WASHINGTON -- Making a forceful plea about the role of arts in education, first lady Michelle Obama on Tuesday argued arts education isn't something to be introduced in schools after student test scores go up, but is a critical part of better test performance in the first place.
She made the remarks ahead of the first White House talent show, which featured acts by students from poor-performing schools that participate in the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities Turnaround Arts program.
Several major artists, including actress Sarah Jessica Parker, also made appearances, and even President Obama broke away from the Oval Office and came to the East Room to make his own pitch for arts education and to congratulate the students on their performances.
In collaboration with the White House and the Education Department, the committee created the program as an experiment two years ago in eight elementary and middle schools to test the theory that arts education can help improve student outcomes and create more positive learning environments. Major artists adopted each school.
The early results apparently were encouraging enough that the committee co-chairs, George Stevens Jr. and Margo Lion, on Tuesday announced a quadrupling of the program, to a total of 35 schools this year through the addition of districts in California, Illinois and Minnesota.
The original eight "turnaround" schools are in Iowa, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Louisiana, Oregon, Montana, Colorado and Washington, D.C.
The first lady, a supporter of arts education, said the program has helped students at these schools become "engaged in their education like never before."
"The Turnaround Arts program has exceeded not just our expectations, but our wildest hopes and dreams," she said in a statement. During the show she announced the program is being expanded from eight to 35 schools nationwide.
"Math and reading scores have gone up in these schools, attendance is up, enrollment is up, parent engagement is up, suspensions have plummeted and two of the schools in our pilot improved so dramatically that they are no longer in turnaround status," the first lady added. Those two schools are Findley Elementary School in Des Moines, Iowa, and Orchard Gardens in Boston.
An interim report on the program by the Booz Allen Hamilton consulting firm and the University of Chicago found reason for the optimism.
Four of six schools did better on standardized reading tests, compared with other low-performing schools in their area. Three of six schools showed improvement in math, compared to similar schools, but there were significant declines at three other schools.
Attendance rates increased at four of seven schools, while reductions in disciplinary actions were recorded at five of the eight schools.
Overall, the percentage of students proficient in math and reading increased at six of seven schools, the report said.
"The arts have a pretty dramatic and immediate impact," said Rachel Goslins, executive director of the committee, which advises the White House on cultural issues.
The remaining six original "turnaround" schools are: Savoy Elementary in Washington, D.C.; Roosevelt Elementary in Bridgeport, Connecticut; ReNEW Cultural Arts Academy in New Orleans; Lame Deer Middle School in Lame Deer, Montana; Martin Luther King Jr. School in Portland, Oregon; and Noel Community Arts School in Denver.
The expanded program will be paid for over the next three years with $5 million in public and private funding from the Department of Education, the National Endowment of the Arts, the Ford Foundation and other private foundations and companies.
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