The arts have been central to human experience for millennia. They give meaning and expression to what is important in our society and in our lives: who we are, where we come from, our hopes, fears and imaginings. In education, the arts nurture individual creativity. They build confidence and foster dreams. They enrich and empower children. The arts bring learning to life. They are crucial to the development of the whole child and are central to the new BC curriculum.
Yet the arts have been treated as expendable extras in our schools.
We British Columbians have allowed the economic values of efficiency, utility and individual achievement to take precedence over equity, inclusion, mutual co-operation and aesthetic expression. At the international level (and here in BC), education is being similarly reshaped by an economic imperative. This has been bolstered by standardized test results like the FSA and PISA, that rank schools and countries on narrowly measurable “outcomes” in numeracy, literacy and science. As critics have pointed out, that reductive view of educational achievement has marginalized other, equally important goals of education, particularly the development of civic, moral and aesthetic capacities. A faulty understanding of “achievement” has helped perpetuate the erroneous idea, not least among anxious parents, that the primary goal of education is to acquire a competitive edge. Subjects perceived to have a direct link to employment have been prioritized in policy and funding decisions at the expense of other subject, like the arts, whose benefits cannot be quantified through standardized tests.
Consequently, the arts have been the first casualty of austerity cutbacks, and BC is certainly no exception. From the mid 1990s, funding cutbacks to public education have resulted in a dramatic reduction in specialist teachers, particularly at the elementary level, and a corresponding dispossession of arts spaces in schools. For example, based on interviews with former district staff, the Vancouver School district, previously a leader in North America for arts education, has seen an 84% reduction in the number of music specialists and a 95% reduction in visual art specialists in elementary schools over the last 25 years. These are conservative statistics; the “real” numbers may be worse.
With the loss of teacher specialization in the arts at the elementary level, the responsibility for arts education has fallen on generalist classroom teachers, most of whom have little or no background in the arts, no funding for equipment or supplies, and likely no access to appropriate facilities. While gyms remain an essential component of elementary schools in the government’s revised area standards, art rooms, music rooms and performance spaces have been eliminated as inefficient use of space. Overall, this has translated into a massive loss of school based knowledge and expertise about art-making and its vital importance in children’s intellectual and social-emotional development.
Even though the arts are core-curricular, the 2015 provincial satisfaction survey showed that only 42% of grade 3s and 4s and 34% of grade 7s answered “yes” to the question, “In school are you learning about art?” Instead of a comprehensive, sequential school-based arts education, arts education is concentrated in a few arts focused ‘choice’ schools, with a sporadic or ‘accidental’ arts education everywhere else. Increasingly, the arts are being ‘supplemented’ through short-term residences that rely on grants, parent fundraising or charitable donations.
Ironically, the core competencies of the new BC curriculum, communication, creative and critical thinking, and personal and social identities, are all intimately connected with knowledge and understanding of the arts. Yet there is a total disconnect between the educational goals and aspirations of the new curriculum as designed by teachers, and the government’s overarching goal to ‘re-engineer’ education to skill students for jobs. Changes to graduation requirements have reduced arts elective options drastically and students are no longer required to take a fine arts course beyond grade 9, seriously diminishing the depth and breadth of educational opportunities for students. Instead, money is diverted to skill students for specific jobs to satisfy workforce demands of potential investors first in the LNG and now in technology. ‘Coding’ is the new ‘hands-on-learning’ in elementary school.
These policy decisions are particularly short-sighted given the growing body of evidence that the arts advance academic achievement and understanding, but also the kind of divergent thinking needed for our future economy. These “habits of mind” that foster creativity – critical reflection, flexible repurposing, persistence, risk taking and open-ended problem solving - that have been identified by business leaders and the BC government as key characteristics for a “rapidly changing world,” are integral to art making and learning. It is entirely possible that these habits of mind cannot be taught without the arts.
Consider the failure of the STEM initiative in the United States, intended to boost the nation’s economic competitiveness through a prioritization of science, technology, engineering and mathematic subjects in K-12. Students performed poorly on higher level critical thinking and problem solving tasks prompting a growing number of schools to integrate the arts in order to develop creativity (STEAM). Reductive stereotypes of the arts as elite anachronistic activities limited to landscape painting or classical ballet, have blinded decision makers to the real contribution of the arts in society as the creative enterprise that it is has always been, an integral part of technological and scientific innovation.
But the arts are important for more than just cognitive development, they are also crucial to the social emotional well-being of children and our whole society. The arts open all children up to the complexity and aesthetic beauty of the world and one another, through a felt perception that engenders both empathy and care, consistent with aboriginal ways of knowing and learning. The cultivation of critical perception or visual literacy skills is simply crucial if students are to resist stereotypes, and navigate critically the consumer aesthetics of a media-saturated and increasingly virtual world.
The arts allow children to re-integrate their senses and to process experience in tactile, material ways that is deeply grounding and develops self-regulation, persistence, resilience and grit. The arts give space and value to the unique voice and creative potential of each individual child, building confidence and self-esteem, and promoting the generosity of being essential in any inclusive community.
We acknowledge the proven positive impact of the arts on the mental health of children by funding carefully targeted art and music therapy programs in schools for at-risk youths. But we have failed to examine the social emotional impact on children of reducing or even removing authentic arts engagement from schools. Anxiety, depression and substance abuse are on the rise, and here again, a complete arts education must be part of the solution, promoting healthy self-expression and self-worth for all children.
The role of the arts in developing a healthy sense of self and belonging within the world, and for promoting cross cultural understanding cannot be overstated. For UNESCO, the arts are an essential component in education for peace in a diverse world. Participation in culture is recognized and identified as a universal right by the United Nations. In our own country, we see the psychological impact of denying authentic cultural expression to aboriginal people groups and the centrality of cultural revival and participation in their political empowerment. The arts give children agency. They teach children that they can be makers and transformers of their world. Without the arts, we consign children to passive consumption of culture.
One of the most serious consequences of declining commitment to arts education is the resulting inequality of access of children to the arts. One in five children in BC—a shocking 109,331 school aged children—live in poverty. Their parents cannot afford the basic school supply fee let alone the cost of private music lessons, art classes, dance or theatre instruction. Longitudinal studies show that high arts engagement narrows and sometimes closes the gap between the life outcomes of students at risk and those of their socially advantaged peers. This holds true for academic achievement, university graduation, employment and civic engagement. If public education does not include equitable access to quality arts education, then we deny all children access to a fundamental educational right.
The arts are essential, not extra.
Mother of three and a long-time artist, art educator and art historian, Maggie Milne Martens is one of the co-founders of the Parent Advocacy Network for Public Education.
Education and Social Policy: a Jubilee for Children Leading to a Democratic Future by Michael Zlotnik, PhD
A couple of days ago, the President Dalton character (from Madam Secretary) said, “The shifting baseline syndrome – each generation accepts their version of nature; plunders it; then leaves the next generation to accept the depleted version; and so on.” The episode dealt with climate change and political tactics of denial and obfuscation. Since 1969, when landscape architect Ian McHarg coined the term “shifting baseline syndrome,” that expression has extended to all aspects of change. It is a way to lose track of the aspirations of each generation. I suggest we British Columbians (and Canadians) are losing our sense of what justice is, of what democracy is and what equality means; and thus what the transformative purposes of public education should be.
Consider the Canadian political scene. Federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau says this year's budget is about “creating good middle-class jobs.” This is a change in the political rhetoric of our country. Following World War II, we moved toward a more democratic society where every young person would have opportunities to flourish, learn, grow and take a participating role in the society. We aimed for a more equal society where children whose parents were poor or undereducated would have public support for their education and be provided with the essential goods and services children require. Canada was to be a land of mutual freedom and open opportunity.
In practice, we fell short of that democratic vision. Still, from the early postwar years until the 1980s, we made progress towards a more equal society; with public services, public health care, social security, public pensions, workplace pensions and public education. But recently, class divisions have sharpened. The rich are getting proportionately richer and far too many children and young people are living in substandard housing, on inadequate incomes, and sometimes in unhealthy neighbourhoods.
Equal opportunity has not only failed to arrive but is receding as a goal. The rhetoric of support for the middle class ought to be unacceptable, suggesting as it does a paternalistic government that will look after only a section of Canada's people. It signals the acceptance of class differences and it marks retreat from the goal of social equality.
Moreover, as the social and economic opportunities of children have become more unequal, public education has been underfunded and the provincial government has funded and supported private education – policies which undermine the social equality which is the bedrock condition for a democratic society.
On the provincial scene, we have seen a whole generation of K-12 students pass through an underfunded public education system in British Columbia. It is good that the Supreme Court has ruled against the province but the denial of adequate funding afflicted and undermined the work of teachers and, more importantly, the learning and opportunities of public school students. Despite those setbacks, the promise of democratic freedom and equality should remain the goal of educational, economic and social policy. Canada is still one of the better countries in which to live. But the baseline by which we assess who we are is retreating to the caste-and-class systems of some countries in Europe and elsewhere. We’ve lost a strongly democratic aspiration.
Our political priorities have shifted to the rich, the comfortable and the privileged. We are agonizingly slow in redressing the unjust treatment of indigenous peoples, many of whom do not have the necessities of life such as clean drinking water. We do badly by our children! UNICEF says Canada ranks 24th out of 35 economically advanced countries in relative child poverty (relative poverty is defined as living in a household in which disposable income, when adjusted for family size and composition, is less than 50% of the national median income). The United Way says that one in five British Columbia children live in poverty. In the wake of the neoliberal counter-revolution that has reshaped the global social, political, economic, religious and cultural world order, too many governments are trying to bribe their citizens with tax cuts that come at the expense of justice. It has become more important for the upper class and the middle-class to have luxury items than for the poor to have the necessities of life and equal opportunities to learn.
That is enough talk along the lines of…“ain't it awful.” Let's see where to go from here.
As a youngster, I had opportunities to attend wonderfully supportive camps, which were heavily subsidized. My mother said she could not afford to feed me and my brother for the amount she paid to send us to camp. One of the camps, Camp Jubilee, is still operating today. I suggest that public education can and should be a Jubilee opportunity for all children and youth.
In the Hebrew Bible, Jubilee is a year that proclaims liberty throughout the land. Jubilee ends slavery. It ends the dispossession people may have suffered from their land or family. Although we have abolished chattel slavery, some of our Canadian citizens are still subject to wage slavery and debt slavery. The Hebrew Jubilee recognized that society and the economy tend to drift towards inequality; wealth gets concentrated, which splits a society into classes. On another occasion, we might explore the devastating costs of class divisions to a society in, for example, the alienation of people, in wasted human potential, in conflicts that prevent us from working together to solve impending catastrophes, among them environmental destruction and climate change.
Class divisions mean we are a house divided. The feeble current efforts to address environmental destruction and climate change show our distrust of one another and our lack of shared purpose. In our society and economy, in what some call turbo-charged capitalism, things get out of alignment much faster than in the ancient world. We need a public sector and a government that is concerned for all of the people and for the public good to ensure that things stay balanced and especially that children shall not be sacrificed on the altar of private wealth, greed, property or tax cuts.
Children do not deserve to be born into poverty. Children do not deserve to face discrimination on the basis of their gender, parents' or their family's race, sexual orientation, religion, culture of origin, geographic locality, etc.
When children grow up in a class-divided society, when their family life, religious instruction, schooling, media and political deliberations presuppose a class-divided social order, the inequalities, injustices and foreclosed opportunities become normalized. They are seen as natural or necessary. While Canada has never yet accomplished a fully democratic, just and free social order, after World War II, the experience of uniting to defeat fascism and win freedom and democracy, after so much bloody and costly sacrifice, emboldened Canadians to strive for an equal opportunity society. Now, after several decades of neoliberal globalization, the idea of a hierarchy of socio-economic classes has been pressed forward as the new normal. Selfishness and consumerism are the gods of many.
But a society where the few rule is not a democracy. If wealth can buy political power, democracy is stifled. Today, we are much richer economically and financially than the generation that survived the Great Depression and fought for freedom and democracy in World War II. Yet too many of us have an impoverished sense of our obligation to serve the common good and to ensure that Canada provides equal opportunities to all its children and youth. We do have the economic and financial capacity to abolish the poverty afflicting so many children. But to do so we would have to care for our neighbours' children as we care for our own children. We would have to use our taxes and our public political power to make Canada a place where every child and young person has equal access to the conditions for a flourishing life and a high quality public education. That would be an even more beautiful, loving, just, peaceful and free British Columbia and Canada.
The Charter for Public Education, reflecting a consensus heard during public hearings across British Columbia in 2002-2003, states, “Public education is a sacred trust. As a community we promise to prepare learners for a socially responsible life in a free and democratic society, to participate in a world which each generation will shape and build. We promise a public education system which provides learners with knowledge and wisdom, protects and nourishes their natural joy of learning, encourages them to become persons of character, strength and integrity, infuses them with hope and with spirit, and guides them to resolute and thoughtful action.”
In this post, I have emphasized the economic, social and financial conditions necessary if all children are to have equal access to high-quality education. I leave for another occasion the discussion of what is required pedagogically in classrooms, schools and homes so that all children and youth will learn what they need to learn.
As we enter another provincial election campaign, we must renew our commitment to a baseline of equally high quality learning conditions for every child in our province. Let's not continue to oppress thousands of children for want of a sufficiently just and ambitious aspiration.
PS: I concur fully with Bill Bruneau's call for a royal commission. In an earlier post, Noel Herron
rightly stressed the problems of poverty and hunger. Thus the terms of reference of the royal commission should include the conditions of life for children who are being educated.
Michael Zlotnik, PhD, is a philosopher of education. His ongoing field of study and struggle is the relationship between the pedagogy of public education and the democratization of society.
Seekers-after-wisdom used to travel deserts and oceans looking for advice, often from philosophers with big reputations. In Ancient Greece, the Platonic Academy attracted students from Asia, Africa, western Europe—the “known” world. Later the seekers went to Alexandria and Rome. They hoped for answers to educational, political, legal, and financial questions, not just philosophical and religious ones.
The pattern changed in the 17th and 18th centuries when monarchs realized they were in over their heads--on economics, education, foreign relations. Catherine the Great of Russia asked Voltaire for help, and Christina of Sweden persuaded Descartes to move to Stockholm for the last year of his life.
With easy travel and fast communication, we have learned to invite wise people to come to us, not the other way around. We may call them consultants, and less often we give them an impressive label, “royal commissioner.”
In parliamentary democracies, royal commissions are invitations to sensible and experienced persons to examine difficult problems from all angles, then give reliable advice. It takes a year or two or three for commissioners to complete their tasks. Sometimes governments act on their commissioners' advice, as Canada's federal government did in the 1930s (the Rowell-Sirois Report) and the 1980s (the 1985 MacDonald Report on economic development).
Sometimes a royal commission report gathers dust. Some will say a royal commission is just a way to avoid the subject (whatever it may be). But this time, the sceptics are wrong.
Our experience of royal commissions on education has been (mostly) constructive. BC's first commissioned study of public education (the Putman-Weir Survey of the Public Schools, 1925) made the case for active and individualized instruction in all subjects. It insisted on the importance of charging no fees for schooling, and gave clear guidance on the best ways to finance and govern the system. Although parts of the Survey were/are depressingly wrong (on the use of labelling for special needs kids, for example), it is still the best and most consequential study of public education we have seen in British Columbia. Alas, it is out of date.
The Putman-Weir survey was written and researched by just two people. They did the thing in a year, long before the internet or decent highways. They listened carefully to hundreds of parents, trustees, and officials across the province. It's available online at https://books.google.ca/books?id=p4qgAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false .
Since 1925, the province has directed four more big commissions on education. There were two studies, one on finance and another on the role of school boards (1935 and 1945--online at http://www.llbc.leg.bc.ca/commissions/rc_dates.asp ), then two reviews of the whole system, the Chant Report of 1960 and the Sullivan Report of 1988.
We are living through an economic shift (to human and financial services and to computing technology), even as we deal with rapid population growth and a wave of renewed immigration. The Ministry of Education has, for a variety of reasons, been unable to cope with these changes.
Indeed, especially since the late 1960s, there has been government confusion on education. The Social Credit premiers of the day were not especially happy with what they saw in the pages of the 1960 and 1988 reports. The curriculum that resulted from the 1988 commission met a sad fate; some school principals and teachers will tell you how they ended up reading the curriculum and then...discarding much material in the “new programme” post-1988.
Yes, it's time for another Royal Commission on Education in B.C.
Among the most persuasive supporters of such a commission is Crawford Kilian. His latest article on the subject appeared March 9 in the Tyee (see https://thetyee.ca/Opinion/2017/03/09/Vancouver-School-Board-Bullying-Report/). Sullivan, it seemed to Kilian, may have asked for too much. Sullivan called for a common curriculum across Grades 1 to 10, and abandonment of the rigid system of age-related grades, so kids and their education could be more closely tied together. By the time Gordon Campbell and Christy Clark came on the scene (2001-present), government had decided it would take a quite different approach. It was the era of “technology-plus.” By 2017, it was fairly obvious that the Liberal-Conservative coalition under Clark had no clear goals in education, except to starve the public schools of adequate funding, and to retain public subsidies for private schools (which cost more than $300 million by 2017).
Kilian correctly notes that school boards are supposed to run a tight ship, to make the system run with whatever funding Victoria chooses to provide--with a minimum of fuss and bother. By 2017, it wasn't all that unusual to hear critics and commentators saying that school boards were an annoyance, an unnecessary layer of government in a system that is dominated by Victoria. Either we give school boards real power and adequate funding, or we should consider eliminating them altogether.
Like Kilian, I think a royal commission on education could think the unthinkable. It could show what a system would look like if it were run exclusively by Victoria, without school boards. Or it could show what a system of strong, independent-minded, well financed school boards could do.
I'm on the side of long-term, generous public funding for public education. After all, public education is a common good that becomes more essential every day. A commissioner might recommend access to the income tax, or the creation of new sales taxes, or taxes on hotel rooms. All I'm saying is that we must get imaginative about the way we fund public education.
Few politicians will find it convenient to make an argument for more taxes, even for something as desirable and obviously necessary as schooling. But a royal commissioner could make that argument. And it well worth saying, loudly and clearly, that even while the commission is at work, reform can and should begin.
In a year when every single Vancouver School Board trustee was fired it is plain that government isn’t neutral or disinterested in matters of control or finance. Government is so closely entangled that it cannot get the distance it needs to make sustainable policy about funding or control. A Royal Commission would have that distance.
There is much more to be said about the role of the teaching profession in all of this. A Royal Commission could and should clarify the role of BC teachers and principals in the system.
I'm a former school trustee (Vancouver). I was immensely frustrated by the weak position of the Board on which I served. Parents rightly insisted on enriched instruction in whole new areas of the curriculum; meanwhile kids were coming to school hungry. We as a board did as much as we could, as fast as we could, but found it wasn’t enough. Our responsibilities were out of alignment with our means. A Royal Commission could and should find a new balance between ends and means, a recommend ways of achieving that balance…quickly.
Since 1970, the Ministry has had difficulty making good, lasting policy--on curriculum, on access, on funding, or on governance. If we are to move forward, we should move beyond mere partisanship to tackle the systemic failures that dog the Ministry and school boards, not to mention educators, parents, and the public at large.
In the end, public education belongs to us all. It is the work of students themselves, of their parents, of professional teachers, of well-placed principals and superintendents, of the entire community. It's a commitment for the long term. A Royal Commissioner can help all of us in the province to make that commitment.
It is election time in B.C. At public meetings, citizens (parents and non-parents alike) have an opportunity to ask if a Royal Commission is possible, and to offer a reason or two for appointing one. If that isn’t possible, citizens might want to write a note to the BC School Trustees Association, the president of the BC Teachers Federation, or the Minister: letters matter.
It’s time for public education.
Hunger to Learn: Will BC’s hungry kids finally receive the hearing and help they need ? By Noel Herron
The ratification of the recent agreement between teachers and the province on moving forward with the many issues emerging from the November Supreme Court’s ruling on class size and composition, holds out, for the first time, the promise that the ongoing and dramatic rise in the numbers of hungry kids in our schools , over the past three decades, will get a fair hearing.
Based on last year’s analysis, by the province’s leading child advocacy coalition, First Call, there are currently 1 in 5 kids living below the poverty line in BC , or a shocking total of 163,260 kids in all.
Nor is the problem confined to the Lower Mainland schools as witness the following poverty rates in other locations: North Island (37%): Port Alberni and Duncan (30%); Prince Rupert (30% ); and Central Coast Regional District (52%). Surrey however, has a 21% poverty rate and because it is the largest school district in BC with 71,000 students, it has a whooping 23,480 kids living in poverty.
Visiting Vancouver in February, Canada’s UNICEF CEO, David Morley , was “ shocked at the depth and extent of child poverty in a province as rich as BC “. The internationally known child advocate spoke at both SFU and UBC and his candid analysis came as no surprise to local activists, as BC has the dubious distinction of leading Canada in child poverty for the past several years. The title of UNICEF ‘s report is: “ Fairness for Children : Canada’s Challenge “.
Now, with the recent signing of the new provincial agreement which establishes a joint committee to hammer out the broader and more complex issues related to class composition, in our diverse and changing classrooms, hungry kids will, at last, be on a provincial agenda, despite previous deferrals and repeated denials of their very existence.
Not once has the premier of this province, or a single member of the BC Liberal party, referred publicly to the plight of BC’s hungry kids . It’s as if they don’t even exist.
Currently the governing party seems perfectly happy leaving the deepening and continuing problems of malnourished children to the generosity of strangers. Initiatives such as the Vancouver Sun’s Adopt – a –School program, or private church, corporate, business and individual citizen and philanthropic contributions step into the breach to provide as much help as possible.
It must be noted that the if the joint provincial committee can’t reach an agreement on class composition by the end of the upcoming school year, June 30.2018 , the matter will be referred to labour arbitrator, John Hall for binding arbitration, by January 31, 2019.
Finally, the case for equality of educational opportunity, plus accessibility to “ an inclusive learning environment which provides an opportunity for meaningful participation and the promotion of interaction with others “ for our vulnerable and impoverished kids-- perhaps the most vulnerable of all—will now be on an official agenda.
David Morley, in his recent powerful Vancouver presentations listed 5 impediments that leave our hungry kids in the lurch. They are :
The growth and development of these kids should not be dependent upon inadequate nutrition or upon catch- as- catch-can initiatives and the generosity of private citizens.
It’s time for the province to step up to the plate.
As a society we must begin to seriously examine the neglected status of disadvantaged children and to dispel the studied silence surrounding the issue.
And finally , to right the wrongs these kids have endured for over three decades.
Noel Herron is a former VSB trustee and author of “ Every Kid Counts” , a history of Vancouver’s inner city schools. He has worked in inner city schools for over 15 years and has closely tracked the upsurge in child poverty since then.
Welcome to the PENS Blog on public education! Our bloggers include parents, teachers, education researchers, and other strong supporters of public education in BC and in Canada. Taking the lead is Bill Bruneau, Professor Emeritus UBC, ex-Vancouver School Board trustee, ex-President of his faculty association, and ex-president of the Canadian Association of University Teachers.