Without An Arts Education Coordinator For Massachusetts, Advocates Are Concerned
As Massachusetts schools prepare to implement sweeping changes in arts education, the position of a key administer is currently empty and its fate remains uncertain.
Lurline Munoz-Bennett retired in June, leaving the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Schools (DESE) without an arts education and equity coordinator, a position she held for more than a dozen years. DESE’s hesitation to name a full-time replacement for the role has arts educators and advocates concerned that there will be little oversight for the implementation of a statewide initiative that started in 2017 to improve arts education and of a new arts curriculum expected to be finalized this year.
Munoz-Bennett’s job is currently being divided between existing positions, according to Jacqueline Reis, media coordinator for DESE. “The position involved responsibilities in two areas,” her statement reads. “The arts education work, which is substantial as we have just begun the process of collaborating with educators to revise the 1999 Arts Curriculum Framework, is being taken over by a different member of the Center for Instructional Support. The equity work, and specifically the job as serving as staff liaison to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education’s Racial Imbalance Advisory Council, is being handled by the Center for Educational Options.”
Asked to clarify whether the role of arts education coordinator would be permanently folded into another job, DESE spokesperson Jessica Leitz responded that the fate of the position has not yet been decided. “It’s my understanding that hiring decisions will be able to get underway again now that the state budget is finalized,” she said via email. “DESE is fully committed to the Arts Curriculum Framework revision.”
This comes at a crucial time in arts education for Massachusetts: 2017-18 was the first school year that districts across the state operated under new state education guidelines written in response to Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), a bipartisan federal education law passed in 2015 that explicitly includes instruction in the arts in the definition of a "well-rounded education." However, the implementation had been slow, in part because of the death last year of Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Mitchell Chester.
Even before these changes, Munoz-Bennett’s job was never simple. “She has been the glue that has held a lot of disparate elements together,” said Charles Combs, president of the nonprofit arts advocacy group Arts Learning and the liberal arts chair emeritus at Berklee College of Music.
He describes Munoz-Bennett organizing curriculum sessions, where he and his colleagues would make presentations about arts integration and the arts curriculum. “These served as professional development opportunities for the teachers and administrators who were attending,” said Combs.
Beyond such formal gatherings, “she was a connector,” he said. “She was consistently engaged in trying to get the arts in the schools for the children because it was a crucial way of learning, a way of knowing and a way of communicating in another symbol system beyond language and numbers.”
Redefining her former position makes sense, Munoz-Bennett said. “The equity piece is not necessarily about the arts,” said the retired administrator, explaining that she had carried over that role from her earlier work in the department. Coordinating arts education, however, ”should be a full-time job,” she stressed, noting the many different facets of the new curriculum.
Any delay could work against the department’s forward momentum, say arts education advocates.
“We are developing a really robust set of standard in arts, music, media arts, etc., that’s going to be implemented next fall — a year from this fall — and if you don’t have a person with the arts expertise in place I think there’s going to be a lot of difficulty,” said Jonathan C. Rappaport, executive director of Arts Learning, which advocates for the arts to be seen as a core curriculum subject in Massachusetts schools. “I see this position as really coming at a critical point.”
“There’s going to be this new curriculum and new attention on the arts, but if there’s not the infrastructure then it’s going to die on the vine,” added Matt Wilson, executive director of MASSCreative, a statewide advocacy group for the arts and creative community.
Partially because of the new emphasis provided by ESSA, this summer, 70 arts educators have been working on new curricula in five areas (visual arts, media arts, performing arts, dance and music), and this year will begin the professional development and implementation.
“The timing now is so important to have the infrastructure,” said Wilson. “That there’s professional development and support for the teachers and it finds its place of importance in the department as a necessary piece.”
The appointment of Jeff Riley in January to replace Chester as the state education commissioner is reason for optimism, arts education advocates say. Rappaport said Riley met with the Arts For All coalition, a group of organizations that work on arts education policy. “The commissioner was very gracious and met with us, and he expressed very strong support for the arts,” Rappaport said. “I’m hopeful that if we work with him that this position will be reinstated.”
Wilson added, “This is an opportunity for the commissioner to follow through on the commitment to make arts an important part of the curriculum.”