“Foundations” is a series of informal question-and-answer sessions with employees of The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. Moy Eng is the director of the Foundation’s Performing Arts Program, which since 1967 has awarded nearly 1,500 grants totaling $135 million to performing arts organizations in the Bay Area. In the past year, the Performing Arts Program and the Foundation’s Education Program have teamed to explore the possibility of improving arts education in California’s public schools.
Before joining the Hewlett Foundation, Moy directed the Joyce Mertz-Gilmore Foundation’s domestic and international grantmaking programs in energy and human rights and worked in development at both the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, among many other positions.
She holds a B.A. in theater arts from Douglass College and an M.A. in arts administration from New York University.
When and why did the Performing Arts Program decide to become involved in improving California’s arts education?
Several things had happened that made us think it would be a good time to try. One was that the State Board of Education adopted standards for what students should know in music, visual arts, theater and dance. Another was that California’s public university system started to require a year of course work in the arts as a criterion for admission. Closer to home, there was some public polling by Cultural Initiatives Silicon Valley that indicated that the public, locally at least, put a high value on arts education and would be willing to pay more to get it in the schools. Finally, there were a number of policymakers, legislators and arts ed leaders in this region who seemed ready to provide leadership if we tried to do something.
Aside from all that, the Foundation has been interested in exploring issues where it makes sense for Foundation officers to collaborate across programs. This seemed like a natural place for the Performing Arts and Education Programs to join hands.
What were the first grants you made once you made the decision and why?
It was clear that we didn’t need to prove the value of the arts. The issue at that point was that we didn’t have a full picture of what was and wasn’t happening statewide in the schools. No one had the full picture. So the first thing we did was to commission the research institute SRI to conduct a statewide survey of what was being taught in schools and whether it met the standards that the State Board of Education had put in place. In March, SRI issued its study (“An Unfinished Canvas: Arts Education in California; Taking Stock of Policies and Practices”) which concluded that the vast majority of California’s schools fail to meet state standards for teaching the arts, and that access to arts instruction varies widely.
So why is it important?
To become a well-rounded human being and a well-rounded worker in the twenty-first century, the arts are essential. People have talked about the Information Age for some time. Now I think we’re moving into the age of creativity. The leaders of commerce say it again and again: the edge for the American workforce is innovation and creativity. It’s not that there’s no creativity in science and math, but when you look at the elements that make up so much of the arts-the team building, the problem solving, the acknowledgement that there’s not one right process to get to one right answer-all those elements are essential to learning how to operate in the new workplace.
And let’s not forget the well-rounded human part. An appreciation of the arts-whether your thing is rock videos or Chopin-brings joy to being alive.
Ideally, what should arts education consist of in the K-12 years?
That’s a conversation the Performing Arts and Education Programs are having right now. I can say that we’ve focused our questions and our grantmaking around the idea of arts education for every child, in every school, every day. But we also have to ask what comprises a quality arts education? Is it one teacher in every school? Two teachers? One for each discipline? What about digital arts? Is it stand-alone instruction, or is it integrated with other class work?
And, maybe the biggest question, how do we assess what kids are learning?
If you look at it with sufficient perspective, you realize that even the ways we measure math and English competence can be improved. Think of all the children who don’t excel in school who have unmeasured aptitudes and go on to do great things. It may be that working on ways to assess learning in the arts can help us improve how we assess learning overall. If we’re able to formulate a really strong assessment of how children learn in the arts, it might provide a way to measure learning that today’s narrower tests don’t capture.
What are the biggest obstacles to providing a quality arts education to all students in California’s public schools?
Right now it’s money and training. Even with the governor’s landmark allocation of $105 million for arts education, that just comes down to about $15 per student. That doesn’t buy a lot of staff. It’s an excellent first step. But it’s a challenge in itself. How do we spend it to increase the system’s capacity to teach the arts? The money and the capacity have to move forward hand in hand.
Since Prop. 13 and the No Child Left Behind Act, resources and instructional time have gone to math and reading. That’s it. The arts aren’t the only subject area that’s been pushed out. To some degree, so have social studies, phys ed and science. But the arts have borne the brunt of that trend. And what happened was that teachers with the skills to teach the arts went elsewhere and left us with a generation-or even two-of both teachers and principals who don’t have experience in teaching the arts.
The priority now is teaching to the tests that evaluate competency in math and reading. So the third obstacle is finding the instruction time during an already full school day.
How do you convince people worried about their child’s competitiveness for schools and jobs to make space in the curriculum for the arts?
We may need to do more demographic polling on that to learn what’s on people’s minds.
What are the next steps for the Performing Arts and Education Programs for this work?
Between now and the fall we need to explore next steps. In terms of policy at the state level, we’re confident there is interest there. There still are questions to answer about whether pursuing greater public engagement in the issue is the best way to increase support for arts ed.
And there’s more research to be done. Together the Education and Performing Arts Programs are funding additional Stanford Research Institute studies to look more deeply at the obstacles that prevent the delivery of arts education in the state. The studies focus on funding, instructional time, professional development and assessment and accountability.