There's a very good reason Baltimore's incoming schools CEO, Gregory Thornton, worked so hard to restore music and art programs in the Milwaukee schools during his three-year tenure as superintendent there: Kids who learn to draw, dance, play an instrument or act on stage are more focused, get better grades and score higher on standardized tests than children who don't.
To his credit, Mr. Thornton apparently never considered arts instruction an unnecessary "frill" that could be cut every time there's a budget shortfall but instead recognized it for what it is: A useful and effective teaching tool that should be an essential element of the school curriculum because it increases students' desire and capacity to learn.
That vision is one Baltimore will need if Mr. Thornton is to succeed in building on the reforms initiated by his predecessor in the job, former city schools chief Andrés Alonso. Mr. Alonso was a gifted administrator whose seminal ideas and relentless drive rescued the city schools from decades of decline. Yet for all his achievements as CEO, Mr. Alonso was never able to restore the arts programs, eliminated in previous rounds of budget cuts, to the levels enjoyed even a decade ago, let alone keep up with the progress other school districts have made in arts education since then.
Closing that gap ought to be one of Mr. Thornton's most urgent priorities, especially now that the city is preparing to adopt the more rigorous academic standards embodied in the Common Core curriculum. If city students are to succeed and thrive in this more challenging intellectual environment, there's probably no way educators can better help prepare them than by reintroducing a rich and vibrant school arts program that sparks their creativity, curiosity and enthusiasm for learning.
By now, virtually no one disputes the idea that instruction in the arts benefits students in ways that directly affect their ability to perform well in a wide range of seemingly unrelated subjects. As early as the mid-1970s, researchers found that first-graders who attended school music classes scored significantly higher on standardized reading tests than children who received no musical instruction at school. And the benefits didn't stop there.
Later research showed that singing and dancing lessons at school affected brain development among young children in ways that allowed them to perceive the world more accurately, form mental images of objects and recognize differences between objects more readily. Those cognitive skills are the basic building blocks of the spatial-temporal reasoning ability needed to master concepts in mathematics, science and engineering — and to compete successfully in the high-tech global economy of the 21st century.
Music and art instruction also facilitates development of the kinds of social skills students must have to succeed in school. Not only do they encourage such habits as attentiveness, concentration and self-discipline, they also provide positive reinforcement from the learning process that helps youngsters persevere in a task, and they're a great motivator for students to develop regular school attendance habits that teach them to take advantage of the rich rewards of just showing up.
In Milwaukee, Mr. Thornton was known as a champion of the arts in a system that had long ignored their importance and neglected their potential to transform struggling schools and the students who attend them. He's credited with restoring nearly 100 arts, music and physical education teaching positions that had been allowed to go vacant because of budget constraints and doubled the funding for such specialists in the city's elementary and middle schools.
Baltimore City currently has 285 certified arts instructors in its 189 schools, and their numbers have been declining in recent years. By contrast, Baltimore County employs 691 fine-arts teachers for its 179 schools, more than double the city's total, and every school also has at least one part-time art teacher and music teacher.
These employees are not "frills" or luxury positions that any school system can afford to do without; they are essential players in the educational process and in schools' prospects for success. Coming from a place where that lesson had been forgotten until he revived it, we look forward to Mr. Thornton bringing the same leadership and commitment to the arts that he showed in Milwaukee to Baltimore's public schools.