Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

Celebrating the Magic of a Moment: Student Creativity Takes to the Stage

Tarsi Dunlop's picture

The National PTA Reflections Program was founded in 1969 by Colorado PTA President Mary Lou Anderson with a simple objective: to encourage students to explore their talents in the arts and deepen their self-expression through those experiences. Eleven years ago, the US Department of Education started a Student Art Exhibit Program, and each year they recognize many of the student Reflection winners as part of the ribbon cutting ceremony celebrating the opening of the art exhibit at the Department headquarters in Washington, DC. This year, the PTA Reflections theme was “Magic in a Moment,” and millions of students from across the United States created works of art in a variety of mediums, including film, music, literature, and photography. These works of art are exquisitely crafted and reflective of the artists’ stage in life and the experiences that inspired their creation. The student voice and perspective speaks to the world through the vibrant range of expression; it’s truly a celebration of the human experience.

While the annual showcase and performances at the Department of Education offer some students the opportunity to demonstrate their talents at a national level, it’s also an opportunity to recognize the important role of arts education in supporting overall student achievement and a well-rounded education.  As we strive to provide access to quality education for all children, we know that there is no one strategy for doing so, just as there is no one measure that determines whether we are successful. We want to lower the rate of school suspensions and dropouts; we want to increase graduation rates; and we want to prepare students to succeed in life and in their career. We want to help them develop their passion and talents and their capacity to imagine, innovate and create. Arts education in schools can help address all of these objectives.

In May 2011, the President’s Committee on Arts and Humanities (PCAH) published the first federal study of the effectiveness of arts education in the United States in a decade, which found a positive effect across a number of data points: attendance, level of academic achievement, the development of improved attention skills, and a narrowed achievement gap. It’s hardly a surprise to many of us. But while the importance of arts in education is widely acknowledged, in an era of high-stakes testing, narrowing curriculum and strained finances, ensuring that children have access to arts education is a difficult task for many schools and districts. 

That may be changing. Many of the recommendations in the PCAH report took on real life in the Turnaround: Arts Initiative, which establishes art as a key component of a school’s turnaround strategy. Supported by many public and private entities, the two year effort provides intensive resources and expertise, supports school leadership and includes a program evaluation component to assess its effectiveness in the eight participating schools (selected from nominations by state and municipal authorities). Resources offered include an Aspen Institute summer leadership program, in-school professional development, and partnerships with community arts education and cultural organizations, not to mention additional art supplies, musical instruments and engagement events for the wider community. This effort highlights a commitment to putting research into action and acknowledges the importance of a well-rounded education that strengthens the student experience.

It’s hard to capture or describe the joy radiating from student artists, including those participating in this year’s Student Art Exhibit. This type of learning isn’t measurable on a test with a fill-in-the-bubble answer sheet.  But playing an instrument, illustrating a moment in time, connecting to audiences, developing a stage presence, and other such skills are valuable attributes our greater society. These talented young individuals may very well be the next voices of music, faces of dance and stage, story-tellers and narrators for their generation, and the documentary makers of movements and events yet to come. Each child has an inner artist, an inner performer, and the capacity to develop her or his talents to share with the world. This dynamic experience is a critical component of our efforts to empower students and inspire success. I look forward to the PTA Reflections celebration at the Department each year because I always leave feeling inspired, touched, and awed by such commitment and talent among our nation’s young people.