by Nicole Upton
Across the country, and here in Chicago, student learning loss weighs heavily on the minds of parents and caregivers, teachers, principals, and CPS leadership, and with good reason. Student proficiency in reading and math has decreased since the pandemic. While 2023 test scores are not yet available, early results show signs of a rebound, but not recovery. It’s likely that students will still be behind where they were before the pandemic. It is commendable that the district has utilized COVID relief dollars to invest in instructional coaches, professional development for educators, and tutors for struggling students. The district has also rightly placed emphasis on social-emotional supports (SEL) and adoption of high-quality lessons via Skyline, its universal PreK–12 curriculum.
But the district has another lever it could be pulling harder to meet student learning needs in reading and math: integrating the arts more fully into all aspects of the curricula. In reality, successful arts integration for students depends on district leadership, teacher and principal professional development, as well as the engagement of willing and capable arts partners. This isn’t a novel idea, certainly. Arts integration has long been a well-researched and successful strategy for deepening student learning and long-term retention of content, building communication skills, and growing a sense of school community. Arts integration goes far beyond including arts projects in class; it is a dynamic teaching strategy that seamlessly merges the arts with core curricula, building stronger connections between subject areas and providing students with more engaging, and therefore, more memorable, content.
Yet, right now there seems to be little appetite or capacity for collaboration between core curricula and the arts, or for integrating the arts more explicitly into social emotional learning supports. Why? One reason is that Chicago Public Schools has been without a Director of Arts Education since January 2023. This nine-month absence of leadership resulted in little internal advocacy for the arts within the CPS Office of Teaching and Learning, and left higher leadership levels without arts education expertise and experience. With the recent arrival of a new Director of Arts Education, a key immediate priority should be developing a holistic, fully integrated vision for the arts in schools. It’s imperative they be the internal CPS voice championing the value, usage, opportunities, and promise of the arts for increased student learning.
Research tells us that arts integration, when done right, really works. However, doing high-quality arts integration is not easy. It requires time and deep collaboration between classroom and arts teachers, and sometimes between classroom teachers and arts partners. Planning time, lesson design, assessment creation, and all elements of quality instruction need to be thoroughly and skillfully plotted. Unfortunately, these kinds of deep and rigorous arts integration lesson plans are missing from CPS’ Skyline arts education curriculum. In fact, arts content in Skyline is not finished, and there is no public timeline for completion. Given the extent of student learning loss, it is crucial for CPS to embed arts integration into the core curriculum, complete the arts curriculum as part of Skyline, and fully leverage this content area.
Another serious student need is improved social emotional support. Here too, the district could more fully incorporate the arts as part of its social emotional strategy. The arts help students build confidence, take initiative on tasks, collaborate on projects, and appreciate the diversity within their school. Another immediate priority for the new Director of Arts Education should be leading collaborative efforts to integrate arts education resources, programs, and offerings with the CPS Office of Social and Emotional Learning.
At the school level, teachers are the content experts delivering high-quality arts curriculum to students. They require professional development on how to support, plan, and deliver arts integrated units and lessons as part of the Department of Arts Education’s professional learning plan. In the last few years, the CPS Department of Teaching and Learning has importantly doubled-down on the Instructional Core as a way to achieve academic progress in schools. For the CPS Department of Arts Education, this has translated into deep teacher professional development offerings on standards-aligned, discipline-specific best practices in curriculum, instruction, and assessment, student-centered culturally responsive instruction, and shifts in arts practices necessary to adopt the still relatively new Illinois Arts Learning Standards. They have also developed sophisticated standards maps that align the Illinois Arts Learning Standards to Common Core Standards in English language arts and math. All of this is commendable. But in critical moments like these, with significant decreases in reading and math scores, and deep concerns around the mental health needs of students, investment in arts integration-specific teacher professional learning is a prime opportunity to contribute to the overall solution.
Today, most principals are still unaware of how the arts can contribute to student learning in traditionally tested subject areas. Principal training in the arts has been a long-standing need within CPS, and one that was elevated in the 2012 CPS Arts Education Plan. Soon after the plan was released, the CPS Department of Arts Education developed a program to address principal needs and gaps in arts understanding. The program included principal-to-principal mentorship and a comprehensive guidebook with tools, resources, and materials for deepening access to high-quality arts instruction and programming. It contained real-life models and examples for how a school leader might go about creating a unique strategic vision and direction for the arts in their school. Since then, the CPS Department of Arts has deepened resources for administrators by developing a robust Arts Integration Toolkit. These resources must be rediscovered by principals and implemented in schools immediately. All the tools are there, but their practical application and usage remain underutilized.
In addition to teacher and principal professional development, the skilled and experienced arts partner community is a tremendous resource to be leveraged in service of addressing student learning loss. Arts partner organizations have collaborated with CPS schools for years and offer valuable experience, artistic expertise, and creative programming aimed at engaging students in meaningful arts learning experiences. Arts partnership programs focused on reading and math integration and social emotional learning, in particular, should be recognized for their important value, supported, and funded appropriately.
In summary, CPS has foundational arts education infrastructure in place which must be reinvigorated and amplified to further mitigate student learning loss. This will require CPS take the following actions:
- Support the new Department of Arts Education Director in developing a holistic vision for the arts in CPS, and in fostering a comprehensive arts education strategy for the district.
- Complete the arts curriculum as a part of the Skyline initiative, and embed arts integration resources.
- Train principals, arts teachers, and non-arts teachers on the value, purpose, and potential of arts education and arts integration programming.
- Support arts partnership programs focused on reading and math integration and social emotional learning.
- Ensure teacher planning time for arts integration lessons and units.
- Remove barriers of access for the arts partner community to ensure they are poised to help CPS accomplish its current goals and address student learning priorities.
In order to take advantage of all the opportunities to support student learning, the district must employ every resource at their disposal. This includes the committed ecosystem of partners and collaborators, like Ingenuity, who share the same aspirations for students and are ready and willing to help. Now is the time to invest in the arts to help combat learning loss and address the pressing social emotional needs of Chicago’s brilliant youth.