“Who cares about poetry? We do!”
That was a key message from Peter Cunningham, ED’s assistant secretary for communications and outreach, to arts educators, government and cultural leaders and others assembled for remarks at the “Ohio Imagination Conversation,” part of a Lincoln Center Institute national initiative to put imagination, creativity and innovation at the center of American education in Columbus, Ohio on October 14. The assistant secretary discussed the Obama Administration’s commitment to strengthening education in the fine arts as a part of a well-rounded curriculum, alongside reading, math, writing, history and the sciences.
In my role as a 2010-2011 Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow, I had the unique opportunity to support Assistant Secretary Cunningham in a variety of outreach efforts in Columbus, culminating with his remarks at the Columbus Museum of Arts and a subsequent Q & A session. I enjoyed the chance to step out of my normal professional area of high school-level social studies during a whirlwind day of listening and learning about examples of innovation and excellence in arts education and elementary reading.
Assistant Secretary Cunningham, ED regional representative (from Chicago) Julie Ewart and I began the day at West Franklin Elementary School to observe a “Reading Recovery” lesson in action. Ohio State University’s Reading Recovery program is one of only four i3 “scale-up” grant winners designed to support local efforts to expand research-based innovative programs with strong records of success. Patience, a first grader with delightfully expressive reading style, demonstrated the Reading Recovery technique with a third-year West Franklin reading teacher training to teach Reading Recovery. Those of us at the secondary level can attest to the importance of early intervention to support struggling readers, and I look forward to hearing about this program’s expansion to almost 500,000 more students over the next five years.
Prior to the “Imagination Conversation,” Assistant Secretary Cunningham and I had a conversation with a mix of K-12 arts teachers, higher education faculty members, government officials, museum staffers, and non-profit representatives. I was impressed with the educators’ thoughtful comments in describing their best practices and challenges. Several teachers reinforced the significance of arts education to problem-solving and critical thinking, suggesting that the arts be added to STEM initiatives, making them STEAM. Some participants expressed strong frustration with No Child Left Behind, with one arguing that testing under the current law is “sucking the life and curiosity out of our children.”
Just before his keynote address, we went to historic East High School, where Assistant Secretary Cunningham delivered greetings from Secretary Duncan to the Columbus City Schools at their annual “State of the Schools” meeting. Columbus is the largest school district in Ohio, and its superintendent, Dr. Gene Harris, is one of the longest serving urban superintendents in the nation. Under her leadership, CCS has increased two ratings in the overall state report card to “Continuous Improvement” and has improved its graduation rate by 18%.
My favorite comment of this energizing day occurred at the end of the Q&A session following the assistant secretary’s address. After listening to the audience’s reflections on their practices and the state of education reform, Cunningham thanked the assembled educators for their hard work and passion, summing up the administration’s goals for teacher improvement by saying, “We want to put great people in the classroom, and then try to stay out of their way.”
The Columbus Museum of Art has made Assistant Secretary Cunningham’s entire speech and the Q&A session available on YouTube.
Tracey Van Dusen
2010-11 Teaching Ambassador Fellow and Government and Politics Teacher, Pioneer High School, Ann Arbor, MI