Liz Swain 4:24 p.m., May 24
Nilaja Sun's No Child opens this Saturday at Mesa College's Apolliad Theatre. It's based on her experiences directing a play during No Child Left Behind. Kevin Six, former arts administrator and arts education advocate, offers an insider's view.
"No Child Left Behind came from George W. Bush, probably because his wife was a teacher. It mandated high standards and difficult tests for students - and help for kid's under-served schools to meet them. It became the state's responsibility to create assessments in basic skills for each of these standards. I was on a committee to adopt the arts standards in the Lakeside school district, which probably had the earliest incorporation of them in California.
"When I think about my involvement in arts education, I remember the productions I've done before No Child Left Behind and after. Before: the non-profit I worked with, called City Moves, was welcomed with open arts when we brought theater projects to the public schools. After the legislation, our invitation for a 'free, standards-based program' was often declined because, as one teacher said, 'No Child Left Behind means no child left untested.'
"The truth is that art for art's sake does not exist in California schools. The arts now conform to some fairly rigid, state-wide standards. Since 2001, when the bill was passed, everyone who wanted a piece of the education system's pie talked about 'standards-based arts education.' As a result, arts programs without these standards were dropped.
"Standard number eight, which dictates arts education now, states that the arts must connect to other curricula. Every time this component came up in committee meetings as a potential reason to refuse our program, I would always ask: 'Are the other standards required to connect to the arts?'
"No, as it turned out. Curriculum areas like math, science, history, and English were never required to reciprocate the relationship. This wasn't surprising because as arts educators it had always been our job to do that. So we did.
"Or we tried. Projects were still refused. Others were accepted but rescheduled at the last minute. And teachers would freak out because a test was coming and they were afraid the kids wouldn't do well- and if that happened, funding would go away.
"Some of my colleagues and I tried to prove that the arts in schools helped improve test scores. But that was a difficult proposition. Most of our programs were free and most free programs happen in schools with a lot of poverty and they were already among the lowest performing schools in the area, test-wise.
"But there was one thing we could prove: attendance. Kids in after-school arts programs came to school on the days they had their program and much more often than any other day. I remember a principal coming to a dance class to look for a specific trouble-making student. The principal could not believe that the kid, who was in detention every day, always behaved on Tuesdays, when he had dance class.
"Another thing: he was a born leader, something the principal didn't recognize at the time.
"I'd like to think we changed the culture of the few schools where we did run programs. But how many children were left behind during No Child? How many kids didn't find a reason to go to school and stay involved - at least on Tuesdays - because of their arts program? Too many to think about, is my guess."