Arts colorBring back the arts!

(The following is a draft introduction to my book, Good Behavior and Audacity. I’m sure it will change before the book is published, but I’d love feedback on what I’ve written so far.)

In the hippie sixties, before I became a teacher, I was one of hundreds of free spirits spending as much time as I could in San Francisco. I was there in the summer of 1968, “the summer of love.” One evening I was in a café, and at the adjoining table were three policemen who had put their caps on the hat rack above us. I couldn’t help seeing that on the inside of each of the rims was a John Birch Society pin, and when they left, along with the tip, they left a pamphlet. I didn’t know much about the Birch Society, and I was curious, so I grabbed it and read it. The first sentence, the first page, in fact the entire pamphlet was about the need to abolish public education. The salient point was that, historically and until fairly recently, parents, not taxpayers, had paid for the education of their own offspring.

Why, it asked, should people with no children pay to educate those of others?

Perhaps to some this was, on its face, a reasonable question; but I scoffed in disbelief. What about the bedrock of a democracy? What about the foundation of a civil society? They can’t be serious! I wrote it off as pure far-right-of-right-wing malarkey and tossed it in the garbage.

I wish I had kept it! Within a year I had started a long career in public education, and over the decades I have viewed every new innovation and “reform” effort with wary suspicion, examining it through the lens of my memory of that pamphlet. I’ve followed the editorializing in the media, including my own LA Times, through the same lens. I’ve watched the erosion of the popular perception of public education go from a dribble to a river to a tsunami. It was with indescribably relief ten years ago that I devoured in one sitting Diane Ravitch’s book The Death and the Life of the Great American School System and discovered that someone with a voice of authority was finally documenting the lies.


But so far, Diane Ravitch’s voice alone has not been enough. The entirely deluded assumption that “private” is good and “public” is bad hardly existed in 1968, and yet only very recently a commentator on MSNBC made the cavalier statement, “Of course we all agree that public education is broken.” I had to scream at the screen, “NO, WE DO NOT ALL AGREE!!! WHO THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU ARE, SAYING THAT?!!! Of course she didn’t hear me and thus took no offense. But I’ve spent my adult life as a public school educator and I have grandchildren now in public schools in three different states getting a fine education from excellent teachers, so I was shaken that nobody in the discussion challenged her.

I could go on a screed here about the Koch brothers (whose father was a Birch Society founder), the Waltons, charter school supporters, the distorted message of “school choice,” ALEC (the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council), and the slow but steady effort, by whatever malevolent forces there have been out there over the past fifty years to push formerly marginalized, negative views of public education front and center in popular discourse. But that’s not the point of this book.


The point of this book is that as a result of the growing distrust in public education, there has been a push for the rather vague concept of “accountability”; and the only relatively affordable—if highly dubious—method of measuring school accountability is the use of standardized tests. The use of, and preparation for, standardized tests have resulted in the virtual decimation of something we all used to take for granted: instruction in the arts for every child at every grade level.

I don’t think this happened intentionally. Maybe no policy maker said, “Stop putting easels and blocks in kindergarten rooms. Stop scheduling time for singing and dancing. Stop funding an orchestra program. Stop teaching speech and push your drama classes into an after school program for the ‘talented’ few.” But at the same time, something had to be sacrificed to make more room for preparation in the tested subjects: literacy and numeracy. The airy-fairy arts were seen as the most disposable candidate. Nobody stopped to take a long look at the hundreds of years of pedagogy that understood the connection between engagement in the arts and the healthy development of cognition.


Let me grant first that the perceived need for accountability has resulted in some beneficial policies and has perhaps shaken a few useless old customs loose. The creation of instructional standards have had great value used as guidelines and benchmarks. But the marriage of these standards to tests used to bludgeon struggling schools and turn innocent children into data points has been catastrophic. Because of the cloud of accountability, classroom time devoted to test preparation has reached feverish heights, and the 20% of time each day devoted to the arts, recommended in most state statutes since the founding of our nation, is by now a thing of the past. And yet, test scores have scarcely budged. In fact, if you factor in other measures of schools success—school culture and morale, attendance, graduation rates, teacher retention, student engagement, happiness—the picture gets gloomier and gloomier.

This book tackles the largely unexplored history of arts education: unexplored probably because it was always just a given. If we look back to Plato and then to the sixteenth century humanists, we see a thread throughout the centuries that notes the power of the arts to engage and entertain as they educate. It has been painful to watch the past few generations turn their backs on this wisdom. Universal instruction in the visual and performing arts is now history; and sure enough, as the ancients could have predicted, those revered test scores have languished. It’s time for educators to wake up.

Public education is not broken, but there are times when it seems to be on life support. It tends to be as good as the public makes it, and it could easily be revived with public commitment.


There’s a simple solution—an easy war to resuscitate the joy in universal, public education: Bring back the arts!

8 replies
  1. sfisher939yahoocom
    sfisher939yahoocom says:

    Interesting beginning. As an educator who agrees with you I ‘m curious to see where you go next. How will you convince our society that the arts are a necessity? Keep posting… can’t wait to read The whole book. Susan Fisher

  2. Marisa
    Marisa says:

    This beginning makes me want to read more. It states the problem clearly and hopefully will open the door to needed changes in our public education system. No, the system is NOT broken. It just needs a bit of glue that you are providing. I can’t wait to read the entire book. You are wonderful!!!!!!

  3. Catherine King
    Catherine King says:

    Hello Robin, and thank you for providing this blog. Your draft corresponds to a recent exchange on the Ravitch blog (my responses and the link to the whole thread are below).

    I don’t know if “teachingeconomist” is a troll or not; but I responded anyway to someone who has obviously “bought” the charter-reformer package. I’m using my abbreviated response to write an op-ed; but since it goes to the heart of the distinction between public and private K-12, I thought you might want to see it.

    Also, in my op-ed, I will show how, in charter schools and their lack of accountability, the link is easily broken between “private” charter schools and the huge community of professional and academic thinkers that continually inform qualified teachers. These thinkers help qualified teachers keep their finger on the pulse of ongoing thought in academia, and so with both the history of authentic educational reform, and the link to the social and other sciences in their ongoing research and discoveries. for public-school educators, that link continues to add quality to their work in K-12 education, including for the arts and humanities. In private institutions, who often hire less qualified teachers, that link is too-easily broken, at the service of corporate and/or owners’ capitalist goals.

    Below are my two responses to “teachingeconomist” from the Ravitch blog:

    Catherine King/August 31, 2019 at 8:46 pm/Teachingeconomist

    “I think you are still missing the point–a different level of thinking. Two things:

    “First, it’s not about ‘WHO is running the school.’ A charter’s principals and teachers can be excellent in every way; but if the school’s ground is in a corporation based in capitalism, or “owners” like the Kochs, the Gates, the Waltons, or whomever, rather than in the public order (democratic, in our case) then the FOUNDATIONS of the school as an institution become wide-open to capitalistic mindsets and motivations . . . where commitments THERE commonly come BEFORE their commitment to the common good (for all, and not only for some) and ultimately to all of their students.

    “Also, ultimately, all of the ‘we’re better’ competitive talk becomes just that–talk–that turns out to be the means of manipulative profiteers and sophist salespeople who want to sell something to the public (whom they view as stooges . . . their trust makes them easy-marks).

    “Second, your second point is, again, a red herring.

    ” say: ‘Can you give any reason that students should attend the institution where you teach, rather then another school in the district or in another district? If you can give no reason other then the law requires you to go to school and this is the only school you are entitled to attend because of your street address, it is not especially persuasive.’

    “Who said teachers cannot give good reasons? And when do we start paying students and parents to come to OUR school? or provide more bells and whistles that have little or nothing to do with education. But that’s far from the point anyway:

    “Qualified education is not the singular purview of private or charter schools in the either/or situation reformers like to chant about. It’s up to all of us in a democracy to make sure our public schools are qualified. If they are not, then we need to improve them–but not by tearing up the foundations of what needs to remain PUBLIC about education in a democracy. . . .

    “It’s been the covert intention of privateers to systematically badmouth public education and teacher unions (and all unions on principle), so much so as to make the denigration of teachers and public education a part of the cultural ethos. It’s a false narrative put forth to starve the beast, so to speak, before everyone finally drowns it . . . because it looks so bad because it’s starving. We should not sell the farm; and getting rid of public education IS a version of selling the farm. We only should keep growing good things in it.

    “You sound like you might be an intelligent person. However, apparently, you bought what they are selling. We have to look deeper than what you are saying in order to understand what’s going on politically at present. CBK”
    “Reply/Catherine King/September 1, 2019 at 10:00 am/Teachingeconomist
    “An addendum: Then there is how private or corporate ownership is embedded with “strings” that include a potential conflict in the development of curricula itself. It’s about the very core of education: of being able to raise questions about anything, by both students and teachers.

    “For example, a school funded by the Waltons would be ‘beholden’ to the company; and would be hard-pressed to provide an open and critical education to students who wanted to raise questions about the plethora of issues that concern the company, corporation, owners, methods, or products, political leanings, etc. And it would leave teachers in a conflicted position with regard to their own standards of teaching.

    “Privatization is an open invitation for powerful and wealthy people to influence curriculum in an arbitrary way with any number of the owners’ or shareholders’ biases, lack of education, and self-serving whims. (That’s why they abhor regulation and unions.)

    “It’s also what separates secular from religious schools in a democracy–the potential for teaching to specific ideologies and doctrines, as opposed to other doctrines (the Betsy factor)–and as distinct from teaching ABOUT different religions, say, in a history class in a public school.

    “Nor is public education in a democracy ‘anti-religious.’ Rather, it prepares the way for students to live a life guided by their own family’s religion in a public space that is not governed by the ideologies and practices of one and only-one religion. It’s where the idea of freedom OF religion can flourish in the hearts of students and faculty alike. CBK”

    The whole thread is on the Ravitch blog:

  4. Maureen Matthes
    Maureen Matthes says:

    Thank you Robin! I loved that you mentioned public education being the bedrock of democracy, right near the beginning of your post! I can’t tell you how many times l have stated that to parents and other teachers. The right to public education in this country must not falter or fail.
    Then, you mention the, “public education is broken” mantra, when we, public school educators, know, it’s just not true! Our well placed vision of whole child education, due to the current climate of data driven instruction , might be on life support , but we are not down for the count! Perhaps, l’m naive, but l do have hope that we will have a public school arts resurgence again! I surely taught thousands of public school students. Thank you again Robin. Looking forward to more! Important work🌱🌱🌱


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