At last week’s 40th annual meeting of the National Conference of State Legislators, several rock stars lit up the stage and podium. I’m not mostly talking about sold-out concert singers and musicians, although there was one of those with 15 Grammies and more than 75 albums. I’m talking about “rock stars” in the more general sense of people who are widely recognized as being at the top of their game.

One of the well-known speakers was David Gergen, the CNN senior political analyst who teaches at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Gergen served as an adviser to four presidents – Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton. He graduated from both Harvard and Yale with honors and is the recipient of 25 honorary degrees. And his major point was that he has never seen as many volatile situations around the world at once as there are right now. General Wesley Clark, the former Democratic presidential candidate and supreme allied commander of NATO, said much the same thing.

Former New York Lt, Gov. Dick Ravitch, financial adviser to many governors and New York City mayors, discussed municipal bankruptcy, highlighting the current Detroit situation and reminding us how he was able to organize enough support to keep New York City out of bankruptcy in the late 1970s. Ravitch ran a family construction business that built thousands of low- and middle-income housing units, the Columbia University Law School and the New York University Hospital. At various times, he served as chairman of the Bowery Savings Bank, the AFL-CIO Housing Investment Trust’s Board of Trustees, the New York State Urban Development Commission and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and he co-chaired Congress’ Millennial Housing Commission. In 1991, Ravitch was hired by Major League Baseball owners to head their negotiations with the MLB Players Association.

My point in recounting this is that most of the newspapers commenting on state legislators attending this and all other state legislative meetings tend to discount the worth of the program and look only for partying on the taxpayer nickel. The shallowness of the mainstream media response to these gatherings has gotten so bad that many legislators facing primaries or fall elections will no longer attend these national meetings, where they can learn critical lessons that have been forgotten or ignored and that would help them to govern.

Of all the luminaries who attended this particular meeting, my favorite was Yo Yo Ma, the celebrated cellist and music educator. The aforementioned 15 Grammies doesn’t begin to describe his musical accomplishments or impact on music education, which is probably why President Obama named Ma to the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities in 2009. At NCSL last week, he drew a crowd to talk about a particular project, and if half of what was said about it is true, it could be one of the most transformative educational reforms for some kids in a century.

The President’s Committee has a pilot project on integration of arts, particularly music and dance, with the regular curriculum. It has enjoyed remarkable results to date. They don’t measure how well the kids dance and sing to math problems, physics or history. They measure how much more interested the kids are in school by not dropping out, by parent attendance at school functions and by fewer disciplinary problems. Bill Bennett, as President Reagan’s education secretary and President George H.W. Bush’s drug czar, said that 90 percent of the problems in modern American society could be mitigated if there were one adult who cared about every child in the United States. A modern body of academic work suggests that the single greatest determinant of a successful life in this country is a teacher who cares about you.

The pilot schools of the first round of trials by “Turnaround Arts” are among the most underachieving in the country. Schools were picked in eight states from Colorado to Connecticut, from Louisiana to Oregon, and one in Washington, D.C. The only schools eligible to apply rank in the lowest 5 percent in achievement, with the most intractable challenges. Joining Yo Yo Ma in adopting these schools were other celebrities from the performing arts, including Forest Whitaker, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kerry Washington. “We think Turnaround Arts will show that arts education is a solution that has been hiding in plain sight,” exclaims Sarah Jessica Parker on the program’s website.

In May, the President’s Committee announced expansion of the pilot program to include 35 more high-poverty, low academic-achievement schools, with plans to include 60 more schools in the next round. More celebrities have signed on, including Josh Groban, Marc Anthony, Frank Gehry, Sir Elton John, Tim Robbins, Russell Simmons, Rashida Jones and Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, which is a stable of musicians circling the globe. Since studies have shown that this kind of engagement and climate produces students that are four times more likely to be recognized for academic achievement, there is a lot of excitement surrounding this effort.

Foundations, think tanks and companies are donating money and other resources in anticipation of enhanced real-world gains – “plummeting” suspensions, increased attendance and more parent engagement. Two of the original schools are no longer in turnaround status.

I also learned last week at NCSL that when this current crop of sixth-graders graduate from high school, there will have been 60,000 children in Utah who have been studying Mandarin Chinese since elementary school. China is so grateful that they have endowed 58 teachers in the Utah public school system.

These are reasonably positive developments that have been seriously under-reported, and two reasons why I am uncomfortable with any one-size-fits-all education reform plan.


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