U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan understands that arts are an important part of well-rounded — some might even say complete — educational experience.
“All of the arts — dance, music, theatre, and the visual arts — are essential to preparing our nation’s young people for a global economy fueled by innovation and creativity, and for a social discourse that demands communication in images and sound as well as in text,” Duncan wrote earlier this spring.
But administrators around the country are continuing to overlook the importance of the arts in schools, still caught up in a misleading numbers game. Fortunately, one learning organization is proving itself to be ahead of the curve.
“We, as a country, need to rethink the overall framework for how we educate our young people,” said Mark Rodriguez, executive director of Changing Worlds. He is a believer in a more holistic approach to education.
“We’ve gotten to the place where young people are asking educators, ‘What’s the answer you’re looking for?’ rather than thinking critically about the problem at hand,” he said.
“We need to be more strategic, to think more critically. That’s not something the current education system prepares us for. We’re losing a foothold on innovation as whole.”
For more than a decade, Changing Worlds has delivered a nontraditional approach to learning in Chicago’s low-income public schools by bringing the skill of empathy to the classroom with tangible, transformative results.
This summer, Changing Worlds was selected as one of two Judges’ Awards winners in the Activating Empathy: Transforming Schools to Teach What Matters competition hosted by Ashoka’s Empathy Initiative.
“Students should be able to see a reflection of themselves in what they’re learning, while also having a window to the larger world so that they can draw connections to local and global issues alike,” Rodriguez said. “When students understand the local and global context of what they’re being taught in school, they’re more engaged and more interested in learning. Our culturally responsive teaching practices help bring the student voice back to the classroom.”
But understanding empathy and taking a culturally relevant approach to education is just the beginning. As Rodriguez puts it, “The future of education is everybody’s business.”
Changing Worlds offers in-school literacy and connections programs for elementary and middle school students, after-school arts and culture partnerships designed for K-12 students, professional development workshops for teachers, and community outreach initiatives that provide hands-on learning experiences for participants of all ages.
Changing Worlds prepares students to be more active citizens outside the classroom, and also helps them improve outcomes on standardized tests. A three-year longitudinal study by Loyola’s Center for Urban Research and Learning found significant positive impact in four areas of Changing World’s Literacy and Cultural Connection (LCC) programs when compared to non-participants.
That’s a big victory for Changing Worlds, considering that students in the United States are falling behind their international counterparts, according to the Programme of International Student Assessment (PISA), a global report card on the academic performance of 15-year-olds in 65 countries around the world.
“At the end of the third year of the program, test scores for students in Changing Worlds’ program were greater than control group students, with an average positive difference of 11.5 points across all schools for composite scores. The greatest standardized test score gains were from students at two schools with limited access to arts and culture programs.”
Make no mistake about it, Changing Worlds is more than a feel-good story. There’s a huge demand for its innovative, empathetic programming. It had a budget of about $50,000 in 2003, when Rodriguez took over as executive director; today, its budget is more than $1.1 million.
The secret? “People want to be a part of something that’s organized, thoughtful, and focused on outcomes,” Rodriguez said.
Over the next six months, after having merged with another learning nonprofit, Rodriguez and the Changing Worlds crew have plans to replicate their program in 25 more schools in the Chicago area. As for the organization’s future plans, Changing Worlds is aiming to have a larger regional and, eventually, open-source their growth — using technology and the Internet to scale their model, Rodriguez said.
When schools discover empathy, they also find students to be more engaged. When students are more engaged, they learn how the world works. And when they learn how the world works, they’re better prepared to make their home, school, or country a better place.
Changing Worlds seems to be doing education the right way. And all it took was an understanding that students are more than No. 2 pencils and standardized test scores.
This piece was written by John Converse Townsend, who blogs regularly for Ashoka Changemakers. It originally appeared here.