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Opinion: We must demand better for our kids

The Register-Herald in Beckley:

We have heard and we have editorialized previously about proposed cuts – big cuts – to education to help correct a $270 million hole in the 2017 state budget.

We have said that course of action is wrongheaded, and we’re not changing our opinion.

What we have not said previously is that there remains a rather significant imbalance in the curriculum in many of our schools as well.

STEM – an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math education – is all the rage across the United States. President Obama is perhaps STEM’s biggest advocate.

In addition to hosting a national science day at the White House, the president calls STEM education “more than a school subject, or the periodic table, or the property of waves.

It is an approach to the world, a critical way to understand and explore and engage with the world, and then have the capacity to change that world.”

He is right, of course, and we applaud his efforts. Students do need to develop more critical thinking.

But left out of state and national discussions, it seems to us, have been the arts. You know, music, dance, theater, painting, sculpting, photography and spinning the potter’s wheel. Booth Goodwin, a Democratic candidate for governor, struck a note with us when, during a recent Register- Herald editorial board meeting, the former federal prosecuting attorney said he wished we could talk about STEAM – adding an A for the arts.

We agree.

The arts have been relegated to second-class status. A hard focus by many of our state schools on the basics of education in math, science, social studies and English, coupled with rigid and unforgiving block scheduling, has left arts out of the curriculum equation.

Participation is left to after- school hours when many students are working a part-time job to help boost family finances.

Did you know, according to a study by the National Education Association, that at-risk students who have access to the arts tend to have better academic results, better workplace opportunities and more civic engagement?

Want a little STEM with that music? According to the 2012 report, at-risk students who had arts-rich experiences in high school were 10 percent more likely to complete a high school calculus course than at-risk students with low arts exposure.

Want to encourage ambition? At-risk students in the eighth grade who were engaged in the arts were more likely to have planned to earn a bachelor’s degree than all other students.

And all students with access to the arts in high school were three times more likely than students who lacked those experiences to earn a bachelor’s degree.

The NEA report states at-risk students who participated in the arts were much more likely also to take part in intramural and interscholastic sports, as well as academic honor societies, and school yearbook or newspaper – often at nearly twice or three times the rate of those atrisk students without exposure to the arts.

We have had quite the debate in this state about educational standards.

We’re also being challenged to come up with strategies to improve the “human capital” of our state’s workforce so that we can provide the business world with a deep and wide pool of sober, educated, skilled workers.

We know it is critical to our economic future.

The dirty little secret is that we know the answer to these issues begins with education, and a well-rounded education – the way in which we develop students to their fullest potentials – includes the arts. Reams of research show that arts education is connected to almost everything that we want for our children: academic achievement, social and emotional development, civic engagement, and equitable opportunity.

And, yet, we stand prepared to whack away – again – at funds for our schools while our schools treat the arts like an afterthought, not a basic, primary course of study.

We demand better for our kids – from our legislators and from school administrators. We have to stop paying lip service to education and more fully fund our schools, and we have to put the arts back to work.

Dividends will follow.

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