Probing the Limits: Support the Arts

November 1, 2004
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Creative classes support essential PROBLEM-SOLVING skills in quality.

There is a trend to cut arts education programs in schools. This is going to affect the ability of Americans to be innovative leaders and, thus, the health of the American economy. As leaders and champions of continual improvement, quality professionals need to be arts advocates.

School districts across the nation face reductions in funding. Many school districts have responded by cutting arts programs that include music, drama and visual arts classes. They have taken a "back to the basics" approach to improve test scores. This could be counterproductive, and it will affect our economy in the years ahead.

American jobs are going overseas to countries like China and India where labor costs are a small fraction of those in the United States. Not only are manufacturing jobs moving overseas, but professional jobs have started to head in that direction. The United States can't and won't compete on its labor costs. In the current economy, the United States competes on its unique ability to creatively innovate. Richard Florida states in his book, The Rise of the Creative Class, that "Human creativity is the ultimate economic resource. The ability to come up with new ideas and better ways of doing things is ultimately what raises productivity and thus living standards."

Scientific and technology breakthroughs are a major driver of our economy. In its simplest form, the scientific process is a structured process to prove or disprove a creative hypothesis created by "free-form" thinking scientists. Creating a hypothesis is often more difficult than applying the scientific method used to support or discredit it.

One of the most important roles that quality professionals play in an organization is the role of change agent and continual improver. There are two levels of continual improvement, refinement and overhaul. Process refinement is well understood by quality professionals: measure the process, find the problems and create fixes that show steady improvement. Process overhaul is more difficult to accomplish. It usually requires eliminating nearly all the existing manufacturing and inspection processes and dramatically remaking them to achieve improvements.

Process overhauls that yield huge, rapid gains in productivity rely on creative ability-something systematically being de-emphasized in U.S. educational systems.

Budget cuts are often the main reason arts classes are reduced or eliminated in many school systems, especially in lower-income school districts. Studies such as Edward Fiske's report, Champions of Change, have found that arts programs enhance the effectiveness of educational systems, with the largest improvements found in lower-income schools.

The need to spend more time working on the basics, to pass standardized testing requirements, has also played a role in squeezing time previously allotted to arts programs. Standardized testing allows management of what can be measured, and closely managing reading, writing and math skills is a good idea. However, schools should not abandon educational programs where results are often more difficult to quantifiably measure. Skills like creativity, leadership, self-confidence, visualization and free-form thinking are hard to measure, but are absolutely critical to the ability to innovate.

Dr. Howard Gardner proposed the concept of "multiple intelligences" in 1883. His theory states that current methods of measuring education leave out many of the critical skills related to creativity. Arts programs foster and develop many of the skills that are vital to the creative side of overhauling a process with the goal of achieving dramatic improvements. If the educational programs in these areas are diminished, so too will be the ability to innovate and the economy will be at risk.

It is not all bad news. Many school districts have come to realize how arts programs enhance learning and foster skills development in critical areas that are hard to measure. Many are re-instituting arts programs that were previously eliminated.

Because quality has at the core of its objective the continual improvement of the manufacturing process, it's important that the U.S. educational system not be penny wise and pound foolish. Quality professionals need to be strong advocates, supporters and participants in school arts programs and programs that foster creativity skills in children. These skills are critical to the United States' ability to grow its economy through innovation. Participating and supporting art education allows adults and children to see problems and challenges in a different light, and such insight could be the spark that leads to the most constructive things done in years.

What do you think? Are arts programs in our schools a waste of time and money, or are they vital to the health of our country?

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