Supporting Learning Through the Arts: An Interview with Deputy Secretary Cindy Marten on Raising The Bar For Arts Education

Earlier this month, we celebrated National Arts in Education Week. Encompassing visual arts, music, theater, and dance, arts education is pivotal in fostering creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills. The annual celebration is a time to reflect on the arts’ profound impact on student learning and development and an opportunity to help ensure even more students have access to arts education.

In the spirit of reflection and forward-thinking, we interviewed Deputy Secretary of Education Cindy Marten, a lifetime educator and long-time arts champion. Given that State and district leaders are often called to make difficult decisions on how and where resources are allocated, Deputy Secretary Marten offers unique insights from her time in the field and provides an authentic, firsthand perspective on the topic. Deputy Secretary Marten not only champions the power of arts education in schools nationally; during her tenure as Superintendent of San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD), she implemented strategies to leverage federal funding to ensure that students within SDUSD were well positioned to experience the transformative power of this important aspect of a well-rounded education. The below is condensed and lightly edited.

Deputy Secretary Marten, for over 30 years, you’ve served the education field–as a teacher, literacy specialist, vice principal, principal, and Superintendent. As you think about your experiences, what are your biggest takeaways in supporting the arts as a lever in a well-rounded education?

As the Superintendent of SDUSD, I worked towards providing space for principals and site leaders to be supportive of the whole child and work to create classrooms and schools worthy of our children. Yes, this calls for strong instruction; professional development; and other carefully curated, personalized academic supports. But truly reaching children is also about creating classrooms and schools filled with rigorous, relevant, joyful learning opportunities.

When I was a principal at a large elementary school in San Diego, I saw the need to bring robust and integrated arts education programming school-wide. We leveraged site level Title I funding to create an integrated approach to arts education that paired literacy with music and dance. Through this, I was able to see how students were applying and learning literacy skills. Students learned choreographed modern dance based on the stories they were reading in rich literature.

When I later became Superintendent of SDUSD, we expanded this approach by creating a district-wide program called Learning Through the Arts, leveraging District Title I dollars to build out this program. This meant that teaching artists worked alongside classroom teachers to teach integrated lessons. Because of this work, the district now has long term budget lines that dedicate Title I funds for arts education.

I learned how robust arts education truly transforms lives and communities by seeing it firsthand across SDUSD. I remember meeting Mrs. Jeanne Christensen, a teacher and Band Director at Mira Mesa High School when she invited me to come and witness the impact that music was having on her students. I saw how she led her students to success in regional marching band competitions at the school. Over the years of watching such positive impacts of her program, I learned from Jeanne about the barriers she was facing as she tried to hold up the program. This called for action, which is why we built a new facility for her program, because when you invest in the arts, you’re investing in the success of students.

Successful programs like these called for greater investments going forward which is why I worked with our Director of Visual and Performing arts, Russ Sperling, to develop a strategic Arts Education plan—we then took that to the board for approval. This strategic plan became a strong tool and provided the district with a solid direction when it came to planning our spending budget, it ultimately created a path to expanding our arts programs.

Investments like these remind us that we can teach kids critical skills while also feeding their souls.

What should State and districts know about the importance of arts education, particularly given the competing demands post-pandemic? 

From classroom teacher to Superintendent, my experiences reinforce the thought that academic recovery must include well-rounded options. The pandemic had a detrimental impact on student academic, social, emotional, and mental health. NAEP underscored pandemic-induced regressions in reading and math scores, and recent data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention illustrated increases in youth anxiety and depression. Through the arts, we can support student wellness, improve engagement, and enhance academic performance. To further the urgent work of academic recovery, we must highlight connections between content and funds of knowledge.

Arts education and ensuring students receive a well-rounded education must remain a priority as we move forward. We know it—from a theoretical to research to practical lens— broad learning experiences that include arts education foster creativity, enhance critical thinking skills, and support students’ college and career readiness. By nurturing artistic talents and interests, we help students discover their potential, build self-confidence, and develop a deeper understanding of the world around them.

We encourage States to consider how federal funding can support arts education. For example, Title I and Title IV can, generally, be used to support arts but it must be within the context of the program, particularly with Title I. Additionally, the Assistance for Arts Education program provides funding for the integration of arts in education, with a focus on students who are underserved and students with disabilities, in particular. In particular, I encourage States and districts to consider Federal funds to support innovative, equity-focused pre-kindergarten through grade 12 arts education strategies.

Earlier this year, the Department announced a call to action – Raise the Bar: Lead the World – which focuses on transforming P-12 education and uniting the world around what truly works to advance educational equity and excellence. A chief goal of this effort is to develop a well-rounded education for every student with high-quality instruction that prepares them to be active, engaged, and lifelong learners.  Research signals the value of an arts education and validates its power to further a student’s academic success across all disciplines and build well-rounded individuals. Unfortunately, fewer students – especially students from historically underserved backgrounds – have access to the arts. We encourage SEAs and LEAs to continue to explore ways to fund arts education programs through multiple funding streams, including but not limited to Federal funding sources, to support a well-rounded education for all students. When the bar is raised in education, our nation’s students will build the skills to succeed both inside and outside of school.