Arts As Disruption

by Josh Jacobson

In this blog post, I’ll discuss the Opportunity Task Force’s Strategy D: Strengthen the early care and education workforce to improve the quality and experiences of early care and education available to children ages birth to five. In particular, the recommendation to: Increase access to ongoing professional development for early care and education providers that is responsive to their limited time and financial resources, as well as to their educational needs.

I am the child of a children’s librarian.  For most of my childhood, the school bus dropped me off at my mother’s library where I spent the last few hours in the day lost in the stacks. My caretakers were Shel Silverstein and Maurice Sendak.

There is not a time in my life when I wasn’t surrounded by books and learning tools designed to stimulate my imagination.  I was encouraged to draw and build things with Legos.  I played with modeling clay and acted out fantasies I found in stories. Indeed, my poor future instructors would comment on report cards that the absence of an active imagination was not one of my challenges.

Einstein is noted as saying that “imagination is more important than knowledge.”  The tools provided via arts and culture experiences are among the best to encourage the development of imagination.  And yet we live in a world that has equated arts experiences as an enrichment rather than core curriculum.  While we know this is true in the K-12 space, the question for those seeking to implement the Opportunity Task Force recommendations will be how the arts is treated in early care and education.

Like a Kid in a Candy Store

When considering how the arts interfaces with early childhood education, one area funder’s initiative comes immediately to mind – PNC Bank’s Grow Up Great.  The initiative “helps children from birth through age five develop a passion for learning that lasts a lifetime – and can help set them on a path to success.”  In 2012, PNC Bank supported Community School of the Arts (CSA) in an effort to bring dynamic new experiences into the Bethlehem Center’s Head Start classrooms.  Through one-on-one coaching activities for teachers, CSA’s Teaching Artist Ginny Boyd was able to introduce the arts as a framework for improving learning environments.

“The arts can be a game-changer in early childhood classrooms,” Ms. Boyd said. “You see a child tracing his ABC’s and you realize that there are probably better ways to empower him to explore the alphabet.”

Through her experience with the initiative funded by Grow Up Great, Ms. Boyd developed trust with teachers in the classroom who were often pulled in many different directions.  Since so much of the teacher’s day is prescriptively outlined, the concept of structured play that fuels imagination is perceived as a luxury.

“In my early days with the program, I was surprised to find the art station in the classroom largely untouched,” she said. “But looking at the station, it wasn’t surprising. Students need guidance to explore their imagination, and sending them to a table filled with a myriad of arts supplies can be too intimidating.”

The introduction of arts methodologies served as a disruptor, but in the positive sense.  Teachers accustomed to checking boxes on spreadsheets were empowered to themselves think creatively about the individual needs of each student and encourage them to tackle concepts that were often considered “beyond their vocabulary.” Creative approaches that used the arts were quickly adopted by teachers at the Bethlehem Center because they were working.

Making Lasting Change

And yet the assessment world continues to operate in a state of constant rigidity.  Despite countless studies that suggest developing imagination is a building block to developing critical thinking, it is perceived as too challenging to measure in the short term.  Teachers initially resistant to CSA’s model noted that it was too difficult to see progress, and as such, too difficult to document.

This is one important hurdle that must be eliminated if the aims of the Opportunity Task Force are to be achieved: barriers to innovation.  While it is important that professional development opportunities be made that are mindful of limited time and resources, this assumes that the time already being spent is as productive as it could be.

According to the Brookings Institute in their Puzzling It Out Consensus Statement: “Ongoing innovation and evaluation are needed during and after pre-k to ensure continued improvement in creating and sustaining children’s learning gains. Research-practice partnerships are a promising way of achieving this goal. These kinds of efforts are needed to generate more complete and reliable evidence on effectiveness factors in pre-k and elementary school that generate long-run impacts.”

In other words, if the arts is positively affecting students in a classroom in Charlotte, but no one involved in policy is around to witness it, does it make a sound?

Innovation in early care and education is needed, but because government funding is so often tied to rigid near-term outcome measurements, it is difficult to realize. Which is why funders like PNC Bank are so important.  But they are not enough.  Institutional funders are appropriate catalysts for this sort of innovation, but long-term, lasting change will only be possible if policymakers are at the table to bear witness to the positive impact the arts has on early childhood learning.

What better time to address the important role of arts experiences in early care and education than when our community’s civic, corporate and governmental leaders are so dialed in to a shared framework like Leading On Opportunity?


JoshJosh Jacobson is Managing Director of Next Stage Consulting, a Charlotte-based firm focused on organizational development and fund development for the nonprofit sector. Josh has worked with more than 150 nonprofit organizations throughout the Carolinas, including both human services and arts organiations. Before relocating to NC, Josh spent his formative years working in the cultural sector as a fundraiser for The Juilliard School and Manhattan Theatre Club. Josh is a Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE) and is President Elect for the Charlotte Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals.

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