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What Does It Mean To Be An Arts Educator In Today’s World?

By Mary Ann Mears, founder of AEMS and Maryland State Department of Education's Fine Arts Education Advisory Panel Member

My commitment to arts education lies at the intersection of important strands of my life.

As an artist creating public art, I believe that the arts have a vital place in our daily lives. They should be present in the public sphere to inform and enhance our civic discourse; delight and amuse us; lift our spirits; and give us new ways to see and think about our world, ourselves, and others. It is painful when people feel their access to the arts is limited because they see it as something foreign to their experience, perhaps elitist, and/or something they are excluded from because their education did not include it. As an artist, I want to share the joy art brings me on the street and in our schools.

As a parent, I want my children and now grandchildren to have the arts in their lives every day! I believe that all children are entitled to the arts because they are fundamental to the way we engage the world through our minds, hearts, and spirits. The arts are linked indivisibly to our processes of sensory perception and acquisition of skills and knowledge – how we make sense of the world. We are hardwired for the arts.

As a citizen advocate, I believe that access to arts education is a matter of social justice. Like many of my colleagues and fellow artists, I am committed to breaking down barriers that isolate some members of our society from others. I believe that the arts heal and bring people together, strengthen our connections to one another, and enhance our lives. I came of age during the late sixties and like many of my generation became an activist. I believed then and continue to believe now that democracy depends on our participation in the political process. While at times it is daunting, it has been my experience that those who care deeply about issues can move the needle even when there are steep challenges.

In the early 90’s, I chaired the Program Planning and Evaluation Committee of the Maryland State Arts Council (MSAC). In listening sessions around the state, the strongest concerns voiced were about the cutbacks in arts education programs in public schools in Maryland. Since I shared those concerns personally, I explored what the National Endowment for the Arts and other states were doing to address the problem. The most effective approach by far was that used in states where the state arts agency and the state department of education joined forces to develop policy and build programs. After numerous convenings and conversations, Arts Education in Maryland Schools (AEMS) was launched as an initiative of MSAC in partnership with the Maryland State Department of Education. In 1997, AEMS became a not-for-profit organization so that, in addition to multiple programs, we could advocate for arts education at the state and local level, which was not appropriate for an entity housed in state government to do. I have remained a trustee of AEMS since the beginning. It has been a tremendous joy for me to work with the amazing people engaged in arts education. Our accomplishments have come from their commitment and collaboration over many years. It has taken all of their dedication to make the collective progress that we have made.

The challenges we face are often referred to as “unintended” consequences of public policy. For example, the achievement gap in schools is real, the goal to close it unassailable. However, the policy, regulations, and practices enshrined in No Child Left Behind were pernicious. By focusing all of the incentives and accountability on raising standardized test scores in reading and math, educators allowed themselves to be driven to narrow the curriculum and eliminate arts programs for the low income and minority students who fell at the low end of the test score spectrum. Without even considering the limitations of standardized testing in the context of the disciplines they purport to measure, much less all other academic areas, it has become clear that far from narrowing the achievement gap, the gap has been widened. Significantly, the latest federal education policy, Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) begins to recognize the fallacies of the last 20 years and calls for the education of the whole child.

Unfortunately, sometimes the excuse for cutting arts instruction shifts to budget limitations and we hear the mantra that the arts are an unfunded mandate. In Maryland, we are at a pivotal moment: The State’s per pupil funding formula is still under development by the Kirwan Commission. The thoughtful arts education policy embedded in Code of Maryland Regulations – COMAR -- as of November 2017 is world class and will benefit our students in myriad ways from early childhood on. In determining the basic per pupil formula for adequate funding, the Kirwan Commission and the General Assembly should begin by calculating the funding levels necessary for schools to comply with existing state regulation in the arts as well as other areas. At AEMS, we believe that an adequate education by definition must align policy and funding and include sufficient funding for schools to be in compliance with COMAR for the arts.

Artists are often arts educators in one way or another. While I have not been a teacher in a classroom since the 1970s when I was on the faculty of CCB, now Baltimore County Community College, and also teaching at Goucher, I have been teaching all along. In my sculpture, I hope I offer a gentle nudge for humanity and shared appreciation of life, beauty, whimsy, energy, and imagination. My passion and love of the arts -- and the people who share my passion -- drive me to organize; strategize; research; and encourage advocates to go to school boards and city, county, and state government with persuasive arguments to make the case for the arts and arts education. What delights me now is working with an increasing number of wonderful new artists and advocates coming forward to lead the charge!

I am inspired by the young people I encounter. For example, I was engaging with a group of students in a Prince George’s County middle school about a public art piece that I had completed. I asked them what they thought about having public art in their community and one young woman said that it was important because, Art makes us more sophisticated. Others talked about how art can make their day happy and how it is where they can use their imaginations. I see that as I watch my grandchildren who are engaged in the arts non-stop: singing and dancing, role playing, drawing and arranging pleasing arrays of shapes, telling stories, and just generally making stuff up. The arts are fundamental to their exploration of the world, who they are, and how they interact with others.

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