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The Joint Fine Arts Task Force Report presented to the District 65 School Board on Feb. 4 brings to light the challenges in trying to allocate limited minutes available during a school day between the core instructional subjects, fine arts, and teacher planning time. Another constraint is money.

The Task Force was created pursuant to a side-agreement between the District Educators Council (DEC, the teachers union) and the School Board that grew out of the collective-bargaining discussions last year. Under the agreement, the Task Force, composed of five administrators and five DEC-appointed members, was charged “to explore the feasibility of establishing a five-day fine arts program for kindergarten through fifth grade.” During the Task Force’s meetings, the charge evolved to include how to increase the planning time of K-5 teachers to five days a week.

The Task Force report contains two options to increase elementary school teachers’ planning time to five days a week. One of the options would also expand fine arts to five days a week. The second option would provide a science lab one day a week.
At a Feb. 11 Finance Committee meeting, Superintendent Hardy Murphy recommended that arts be integrated into the curriculum of the core subjects as a way to increase arts instruction “within the confines of a limited school day and limited resources.”

The Task Force Proposal
Cathy Berlinger Gustafson, facilitator for the Task Force, presented the report at the Board’s Feb. 4 meeting. The Task Force, she said, met five times, considered many approaches, reviewed data obtained from 17 other school districts, and reviewed research reports on the benefits of providing fine arts education and teacher planning time. She said the Task Force settled on two options.

Option A proposes to increase the fine arts curriculum from four days a week at 47 minutes per day to five days a week at 40 minutes a day, a net increase of 12 minutes per week. She said this schedule would also increases planning time for K-5 classroom teachers from four days a week at 47 minutes per day to five days a week at 40 minutes – the planning time coincides with the time students are taking fine arts classes. Classroom teachers also have 20 minutes of planning time five days a week while their students attend physical education classes.

Two disadvantages of Option A are that it would require reallocating 12 minutes a week from other disciplines – most likely core instructional areas – to fine arts; and it would also require adding 6.2 fine arts teachers to teach the additional classes at a cost of approximately $350,000.

While reallocating 12 minutes a week from the core instructional areas may not seem like a lot of time, Assistant Superintendent Ellen Fogelberg said the expansion of the fine arts program this school year led to the reduction of 28 minutes of core instructional time at the K-3 grade levels, and some teachers felt it took away from their ability to cover all the course materials. Reducing the time another 12 minutes, she said, would be the equivalent of taking away one course per week in the core instructional areas.

Adding 12 minutes a week to the fine arts program would bring the total time allotted to the fine arts to 200 minutes per week. This is above the average of 155 minutes per week allotted by the 17 other school districts that were surveyed, says the Task Force Report.

The report also reflects that of 17 school districts surveyed, District 65 provides more teacher planning time than 14 of the districts.

Option B would replace one 47-minute class of science instruction per week, currently taught by classroom teachers, with one 47-minute science lab taught by a science specialist, said Ms. Gustafson. This proposal would not take away from time allocated to the core curriculum; and it would enable the District to provide K-5 classroom teachers with five days of planning time. One key challenge is it would require the District to hire 7.2 science specialists, at a cost of approximately $400,000.

Ms. Gustafson said the Task Force did not reach a consensus on Option A or B, or a consensus on a recommendation.

The Tug of War for Time
DEC President Jean Luft said every year more demands are placed on K-5 classroom teachers, including implementing inclusion, co-teaching, Response to Intervention, the writing curriculum, and the common core standards. “K-5 classroom teachers need daily, consistent planning time,” Ms. Luft said. “They need the planning time every day, not just four out of five days a week.”

“Students also need that change of pace and the creative activities of the fine arts every school day,” said Ms. Luft. “We believe giving students daily fine arts will increase their productivity and make them better students.”

School Board member Richard Rykhus asked if the Task Force had discussed integrating the fine arts into the curriculum, and added that some of the research presented by the Task Force showed that students who take more fine arts do better later on in their academic careers.

Board member Tracy Quattrocki said she understood the attraction of discussing planning time and fine arts together because doing so may address two concerns at once. “But I really think they both deserve treatment on their own too because they’re very important aspects of teaching and I think we might be short-changing both by saying it will only work if we put them together like this.

“If you read the literature, it really is about integrating arts into the core content areas and that’s the way in which it benefits the student the most,” she said. “We should be having a conversation about how to introduce more arts into the core content area. And then I think we should be talking separately about ways in which to get the fifth planning day.”

Board member Andy Pigozzi said there are a limited number of minutes of instructional time per day. If the District adds time for fine arts, it “means less instructional time for learning about math and reading, which many of our students desperately need. To be college and career ready, our students need to be able to read and read well by the time they get into third grade,” he said. “We cannot take our eye off the ball. The kids that need that the most depend on the instructional time to be able to have a chance to go to college or to go on to get a decent job when they finish school.”

Superintendent Hardy Murphy said, “One of the things that should be on the table when the next strategic planning revisions are discussed is the overall curriculum in the District, the content area and what that means in terms of the school day.” He said in recent parent forums there was a push for more science instruction, and he anticipated in subsequent forums, parents would express a desire for more social sciences.

“There are many demands in terms of instructional time – and that’s about the priority of things,” Dr. Murphy said. “I actually feel like a more integrated approach to teaching and learning that goes on in the content area is something worth thinking about because that’s the way we live. We don’t compartmentalize the way we experience life every day.”

“There’s a broad question about the curriculum, about what we are teaching, what is it we want to teach,” Board president Katie Bailey said. “The Board will be discussing the strategic plan, both how to evaluate it, and as we go forward into next year how to create a new one and how this fits into it. As part of that, I think we need to separate out the issue of planning time from the arts curriculum.”

At the Feb. 11 Finance Committee meeting, Dr. Murphy said, “My recommendation is to pursue an integrated arts solution that will preserve instructional time across all curricular disciplines. An arts integration initiative will help build stronger relationships between learning in the arts and learning in the other skills and subjects of the curriculum.”

It is anticipated that the Board will consider this issue in discussing a new five-year strategic plan in the fall.Creating time for teachers to plan and collaborate is recognized as an important way to improve the quality of teaching and to improve student achievement.
A February 2009 report, “Professional Learning in the Learning Profession,” prepared by the National Staff Development Council (NSDC) and the School Redesign Network at Stanford University, concludes, “Improving professional learning for educators is a crucial step in transforming schools and improving academic achievement. … As students are expected to learn more complex and analytical skills in preparation for further education and work in the 21st century, teachers must learn to teach in ways that develop higher order thinking and performance. … Efforts to improve student achievement can succeed only by building the capacity of teachers to improve their instructional practice and the capacity of school systems to advance teacher learning.

“The most powerful forms of staff development occur in ongoing teams that meet on a regular basis, preferably several times a week, for the purposes of learning, joint lesson planning, and problem solving,” says the NSDC Report. “Many scholars have begun to place greater emphasis on job-embedded and collaborative teacher learning.”

Fine Arts: ⁎ot a Flower but a Wrench

After spending 18 months studying the challenges and opportunities facing arts education, the President’s Committee on Arts and the Humanities (PCAH) concluded that arts education improves student achievement and creativity.The “summary and recommendations” document states, “The value of arts education is often phrased in enrichment terms – helping kids find their voice, rounding out their education and tapping into their undiscovered talents. This is true, but as the President’s Committee saw in schools all over the country, it is also an effective tool in school-wide reform and fixing some of our biggest educational challenges. It is not a flower but a wrench.”Among the findings by other studies cited in the summary are the following:• “Low-income kids who participated in arts education were four more times likely to have high academic achievement and three times more likely to have high attendance than those who didn’t. …”• Arts can influence cognitive development by helping develop phonological awareness and improve long-term memory.• A comparison of three arts-integration-focused schools in Montgomery County, Md., with three control schools there found that the arts-integration-focused schools “with the highest percentage of minority and low-income students reduced the reading gap by 14 percentage points and the math gap by 26 percentage points over a three-year period. In the control schools, the number of proficient students actually went down 4.5 percent.”The PCAH summary suggests that communities build robust collaborations among different approaches to arts education, develop the field of arts integration, expand in-school opportunities for teaching artists, utilize federal and state policies to reinforce the place of the arts in K-12 education and widen the focus of evidence-gathering about arts education.

Larry Gavin

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...