Last year I was working with a school, when news came down that they were going to cut their drama program due to budget changes. Now, news like this would usually rile me up to the point that I start doing a pretty good Howard Sherman impression. I was ready to write letters, picket, whatever it would take to save the drama program. That was until I found out why it was being cut.
What I didn't know was that this particular school had been seeing a dramatic decline in both math scores and services for students with learning disabilities. The drama program was being eliminated to hire 2 new math teachers and 2 new special education professionals. It's tough to argue with that.
Every year, across the country, school budgets put programs and positions on the chopping block, many times at the mercy of either votes from school boards of the public. While I would never advocate that the arts should be the first to go or for schools to seek to cut these programs, if they're doing it so that they can put those resources back into the curriculum or school itself, you won't hear any disagreement from me. As much as I love high school theatre and what it does for students, let's be honest, high school theatre isn't going to lead to cures for cancer or lead to the next scientific breakthrough. So as long as the school places those funds toward improving their academic qualities, I can get behind that.
According to the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, which collects test results from 65 countries for its rankings, which comes out every three years, in 2012 the U.S. ranked " below average in math among the world's most-developed countries. They were close to average in science and reading."
The only way, I believe, to raise these standards, is to put resources into the more academic coursework and hire the best and most teachers possible. I also think the school year should be extended and eliminate teacher tenure at the high school level, but that's an entire different column for another blog. But this way curriculum quality could improve and the average classroom size could see a dramatic decrease.
I would even support decreasing an arts budget or eliminating them all together for improvements or additions in a schools athletic program. Here's where I can start to feel the metaphorical tomatoes, but hear me out on this.
According to the CDC, childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years. The percentage of children aged 6–11 years in the United States who were obese increased from 7% in 1980 to nearly 18% in 2012. Similarly, the percentage of adolescents aged 12–19 years who were obese increased from 5% to nearly 21% over the same period. In 2012, more than one third of children and adolescents were overweight or obese.
So putting resources into a school's athletic program should be a priority. I'm not talking about buying new uniforms, I'm talking about adding programs, hiring more coaches, improve field and equipment conditions.
Now you might be asking, what will happen to students who want to learn about theatre? I would argue that even without an annual school play or musical, there are always opportunities to get involved or learn about theatre.
My first recommendation would be to get involved in community theatres. Here in CT, there are a plethora of community theatres that regularly cast teens and children in their productions. Many times, these productions will actually be a more educational experience that any school could provide with the few shows they perform annually.
I would also hope dramatic texts would be included in English and Literature curriculums. It's common for high school English classes to include works from Shakespeare and Arthur Miller. This way students can still study theatre from an academic angle, if they aren't able to perform.
Finally, with the number of great college theatre programs in existence, there are plenty of opportunities for students to pursue a study of theatre at both the 4 year and 2 year levels. I've already written about what a theatre degree can do for you, so I certainly hope to see more students pursue this. And if you're wondering how students would be able to afford to attend this schools, an increase in test scores and GPA's will lead to higher scholarship opportunities.
Also, if students still want the chance to perform, there are ways to certainly do this on shoestring budgets. I've also seen school productions that were produced with donations from either the public or local companies. One production I was involved with, the set was built with lumber donations from the local Home Depot. So there are ways to perform without high cost on school budget lines.
Now one again, don't think I'm supporting cutting theatre programs to alleviate the tax burden for the local citizens or because they have to make room for administrator salary raises. No, that's not what I'm saying. The ideal situation would be for a school system to have enough money to be able to fully fund everything at a healthy level.
But if the choice comes down to strong math skills or next year's production of Bye Bye Birdie, I'm going to side with math every time.