“It’s my mantra: All children have potential,” said Dr. Merryl Goldberg, chair of the Visual and Performing Arts Department at CSUSM. “I’ve never met a child without potential. What kids really need is opportunity. And once given that opportunity, it’s amazing how capable they are.”

The results of the research Goldberg worked on, in collaboration with the North County Professional Development Federation, the San Diego County Office of Education and ten North San Diego County school districts, reveal that her mantra is spot on.

Through DREAM (Developing Reading Education with Arts Methods), a four-year arts integration program funded with a nearly $1 million grant through the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Innovation and Improvement, Project Co-Director Goldberg saw standardized reading test scores of third- and fourth-grade students improve nearly 90 points in just one year.

“Clearly, art has the power to inspire. Art has the power to educate,” she said.

DREAM’s goal was to train third- and fourth-grade teachers to use visual arts and theater activities to improve students’ reading and language arts skills. Begun in June 2009, the program offered one-week summer institutes, coupled with coaching by professional artists throughout the year. Students in classes where teachers integrated theater to teach reading scored much higher on the reading comprehension and inference standardized tests.

Ten school districts had teachers participate in the project, including: Carlsbad, Encinitas, Escondido, Fallbrook, Julian, Oceanside, Ramona, San Marcos, Valley Center Pauma and Vista, representing 141 teachers and approximately 3,000 students.

“All kids in our research started out on statistical equal footing as measured on the California Standards Test for English Language Arts,” said Goldberg. “The kids in the control group — the group without a DREAM teacher — averaged a 25-point improvement over the year. The kids in the classrooms with the teachers who only attended the summer institute had an average 51-point improvement. The kids in the classrooms with teachers who attended the institute and received in-class coaching gained an astonishing 87 points.”

While art is often seen as an educational “extra,” separate from and secondary to the fundamental basics that must be taught in the classroom, DREAM’s research results highlight how vital the arts are to providing a foundation for building 21st century skills such as creativity and critical thinking.

“The arts open up the natural abilities of children to wonder, to take risks, to feel confident, to be disciplined and to understand that learning is not a simple matter of ‘either/or,’ it is — indeed life is — more complex,” said Goldberg.

At a press conference in February — hosted by CSUSM, the North County Professional Development Federation and the San Diego County Office of Education — Hector DeLeon, a fourth grade teacher at Vista Academy for the Visual and Performing Arts, shared how being a part of the program helped him integrate art education into standard curriculum.

“We were studying a jazz unit — learning about jazz greats like Louie Armstrong and Duke Ellington,” he said. “We were learning about the 1920s and how popular the music was — and still is! As a DREAM teacher [I] was thinking, ‘how can I introduce the fourth-grade vocabulary or spelling test [to my students]?’ My thinking has changed quite a bit... Now, it’s ‘let’s sing [the words]. Let’s act them out. Let’s put movement behind these words. What would these words look like if we were to draw them?’”

Dr. Laurie Stowell, CSUSM professor of literacy education, explained that the theater arts in particular are an excellent medium for teaching reading because students must become an active part of the story. In order to illustrate or act out the main idea, students have to understand what’s going on.

“They are the book. They are the characters. They have to process and make meaning of the story in order to perform it,” she said. “They gain fluency skills and vocabulary skills because they are doing it.  They aren’t just looking at words on the page. They have to bring meaning to those words. That’s what the arts do.”

Goldberg says that integrating the arts into education sets the stage for a desire for lifelong learning while introducing students to music, theater, dance and art — curriculum that has seen drastic cuts due to budget shortfalls.

“This research gets at the heart of accountability and children’s capability,” Goldberg said. “Our results prove that the arts are critically important in schools and help bring subject matter to life.”

View the DREAM Video:

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Picture of Dr. Merryl Goldberg

Dr. Merryl Goldberg

A Passion for Music, Art & Art Education

Multifaceted is an excellent word to describe Dr. Merryl Goldberg. She’s a professor, a professional saxophonist, and a mother with a mean combination punch (her boxing friends call the Boston native “Fenway”). After attending college at the New England Conservatory, she toured internationally for 13 years with the Klezmer Conservatory Band and she’s recorded music for TV shows and movie soundtracks.

“I was introduced to art and music as a natural part of life — as early as I can remember I’ve been immersed in the arts,” said Goldberg. When she was in fourth grade, she began learning how to play guitar and snuck in saxophone lessons on the side (her parents thought the saxophone wasn’t an instrument for girls, although they later gave in to lessons). In high school orchestra, she also picked up the bass and French horn.

Now a professor of music and chair of the Visual and Performing Arts department at Cal State San Marcos, Goldberg is passionate about teaching and giving students the same opportunities she once had to enjoy and immerse themselves in the arts.

In 2003 she founded Center ARTES at Cal State San Marcos, an organization dedicated to arts education in K-12 schools while also serving as a vehicle for exploring and contributing to the developing field of education in and through the arts.

Center ARTES incorporates many arts education partners under one umbrella. At the heart of Center ARTES’ success are fruitful partnerships between CSUSM, local school districts, award-winning SUAVE (Socios Unidos para Artes via Educacion, or United Community for Arts in Education) and many professional organizations, such as the San Diego County Office of Education; The California Center for Arts, Escondido; Orchestra Nova and other art institutions. These partnerships connect artists and art institutes with the teachers and schools that will most benefit from their services.

Center ARTES’ work is largely carried out by several CSUSM Visual and Performing Arts faculty members who are skilled in teaching with and through the arts. They work in partnership with local public school teachers to help them approach all areas of the curriculum in more creative and interactive ways. A primary philosophy underlying Center ARTES’ work is that teaching through the arts can be a powerful tool for teachers to help students both further their subject-matter understanding and be introduced to the arts as well.

“Today our society doesn’t value arts and sports as much as it used to — there’s a bias against them. But our kids need to learn discipline, perseverance and how to work as a team — all valuable skills that they learn through these types of activities,” said Goldberg. “I wanted to create Center ARTES because these days art education funding is so tentative but it’s so important. When I see kids so alive, so interested in reading, acting and learning, I know that our work is successful. These things keep me going.”