run by dedicated people, not researchers.

But what I find most troubling is this narrow definition of success in learning. Granted, the City of Seattle is trying to improve its education system and emphasizing the need for “evidence based best practices” is understandable, but what are the implications of reducing measurements of academic success to test scores and attendance records? If the city doesn’t see the value of the arts in enriching our students’ learning environment, what kind of message are they sending to schools in their district? If you want to qualify for city funds, don’t ask for anything besides math and reading tutors.

And what about the students? What message are they getting?

And here’s another question for you: Are so many of our students performing so poorly because of a lack of tutoring programs, or a lack of the will to learn? We have been cutting the arts in education for the past forty years. We have created generations of students who don’t value learning. Is there a connection? Those students will likely grow up to become parents who don’t value education. I think that is where we are now.

So if you do value the arts in education, you can take this as a call to action. Don’t let access to the arts disappear in Seattle public schools. The arts are not a luxury. They are a vital part of what keeps human brains moving.

To start with, you could attend the Arts Education Community Meeting at Chief Sealth High School from 6:30 to 8:30 on March 29th and contribute your input. Then you can keep your ear to the ground and your nose in the air for further developments. Oh, and please pass this information on to other people who might be interested.

The Office of Education will be sending out another RFQ for Levy funding next year. Perhaps the qualification parameters should be broadened to include more dynamic indicators of college and career preparedness. And maybe if testing and attendance data is so important to them, they should find ways to provide access to that data for all applicants. And also maybe they should look at research done elsewhere that supports the need for arts inclusion in schools. Yeah, that too.

You could even write to some of these people and tell them that you think the city should rewrite their RFQ to include Indicators and Outcomes of truly enriched learning, or ask the Seattle School District how they will support the arts if the city does not.

Or some such. Go for it.

For more information relating more specifically to Arts Corps’s situation, read excellent piece in The Stranger’s Slog — “Is This What We Voted For?: Arts Organizations Deemed “Unqualified” for Education Levy Money They’ve Been Getting for Years While Mayor Hosts Meetings Across Town on the Importance of Arts Education.” In it she quotes Elizabeth Whitford, the executive director of Arts Corps, and Kathleen Allen, Director of Education, Communications, and Partnerships for the Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra, as well as Holly Miller, head of the city’s Office of Education. Graves followed that post with The Mayor Promises to Restore Arts Corps Money, which has Mike McGinn making promises he might not be able to keep (while wiping egg off his face).

3 responses to “Tunnel Vision in a Broad Field: The Seattle Families and Education Levy

  1. Thanks Margaret for keeping us updated on this very important issue. I plan to attend the meeting on 3/29. Let me know if you want to go together.

  2. Well said, Margaret! Your comments about a “lack of the will to learn” struck me as particularly on target. It’s just common sense that kids will be eager to come to school and will learn in all subjects if the overall school day is made to be more fun–and what better way to make it fun than through arts education?

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