Let’s tweet about schools and the arts

November 6, 2009

twitbirdNew York City schools with best access to arts programs have higher graduation rates, study says. http://tinyurl.com/yfhabp9.

My opening sentence reproduces a tweet I composed a couple of weeks ago for Portal Wisconsin’s recently born Twitter stream. At 124 characters, the message gave notice to a  brief article that caught my attention that day and fit neatly within Twitter’s 140-character limit. When I clicked the “update” button, I thought the tweet was benign enough (and, if I’m being honest, even a little banal). But in fact, it ruffled the feathers of an @portalwisconsin follower, which got me thinking about using this blog and micro-blogs like Twitter to facilitate discussions on arts-related topics.

In a series of reply-tweets, the offended follower raises an interesting question regarding arts education research. He argues that we shouldn’t strive to quantify relationships between classes in the arts and standardized test scores. Attempts at establishing this sort of causality, he says, miss the mark: we need to change the focus of the discussion to one that champions the intrinsic value of arts education, or “arts must b suprtd 4 sake of arts edu not 4 sake of anthng els! it gvs wel-rounded knowldg & edu, & anothr way of thnkng,” to quote one of his tweets. In his view, the study I linked to amounted to “junk science.”

Point taken, sort of.

I whole-heartedly agree that many learning experiences, like listening to an opera or visiting an art museum, can’t really be measured. I believe the arts play an integral role in a well-rounded education–or in educating the whole child, as has become the popular expression. And I regret that federal rules require teachers to devote more and more class time to those skills we perceive as easy-to-measure, at the expense of other less quantifiable skills.

On the other hand, the study I cited does not claim arts education improves student test scores in core subject areas; it only says schools with strong arts programs have better graduation rates. This is why my tweet originally seemed banal to me: while I’ll  own up to some bias, my personal logic tells me that the arts help engage kids in school, and when kids are engaged, they more likely show up. To me, that relationship seems a natural one, and hardly earth-shattering news. As for the research into whether art classes improve geometry scores and the like, I simply don’t have the scientific expertise to know for sure.

So why do I bring up my first-ever Twitter tiff here, rather than on Twitter? Not because this blog allows me unlimited characters with which to make my point. In fact, often I prefer the enforced brevity of Twitter, and I initially composed a couple of quick replies. I wound up not posting them, in the end (or posting one, then deleting it), to avoid confusion between Portal Wisconsin, the Web site, and my personal opinions.

As Portal’s resident twitterer, I’ve attempted to write varied messages–posting news from our Cultural Coalition partners, featuring the latest Portal Wisconsin blog posts, spotlighting sometimes overlooked sections of the site, even live-tweeting from the Wisconsin Book Festival, about anything related to arts, history and culture that captures my attention.  However, I would avoid tweets that give the impression that my views reflect those of our entire organization. On this blog, I can more easily own my words.

What do you think? Should educators, researchers and arts advocates even attempt to link art and math and science learning? Are there better gauges of achievement in arts programs? It’s a tough question, given the trend toward narrowing the curriculum and the increased reliance on standardized testing as a measure of school success.

I would love for blog readers and Twitter followers to continue the conversaton. If we can help each other think more deeply about arts, culture and education, as @BorisMakesArt helped me do on Twitter, I will consider our early adventures in social media worthwhile. At Portal Wisconsin, we want to find ways to engage Wisconsin residents in the rich world of art, culture, history and thought that characterizes our state. (My last sentence, incidentally, is one I can confidently say does reflect the opinions and mission of our entire organization.)

–Tammy Kempfert