WASHINGTON — Delivering a forceful argument on the role of the arts in education, Michelle Obama said Tuesday that it isn’t something to be introduced after student test scores go up but is a critical element of achieving those higher test scores in the first place.
The lawyer-turned-first lady argued her case while opening the first White House student talent show, featuring spirited song and dance routines by students whose schools had performed so poorly they were chosen for a new federal arts education program.
By the end of the hourlong, toe-tapping, hand-clapping show in the East Room, which was bathed in a soothing orange light, and Mrs. Obama had joined all the students on the makeshift stage to dance during their closing number, which shared its name with her husband’s “Yes We Can” presidential campaign slogan.
President Barack Obama even broke away from his work elsewhere in the White House to come and make his own pitch for arts education and to congratulate the elementary and middle-school-age performers.
The talent show was a vehicle to showcase the “Turnaround Arts” program. It was created as an experiment in 2012 by the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities in collaboration with the White House and the Education Department to test whether arts education can help improve student outcomes and create more positive learning environments. Major artists adopted each school.
Encouraged by the results so far, including higher reading and math scores and fewer disciplinary problems, Mrs. Obama announced that the program is being expanded this year from the original eight schools to 35 schools in 10 states — Iowa, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Louisiana, Oregon, Montana, Colorado, California, Illinois, Minnesota — and the District of Columbia.
Two of the original eight schools have improved so much that they are no longer in “turnaround” status, she said. Those schools are Findley Elementary School in Des Moines, Iowa, and Orchard Gardens in Boston.
The arts, the first lady said, help get students excited about taking their seats in class because they are looking forward to the next musical they’re performing in or the instrument they can’t wait to play.
“But if they’re not in their seats then we can’t teach them anything at all,” Mrs. Obama said. “The bottom line here is very clear: Arts education isn’t something we add on after we’ve achieved other priorities, like raising test scores and getting kids into college. It’s actually critical for achieving those priorities in the first place.”
Six million children do not have access to art or music instruction in their schools, and millions more schoolchildren have only minimal exposure to the arts, she said.
In a surprise appearance, the president made his own pitch for arts education. He said it is a necessity, not a luxury.
“The arts are central to who we are as a people, and they are central to the success of our kids. This is not an afterthought,” he said. “This is not something you do because it’s kind of nice to do. It is necessary for these young people to succeed that we promote the arts.”
A few big-name artists, such as actresses Sarah Jessica Parker and Alfre Woodard, performed with students from the schools they have adopted, in Portland, Oregon, and New Orleans, respectively. They also spoke about the change they have seen in their students.
“Our kids are glimpsing the fact that they have an inherent value and that confidence just spreads across their lives,” Woodard said.
Students spoke about what the arts mean to them, too.
“I think that the arts are important to our school because it gives kids an opportunity to see what they want to do in their life as careers and then also because it gives students a level of confidence,” said 8-year-old Sinai Jones, who attends the Martin Luther King Jr. School in Portland, Oregon.
Sinai and an all-girl group that included Parker on backup performed “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile” from the musical “Annie.”
The expanded program will be paid for over the next three years with $5 million in public and private funding from the Education Department, the National Endowment of the Arts, the Ford Foundation and other private foundations and companies.
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