Will Performance Pay Gut Arts Education in Dallas ISD Schools?

The Dallas Independent School District’s new performance pay model, which will reward superior teachers with higher salaries and punish unsatisfactory teachers with lesser pay, has rankled more than a few arts educators who fear the matrix used to evaluate teachers overemphasizes testable skills and leaves no time for actual art lessons.

In an open letter to Superintendent Mike Miles (which you can find below), DISD elementary school art teacher Victoria Montelongo says that she now must use 75 percent of class time for art history and theory so that her K-5 students can be tested to evaluate teacher performance. That leaves just 10 to 12 minutes in each period for actually making stuff, and it’s the making stuff part of class, Montelongo argues, that contains the real educational meat of art class:

My students learned about math, science, reading, geography and art.  They explored, talked and thought things through, discovered abilities they didn’t even know they had and learned interesting things about other subjects through art making.  They learned about the beauty in life and to think critically about their work and the work of others.  They understood that art can be found in all areas and aspects of life.  They learned about competition, collaboration and tenacity.  They learned that creativity gives you an outlet to learning and what hard work is about and in the process they gained self-confidence.  And isn’t that what we want for our students?

Like so many large urban school districts’ efforts to improve on quality, the performance pay idea seems like it sets up a Catch-22: the obsessive need to quantify the product of education reduces education into a product that can be quantified. By the end of it, what schools offer is not really what is truly meant by “education” anymore.

Montelongo said the concepts students will be tested on are the same ones they used to learn by doing the art projects that took up class time. Students will still be required to produce some art projects, but following a model Miles instituted in Colorado Springs, the projects will photographed, put online, and graded by art teachers outside of the district.

“This goes against everything I believe that these kids should be doing in this class,” Montelongo told me on the phone this morning. “Here’s just one more thing that they will be tested in. It doesn’t make any sense to teach in this way to these kids. They are capable of learning through art work, and it is an outlet for them. I don’t think parents realize their children are not really getting art anymore.”

 

Here’s the open letter:

September 21, 2013

 

Mike Miles

Superintendent DISD

3700 Ross Ave

Dallas  TX  75204

 

Dear Mr. Miles,

I am an art teacher with DISD, at least I was until this year.  My job description has changed so drastically that I’m not sure what to call myself.  I used to love my job and looked forward to going to work. Unfortunately, that is now a thing of the past with your decision to change the function of the art room and that of art teachers by testing students in art in order to grade teacher performance.  Through your efforts to grade teachers you are depriving students of a well rounded education.

Children no longer have that short 45 minute period when they can come to a class where they can allow their imaginations to go where they want.  They are no longer allowed to dream, if even for a moment, or to use and show their creativity in a way that for many of them was non-existent before their first art class.  My students learned about math, science, reading, geography and art.  They explored, talked and thought things through, discovered abilities they didn’t even know they had and learned interesting things about other subjects through art making.  They learned about the beauty in life and to think critically about their work and the work of others.  They understood that art can be found in all areas and aspects of life.  They learned about competition, collaboration and tenacity.  They learned that creativity gives you an outlet to learning and what hard work is about and in the process they gained self confidence.  And isn’t that what we want for our students?

My students did not come into my classroom to play or goof off, they worked hard and produced beautiful, intelligent and thought provoking work, at times funny, at times sad.  They worked through problems and put down their feelings, good and bad. They’ve told me of incarcerated parents (to whom they sent their artwork), losing homes, living in shelters, grandparents that are far away, journeys that no child should have to make and not having enough money to pay the bills, all because of the work we were making in the classroom.  This is no longer a reality for them with the new guidelines that you have set forth for the art room and it saddens me.  Children learn by doing Mr. Miles.  No longer am I privileged to see that look of wonder or joy when they realize that they have mastered a technique or the moment of epiphany that occurs when they’ve accomplished what they thought to be impossible.

Art is where children discover things about themselves.  They learn skills that overwhelm all the senses.  They conquer demons through art.  I’ve seen it.

Why Mr. Miles. are you punishing students in order to make sure that teachers are doing their jobs?  Could you not with all your colleagues and wisdom come up with a better solution?  Portfolios maybe?  I don’t have the answer.  I do know that for the last 5 years my art students have achieved beyond their own dreams and been rewarded with outstanding achievement awards at Dallas Youth Art Month and recognition at school by their teachers and peers.  Is that not also important?  I know I was doing something right.  And judging by the work I’ve seen out there I know many other teachers are too.  Why then could you not come up with a better system?  As it stands now, my students have at most 10 to 12 minutes to work on a project.  This is the first time that my students have not had 2 to 3 pieces of work completed by the end of the first six weeks.  When you consider too, that I see many students only once every 2 weeks due to high enrollment, you must realize that there will be even less work coming form art classes and less time to go over testing material.  Most if not all of the reasons for my success on my campus in the past has been due in large part to the wonderful work of my students.  My colleagues loved seeing the variety and were always impressed by the quality of the work.

I am surprised that my Art Department didn’t speak louder when these changes were first discussed.  Children learn by doing (as do we all) and art is not about constant talking and whip arounds and all the other strategies in classrooms today.  Art is different.  It is a fact that success in art creates students that are more well rounded and successful in other subjects and areas of their lives.  Art can liberate and empower students to feel that they can accomplish anything.  I am an artist, a teacher and a learner and I know that had I not had the opportunity to make art as a child and have the freedom and encouragement my art teachers and family gave me, my life might be very different today.  Art is about listening, watching, observing, following instructions, discovery and doing, doing, doing.  I know that many art teachers feel as I do, but everyone needs their jobs and all have been too afraid to raise their voices.  I kow that I may be jeopardizing my job as well, but I am not saying anything that isn’t true.  This is very hard for me, but I’m so distressed over how my classroom has changed.  There has always been rigor in my classroom and the core beliefs (while I didn’t call them that, those beliefs have always been part of my teaching.  Why else would I or anyone else be a teacher?) but it was through making art, not talking about it.

I don’t expect that there will be any change as a result of this.  I only wanted the oppportunity to be heard.  Teaching has been a life altering experience for me and I know that I am a good teacher and have touched lives.  I’m not sure  that you will even read this, but, if you do and as a man who wants only the best for the students, won’t you consider what I am saying?  There’s got to be another way to grade me.

Victoria Montelongo

Visual Arts Teacher

DISD