By Plato Karafelis, Ph. D. & Matthew Dicks “The truth is one, the paths are many” Swami Satchidinanda

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Place Value on Trial

By Michelle Lynch, Grade 3
Setting: A Courtroom. Sitting in the witness box is the number 1. It is being questioned by a mean, old lawyer.
Lawyer: State your name for the court please.

#1: I have many names.

Lawyer: What?

#1: I have many names.

Lawyer: What do you mean?

#1: Well, depending on where I am, my name changes. It all depends upon the place.

Lawyer: So what is your name here, right now?

#1: Well, right now I’m not in any place, so you can just call me 1.

Lawyer: What do you mean, you’re not in any place?

#1: Well, I’m not. I’m in a courtroom. Not a place.

Lawyer: Well, what kind of place are you talking about?

#1: Any of them.

Lawyer: You’re confusing me.

#1: You’re confusing me!

Lawyer: Look, what other names do you have?

#1: Sometimes I’m ten. Sometimes I’m hundred. Sometimes I’m thousand.

Lawyer: That’s all your names?

#1: No, I actually have an infinite number of names.

Lawyer: Infinite!?

#1: Yes, Infinite.

Judge: I give up!

Academic accountability is the name of the game in today’s school climate. Linking the arts and the academics in a way that can help kids, parents and teachers witness the connection is critical.

Wolcott School is diverse. We have a 37% minority population and 28 different languages are spoken at our school. Over the past 11 years, our school has demonstrated that linking writing and the arts can have a profound impact on high stakes testing. When we began the Magical Mailbox writing initiative, only 11% of our students achieved mastery on the writing portion of the Connecticut Mastery test (CMT). Over the years, we employed a wide variety of programs and techniques to improve our writing (Dicks, 2005). By 2004, the final year of our third generation test, we had raised mastery scores to 89% (Berger, 2005). The ability to demonstrate significant academic achievement in a wholly arts integrated school is the most important tool the arts community can use to garner enthusiastic support.

Chart 1. Percentage of Wolcott Elementary School students who achieved mastery in writing from 1991 through 2004, the final year of the third generation Connecticut Mastery test.
Results on the latest version of the Connecticut Mastery Test (2006) demonstrate that a high percentage of our students have achieved significant levels of proficiency across all academic areas (see chart 2).

Connecticut Mastery Test (2006)

Percent of students

Scoring at proficiency

Grade 3 Reading


Grade 3 Writing


Grade 3 Math


Grade 4 Reading


Grade 4 Writing


Grade 4 Math


Grade 5 Reading


Grade 5 Writing


Grade 5 Math


Chart 2. Percentage of Wolcott Elementary School students who achieved proficiency on the first administration of the fourth generation Connecticut Mastery Test.

Lesson 3: Focus on Leadership
Leadership is the great and powerful variable when it comes to the success of any organization. Schools are no exception. Poorly skilled leaders can destroy an effective school and highly skilled leaders can resurrect a failing school. There is a great deal of literature on the nature of leadership.

Peter Senge (2007) recently published an article in the Harvard Business Review that outlined the types of skills needed by today’s most dynamic leaders. These are: sense making, relating, visioning and inventing. While reading Senge’s article, these four traits stood out to us as critical prerequisites for effective leadership in today’s schools. Unfortunately, we believe that the ability to raise test scores is the emergent prerequisite in the hiring process.

From a statistical perspective, a modestly talented leader can raise mastery test scores from 10% to 20%. On the other hand, it takes sense making, relating, visioning and inventing to raise scores from 20% mastery to 75% mastery and maintain them there. We need to keep our eyes on the leadership prize. In the end, modest leadership potential, short cuts and short term gains will be counter productive. Leaders who are capable of sense making, relating, visioning and inventing will get us where we need to go and keep us there. They will also help us avoid the trap of becoming a test driven school culture. In these schools, the arts and academics will be seen as integrated, not mutually exclusive. As practitioners, we thought we would add a few leadership traits to the list. Here is our unabashed list of leadership traits specific to the principalship.

You are no longer a teacher – Several years ago I had the good fortune to attend a seminar that changed my life. It was presented by The Breakthrough Coach ( The main point of the seminar was that principals, as former teachers, need to learn how to transition FROM a leader who applies teacher technology to leadership TO a leader who applies leadership technology to leadership. This required me to change my entire leadership mindset.

In a nutshell, The Breakthrough Coach taught me that my function was to walk around the school, listen to people, talk to people, shape our school vision and make decisions. Among other things, I needed to accept that paperwork was my enemy and that I would have to enlist the support of my secretary to assume that burden. I also recreated my office. I replaced the teacher desk with a real desk and purchased nice furniture. I removed the bulletin board that displayed schedules, data (much of which was out of date) and junk and replaced it with fine art prints by my favorite artists. My office became a place to converse and think rather than a place of paperwork. I began to spend the majority of my time outside the office. As a result, I find that I am better able to practice and apply Senge’s four traits of effective leaders. The seminar was comprehensive and I cannot repeat all of the details in this space. Suffice it to say that a principal is not a teacher with an office.

Economics have little to do with school leadership – As everyone knows, the economics of arts education are particularly susceptible to money matters especially in tight budget times. It seems we are always struggling to maintain staffing, provide materials and/or fundraise for artist residencies, which we prefer to call ‘artist/scholar residencies’. Too often, it is easy to place an idea on the back burner for lack of funding. We have worked in a variety of settings from rural to urban and in our experience, money has never factored into our thinking when it came to vision and innovation. See next two items:

Children’s voices are offered free of charge. Every time a student drops their written ‘voice’ into the Magical Mailbox, we can’t wait to celebrate it. As counterintuitive as it seems, money is rarely raised as an issue. There are two reasons for this – one logical and one metaphysical (just go with us on this one). First, celebrating children’s voices through the arts is a building priority. It is a priority for the student, her parents, her teacher, her principal, the school and the community. As a result, the people and money resources can always be found. For example, we have worked out a great school/business partnership with the owner of the local dance studio. The owner is looking for exposure to her potential client base. We are looking for dance instruction. So, she comes to our school every week and teaches dance. Everyone is happy and it doesn’t cost a penny. Metaphysically, we have found that having pure intent when dealing with children aligns the universe and everything you need appears (once again, just go with us on this one).

Task Commitment separates the best from the rest – Throughout history, one character trait defines successful creative producers is task commitment (Renzulli, 1985). Thomas Edison provides a clear example of task commitment. He tested over 1,000 different filaments before he found the perfect alloy for the lightbulb. The importance of task commitment as a critical trait is well documented in research literature (Terman, 1959). As arts education leaders, we have to demonstrate the same level of task commitment. If there is no money, write a grant, knock on doors, find a way. When someone says,“We can’t do that,” Ask “How CAN we do that?”

Finally, longevity is valuable – Schools and school systems are particularly susceptible to the revolving door of leadership. The arts are valued by a building principal. She retires or gets promoted and the new principal is a ‘back to basics’ advocate - so much for the arts program. One alternative to revolving leadership is to support successful, established leaders and encourage them to stay on the job, which we address in a subsequent section of this article. Another, equally effective option is to build culture based arts programs (see next section).

4. Adopt a Culture Based Approach
Since we all went through ‘site based planning’ in the 1990’s, every school has a mission statement. They are generic and contain phrases like, ‘We believe that every child has the right to learn’ and ‘We believe that a school should be a safe place.’ Mission statements are printed in school handbooks. They are displayed in the school lobby. In most cases, they suit an organizational purpose: this is what we stand for! Unfortunately, once the mission statement is created, printed, posted, and tattooed, it is largely ignored. This is because committees do not create culture. Good leaders create culture through ‘bottom up’ consensus.

Nearly everything we do at Wolcott School is the result of bottom up consensus. Our strategy of pursuing a culture based approach has been carefully planned and based upon theoretical work related to organizational culture. We particularly like the model offered by Cunningham and Gresso (1993). They define the elements of culture in the following way:

Shared values and beliefs

Norms and practices

Customs and traditions

Priests and priestesses

Stories and myths

Heroes and heroines

Rites and rituals

Symbols and dress

Clans and tribes

Legacy and saga

For the purposes of this discussion, a school’s mission statement reflects ‘shared values and beliefs’. The way to ensure that your mission statement jumps out of the school handbook or the off the lobby wall is to apply all of the other cultural elements in service to the shared values and beliefs.

For example, our mission statement is:

In this school, we believe in celebrating each child’s powerful voice.”

Town Meeting and Harambe, our Monday morning assembly, are customs and traditions at our school. We use them to tell our stories, display our symbols (every performing group has its own t-shirt), identify our heroes and heroines (anyone who is performing), and define our legacy. By using these cultural elements to celebrate your mission statement, you create an organization that reflects your true shared values and beliefs.

When the ‘arts supportive’ principal who created a culture based program leaves, the school will not change because a ‘back to basics’ principal has been hired. Change may occur over time. It will only occur, however, if the new leader is adept at managing school culture because it is difficult to change traditions, customs, norms, legacy and shared values and beliefs that have been celebrated.

5. Build a sense of community
We begin and end every week with a whole-school gathering. We do this to remind children, parents and teachers that we are all part of a larger learning community. These gatherings also provide us with opportunities to celebrate student voices to an audience.

On Monday morning, we gather for a ten minute assembly called ‘Harambe’, which means ‘coming together as one’ in Swahili. We use this opportunity to welcome everyone back to school after the weekend, celebrate children’s voices and to set the tone for the week.

On Monday mornings, ten minutes before the bell rings, students enter the building. As they enter, they hear the sounds of 'Streetbeat’ our twelve student drum ensemble. They are pounding out a driving rhythm. The rhythm says, ‘Raise your energy level and bring it into harmony with everyone else.’

When the first bell rings, Streetbeat stops the drumming. The student council president welcomes everyone. We then introduce a student reader. She reads a piece of her writing to the whole school. As the principal, I challenge the children to give their best effort this week. Sometimes I am specific. For example, I might say, “Boys and girls, it is January. As you know, we will celebrate Martin Luther King’s birthday this month. I challenge you to write about your dreams for your family, our community and our world. Make sure it is your best work and bring it to The Magical Mailbox. You can honor Martin Luther King’s memory by sharing your voice this week”. The president adjourns Harambe and students file out of the auditorium. Harambe lasts 5 – 10 minutes.

Every Friday afternoon, we gather once again for a 45 minute assembly called Town Meeting. This is the setting in which students will share their world premiere songs, world premiere dances, poetry, art, theater and video presentations.

For the entire month of January, the songs, poems, essays, and stories handed in to The Magical Mailbox will be celebrated at Harambe and Town Meeting. Because we suggested at Harambe that students write about their dreams for our world, all of the dances, songs, art, sign language, readings and video we present in January will be focused on Martin Luther King Jr. and will honor his legacy. It is a much more authentic celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s ideals than simply reading the “I Have a Dream” speech at an assembly, which we also endorse.

As previously mentioned, scores of parents attend Harambe and Town Meeting. They are first person witnesses to the power of a child’s voice. Parents are transformed when they witness their child’s voice being celebrated at school.

A community is a group of people who share the same beliefs, values and ideals. There are no limits to a school’s potential when they are able to create and sustain a sense of community and ownership.

Cause for Concern:

What our Schools Look Like on the Inside
The public may be unaware of the changes occurring inside their local schools because of No Child Left Behind. Pressure to generate higher test scores is increasing exponentially and teacher stress levels are counter productive. On the positive side, in schools with skilled leaders, teaching is changing. In many ways it is becoming more targeted and effective. On the other hand, in almost all schools, whether the leader is skilled or not, a number of highly questionable practices are taking place.

No Child Left Behind has forced many schools to abandon the concept of an enriching curriculum (Holcomb, 2007). Increasingly, schools are focusing on high stakes testing at the expense of the arts and other disciplines, including social studies and science. If Social Studies and Science are relegated to second citizen status in this era of ‘instruction’ based schools (Armstrong, 2006), you can imagine the relative status of the arts in our schools.

Many schools have adopted scripted Reading programs, where the teacher reads the lesson aloud, word for word, from a teacher manual (Success for All). Other schools have chosen to create data boards where student results on high stakes tests are posted for all to see. Teachers are held accountable if their non-English speaking and Special Education students do not achieve proficiency on the state mastery test. Last year, a child from Portugal arrived at our school on the day before the mastery test. He did not speak a word of English, yet he had to take portions of the mastery test. We watched from the hallway as he cried while trying to answer questions in a language he did not understand.

The legislation has flaws, the funding needs to catch up with the vision, and the pendulum is still swinging. Mastery testing will soon be expanded to include science and social studies. As those two subjects are pushed onto the front burner, how much energy and commitment will remain for the arts? In light of these developments, the arts education community should be asking the following questions:

  • What strategies will enable arts advocates to communicate the efficacy, relevance and importance of arts education in an accountability driven era?

  • How can the arts re-capture a market share of the public education agenda?

Four Strategies:

Shaping the Future of Arts Education

We are career public school educators. We were around when Coming to Our Senses (Quinn & Hanks, 1977) was published. We helped implement the recommendations of The Getty Center’s DBAE art curriculum (Alexander & Day, 1991). We participated in the creation and dissemination of the National Arts Standards. Each of these initiatives was important and critical. Today, however, we find ourselves on the threshold of an era that threatens the existence of arts education in the public schools.

The public has well-developed perceptions of the arts, artists and their role in society. Altering those perceptions as they relate to public education is necessary and will require time and well-developed strategies. We believe the arts community should agree to a set of strategies for the future of arts education, pool their resources, and commit to the plan for the next 20 years. Each arts organization - from the largest national organization, to the largest performance halls, down to the smallest local arts agency - can and should retain its autonomy and uniqueness. If we function as a multi-headed beast, however, independent of one another in mission and intent, we will struggle to maintain arts teachers in the schools, audiences in our halls, and credibility as a vibrant and critical strand in the tapestry of our culture and society. To that end, we offer the following strategies for your consideration.

  • Create and support a cadre of new leaders for the future

  • Invest in an Arts Education Research Initiative

  • Unify all National Arts Agencies/Organizations to Identify, Support and Celebrate New Paradigms of Arts Education

  • Adopt the ‘long view’ and be ready to fill the Legislative vaccum when the timing is right

We welcome your endorsements, constructive criticism, and most importantly, your voice. These are new and different times and they will require new and different solutions.

Strategy 1. Create and support a cadre of new leaders for the future
The arts community needs to build and fortify its constituency. One way to do that is to create a cadre of skilled, passionate and task committed school leaders; to support and promote those leaders as they move through their careers; to encourage those leaders to become involved in professional organizations; to count on those leaders to apply their shared values in helping to shape policy. Here is how it would play out in real life.

Samantha is an early career, regular classroom teacher who applies for a grant through the state arts commission. The project resulting from her grant is exceptional. Over the next few years, she is awarded further grant opportunities. At every turn, her work is evaluated by leaders in the arts and/or arts education community. She consistently displays excellence. As a classroom teacher, she is establishing credibility with teachers and parents. Credibility will be an essential asset as her career progresses into leadership roles.

Samantha’s vision, skills, and commitment are apparent. Through a local university and in conjunction with the state arts agency, she is offered a fellowship to study leadership and arts integration and become a certified school administrator. Through the program she is able to network with other teachers who share her values and beliefs about arts integration. As part of their training, she and her cohort are encouraged to join organizations and serve on committees. Samantha earns additional incentives including media exposure and awards.

After completing her leadership and arts integration studies, Samantha pursues a principalship. Upon achieving this milestone, she is once again offered a menu of support. “What can we do to help you achieve your vision?” She is invited to attend summer workshops sponsored by The National Endowment for the Arts or The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. While in Washington, she is supported and encouraged to establish professional relationships with her state representatives and senators.

As a principal, Samantha establishes a model program of arts integration that is culture based and integrated with academics. She maintains communication with colleagues from her leadership and arts integration cohort. In some cases, these relationships turn into a network of partnership and collegial support. She is not alone.

With continued formal support from the local arts agencies, Samantha and her colleagues begin to emerge as leaders in state and/or national organizations. These might include The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), The National Association of Elementary/Secondary School Principals (NAESP/NASSP), and others.

For Samantha the journey may be complete as a building principal. She may choose to become a superintendent or join the state department of education. The choices would be hers. In the end, the arts community will have established a network of leaders with vision, skill and commitment who will work together as advocates for an enriched school curriculum celebrating each child’s powerful voice.

Strategy 2. Invest in an Arts Education Research Initiative
Earlier in this article, we shared our observation that the public views the arts and academics as mutually exclusive. That is, if you are teaching the arts, you are not teaching the academics and vice versa. As an arts community, we have developed a few pat responses.

“When students are learning music, they are really practicing math.”

“Studies have shown that students who listen to Mozart perform better when taking tests (Rauscher, Shaw and Ky, 1993).”

“Students who take arts classes in high school are enrolled in a higher number of AP courses than their peers who are not enrolled in art classes.”

While noble and perhaps even true, these arguments are not sufficiently convincing to a skeptical public in an era of accountability. We need to establish clear rationales, rooted in solid research and communicated with surgical precision in order to alter perceptions. This will take time and focused effort.

As a doctoral student at The University of Connecticut, my research focused on the direct link between instruction in the arts and academic achievement in reading (Karafelis, 1986). My research design was empirical. That is, I used experimental research design and quantitative analysis (statistics) to demonstrate that teaching reading via a theater arts approach was just as effective as teaching reading using a basal reader series.

My research was not perfect. First of all, I had great difficulty locating prior research in this field. Most research was qualitative. That is, it focused on what students thought and how students felt about school or the arts. Bottom line, prior research linking the arts and academic achievement was relatively non-existent. I was not building upon a research foundation. I was laying down one brick.

Secondly, there were variables that I could not control within my research design. For example, in my study, ‘teacher’ was a nested variable. That is, I could not adequately control for the effect different teachers brought to the treatment. Typically, what happens in these situations is that someone else comes along and conducts research with an improved design. Over time, the incremental result of many research studies builds a case for a specific model or approach. Eventually, there is enough convincing evidence to support a specific model or approach.

Doug Reeves (2007), the reigning, research-based expert in school achievement techniques, advocates the inclusion of the arts in the curriculum and laments the choice between arts and academics as a false dichotomy. Thanks to Reeves and organizations like Americans for the Arts, the situation has improved, however, a great deal more needs to be accomplished.

Finally, we need to ensure that our new breed of leaders (researchers and practitioners) develop programs and publish articles in high circulation, respected journals. These articles should be based upon solid research. The amount of research linking the arts to the academics is increasing; however, we are still falling short of the necessary critical mass to make a difference. There needs to be a unified mission to support focused research via the universities, government agencies, and private entities that can make a difference.

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