In the city of Chicago, teachers unions, administrators, parents, and politicians are continuously fighting over how to best educate children, but while doing so students are failing in the broken system and are being prepared to become under-contributing members of society. This dispute often falls into the national spotlight because it’s a common narrative in many of America’s cities. Any breakthrough improvement in education policy would come far too late for adults who have already been failed by the system leaving them with only one option to retrieve a portion their lost education experience, taking the GED. GED programs, themselves, have limitations on how much they can help adults but a true lifeline can be found in arts education. Arts programming has been known to be adaptable and provide “skills that make you stand out,” some of which include entrepreneurial skills according to St. Louis teaching artist Shea Brown.
By our cultural standards, high school is supposed to provide teenagers, who are borderline young adults, with the basic necessities to become functional members of society. The pursuit of higher education is just an addition, or specialized pursuit towards a chosen career path. If someone chooses not to enroll in college after graduation, they should still be able to perform basic tasks such as learning a trade, managing their finances, and participating in civic duties without a college degree. Unfortunately, not completing high school greatly reduces a person’s chances of performing these tasks successfully and the reality is that a sizable portion of the Midwest population does not possess a high school diploma. In Missouri alone, roughly 12% of the population did not possess a diploma in the year 2013.
Education has evolved beyond the K-12 “package of education” that has been sold to America for generations and is now more “consumer responsive” says Kathleen Fink, Ph.D., assistant dean of professional learning and innovation and executive director of the ED Collabitat at the University of Missouri - St. Louis. Fink believes that the GED is not necessarily a sign of failure but can be the “first step in a customized education.” Having to pursue a GED can force an adult to become more proactive in the development of their education and career, which is crucial for everyone in the modern world, and art education is the ideal complement because of it’s emphasis on skills development and adaptability.
Non-profit and community-based organizations across the country have been using extracurricular arts activities to supplement the primary education of children, and in some cases teach them skills that their schools weren't able to. In addition to being an artist, Brown is a founding and acting member of Cherokee Street Reach, an organization that “utilizes a multidimensional approach of visual and performance art, crafting, academics, and physical fitness as a bridge to self-awareness, community building, and economic empowerment.” Cherokee Street Reach works specifically with youths in South St. Louis that are located near Cherokee Street which contains a growing community of arts and cultural attractions.
This same concept can also be used to teach adults who did not successfully complete their high school education. Brown regularly teaches crochet workshops for adults who take interest in the craft for a number of reasons ranging from looking for a hobby to having interest in learning to develop their own craft products. She was amazed to find that one of the participants in her workshop took the skills that he learned and started a business selling crochet products, said Brown. “When you’re creative you’re open to more things,” some of those things could include turning an artistic skill into an entrepreneurial venture.
Exploring the GED
According to the U.S. Department of State website, “The General Education Development (GED) testing program was developed to give U.S. and Canadian citizens who have not graduated from high school the opportunity to demonstrate the level of achievement normally acquired through the completion of a traditional U.S./Canadian high school course of study.” The GED is accepted by many colleges and universities as an alternative to possessing a high-school diploma, the requirement to enroll in any higher education institution. Possessing a GED also serves as an alternative to obtain jobs that require a diploma.
Between the target regions covered by the New Territory magazine [Arkansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas, and Nebraska] there were a total of 2,144,870 adults without a high school credential [diploma], according to statistics collected by the GED Testing Service for 2013. That year, 43,080 of them took the GED test and 32,429 passed. According to the GED Testing Service’s analysis, most people who take the GED dropout of high school after their junior year. For those who don’t take the test immediately after dropping out they, on average, spend eight years out of school before taking the test, making the average age range for GED candidates around 27 years old.
Allen Shaw is one of the many Missourians who did not finish high school. Shaw was an exceptional student in his early years of high school but chose not to complete his education because of the large drug presence in his household which served as both a barrier to maintaining focus on school and eventually a path towards easy money. “I made the choice to hustle”, said Shaw. He received a second opportunity at high school when he moved to California to live with other family members but chose to drop out for good at the age of 16 because he felt that a high school education wasn’t providing him with the resources to develop his own unique path to success. “I decided to better my education at 16,” said Shaw who decided to go straight to college via a GED program, a option that was available to him in the state of California during the 90s.
A number of colleges and universities across the Midwest offer GED testing and test prep programs, but some colleges also offer career building opportunities that allow participants to easily transition into a certificate or degree program once they have earned their GED. Illinois Central College, for example, offers free GED preparation classes via a grant provided by the Illinois Community College Board. The goal of these programs is to increase the opportunities available to those without a diploma and place them on a track to being as competitive as their diploma-holding peers in the economy. Looking at the offerings of these programs gives great optimism that there is a solution for adults who did not finish high school. However, the opportunities are only as great as the people who take advantage of them.
Overcoming GED challenges
One of the largest obstacles for the GED being a gateway to new opportunities is getting people to take it. Out of the 2,144,870 adults that didn’t have a high school diploma in 2013, only 43,080 made an attempt to get a GED, just 2% of those who had the opportunity. For children, education is mandatory whereas for adults, education is voluntary and they must choose to pursue it. This means 98% of those without a diploma chose not to obtain a GED. Despite enrolling in a GED program at his college, Shaw did not complete it because he chose to pursue a deeper involvement in drug activity because he learned that the drug trade was used as a means towards “funding ventures” in the music industry. Furthermore, standardized tests, which typically have little appeal, are dreaded by even the most academically successful people meaning that they can be even less desirable to someone who struggled with academics.
The second big obstacle is ensuring that people who pass the test actually master the material that is covered rather than reciting just enough to get by. “We need creative thinkers that don’t just regurgitate facts on standardized tests,” said Erica Popp, assistant professor of art and photography program coordinator at St. Louis Community College - Florissant Valley. Popp emphasized the benefit of her own art background being present in her teaching style noting that “when you’re an artist you’re adaptable and it helps me be more responsive to the students’ needs.” This same responsiveness is needed by students to succeed in their career path of choice but may not be emphasized in GED programs.
These two challenges make it difficult to ensure that this demographic of undereducated adults can get back on track and make up the things they missed out on in high school. While there are a plethora of options you can’t force an adult to take advantage of any of them and you can’t guarantee that they will get the full benefit of them. The question to be answered is, how do you educate an adult who missed out on a quality high school education but is too old to repeat high school? The answer may be in community-focused artists. Working in partnership with educators and community developers, artists have a history of creating transformative environments that exceed the possibilities of GED programs and traditional career building opportunities. As members of their community, artists are often aware of the true needs of those who live within the areas where they work such as creative outlets for citizens to express themselves and their feelings about community issues and training to help them develop skills that can help them develop a career focus or entrepreneurial skills. In addition, they are accustomed to thinking outside of conventional tactics and formulating new approaches to problems while having limited resources.
Using art themes can make learning the material more attractive for those who may not have a strong interest in education subjects such as english or history, and also more interactive which will help in the mastery of critical information that needs to be learned. Shaw believes that “writing is a good thing because you can visualize something and then put it into words” as he spoke of the possibility of using poetry in education. Reading is also a critical skill that could be taught through the arts because reading aids in the visualization portion of writing that Shaw described, being able to read will help one to be able to visualize a wider range of things. Another St. Louis-based organization, UrbArts, provides an example of the arts being used to education with their VerbQuake Youth Poetry Slam program which uses performance poetry to help improve writing and public speaking in teenagers. According to their website, “it is critical of literacy, it is reading everyday life as text, it is treating revision as sharpening blades,” the organization speaks of VerbQuake.
Ideas for Art-Ed
Both Street Reach and UrbArts have created programs that enable youth that can easily serve as templates for adult-focused programs that could use the arts to teach valuable skills. One idea is to use poetry writing to teach civics. Participants could be challenged to write a poem from the perspective of a television character from their favorite show and explore civics from their point of view. In addition to using a popular television show they're familiar with to gain their interest, they would also be encouraged to consider the perspectives of others which is an important soft skills for people to possess. A second idea is to use painting to teach about budgeting and the economics of managing a business. This would consist of learning to calculate the cost of labor and materials that go into the creation of an artwork to determine the appropriate retail value. Each participant could be given a budget, $50.00 for example, and told to purchase the supplies they need to create a painting which they will eventually sell, the goal being to earn more than what is spent. A final idea is to use theatre to teach participants how to successfully articulate information about themselves, confidently, during an interview. As with performing a role in a play, participants would learn the art of rehearing lines [information about themselves] in preparation for a performance [interview]. One of the best features of art is its ability to meet people where they are when it comes to their learning level and it can be modified to fit evolving needs.
While you can’t completely replace a high school diploma or GED with arts education it can make for an ideal supplement in workforce training. Many jobs still require that piece of paper as the bare minimum education requirement so it will always be advantageous to have a diploma or GED. However, for those with more entrepreneurial intentions the arts can create a path towards independence the way it did for Brown who “got tired of being overqualified [for jobs] and wanted to be self-sufficient.” This could eventually be the route that Shaw takes, as well as others facing similar circumstances, that will get him where he wants to be in life, career-wise as he maintains an interest in the intersection of technology and entertainment. Arts education can be used to reach out to those who haven’t made the decision to pursue a GED, or to further advance the skills of those who have done so which will enable them to be more prosperous. The Midwest could benefit tremendously from using unconventional education methods to help people in unconventional situations.
Published in The New Territory (Issue 4)