A few times every year, the Landmark Mall in Alexandria, Va., near Dropout Nation‘s headquarters, hosts a carnival in its parking lot. Each and every day during those weeks, families from around the city and nearby Fairfax County bring their kids to the carnival so that they can ride on the Ferris Wheel, enjoy the carousel, and even partake in cotton candy.

One day, your editor noticed the crowds and was amazed by the numerous young faces coming there, the children of poor immigrants working hard to provide their kids with both a great education and a little joy. It made me remember one of the reasons why so many of these families come to this fair: Because of the high cost of taking a family a four to the Six Flags theme park across the Potomac in Prince George’s County, Md. — and served as a reminder that my wife and I were blessed to  be able to easily afford a day of rides for my future children at one of the nation’s more-expensive childhood activities.

And it brings up one of the issues that school reformers must continually address as part of the reform of American public education: Helping our poorest and minority children get the cultural experiences that are part of expanding their knowledge and preparing for success in the outside world.

Every now and then, I am reminded that I had the great fortune, not only of being born in New York City, the epicenter of the nation’s cultural life, but being born into a family which had the mean to provide me with strong knowledge of music and art. By the time I had reached high school, my mother and grandparents made sure I had listened to hours of Rachmaninoff and Duke Ellington, took trips to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Smithsonian’s Air, Sea, and Space Museum, and had been able to travel beyond the boundaries of my hometown. Even if didn’t travel beyond America’s borders until my adulthood, I could learn about Canada, Japan, and Mexico from my mother (who had went to that country both in her child and adult years), and my grandfather (who was there during the occupation after World War II).

This isn’t so for so many poor children, regardless of their race or ethnicity. For families from poor and minority backgrounds, providing their kids with cultural knowledge — especially through travel, trips to the museum, and attending ballet showcases — can be cost-prohibitive (and that’s if they have received a high-quality education that helped them understand the world around them in the first place). A single mother in New Orleans would find herself unable to afford the $75 price tag (excluding food and drink) to her two sons to the local Jazz and Heritage Festival, while a family of four in Indianapolis would wince at the $123 price tag to attend a symphony event featuring the group Pink Martini.

As a result, young men and women struggle not only in literacy and numeracy, but in understanding the world around them. There’s a good chance that an Atlanta kid on the path to dropping out not only can’t read Tom Wolff’s A Man in Full, but has never been to the High Museum of Art or traveled beyond the I-285 perimeter. The problem isn’t just limited to kids graduating from high school. One reason why black high school students getting ready to attend college do so poorly on the verbal portion of the Scholastic Aptitude Test is because of their lack of knowledge about the rest of American culture; white middle-class students, more-likely to have been exposed to cultural classes, will do better because they know more about the world around them. It also matters in helping poor kids become adults who can move into the middle class. As a plumber who has read The Canterbury Tales can also move up socially, converse with executives, play his part as a leader in his community, and even pave a path for his children to continue along into middle class society, so can a truck driver who has listened to Philip Glass’ Four Movements for Two Pianos. 

Elementary school kids in Miami listen to classical music from the Black Violin collective.

Contrary to the arguments of education traditionalists, the problem lies not with a lack of art and cultural classes, or the supposed narrowing of curricula resulting from the efforts of standards and accountability advocates (including passage of the No Child Left Behind Act). As both the U.S. Department of Education and Quadrant Arts Education Research’s Robert Morrison have pointed out, arts and music classes remain the norm throughout American public education. While there has been slight declines in the number of drama classes at the high school level, arts and music classes are still a part of the curricula for students. But simply offering cultural courses does little to provide kids with the kind of knowledge about music and art that can open up minds and help them get the learning they need for lifelong success.

Schools should actually connect cultural education courses — and knowledge about music art — to lessons learned in reading, math, science, and history. More importantly, cultural and core courses should reinforce each other’s lessons in order to help kids build their knowledge. Why? For one, both are critical to each other. Background knowledge on the world, including understanding of Vivaldi’s L’incoronazione di Dario and Handel’s Messiah, is as critical to reading comprehension as phonics and whole language mastery. As I figured out as a student learning how to play the piano and French horn, learning how to read musical notes involves understanding math (including the abstractions that will come down the road in the form of algebra and calculus). A science teacher, for example, could use ballet’s pas de deux to teach about the conservation of angular momentum, while a music teacher can talk about the historic forces that shaped Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s The Year 1812, Festival Overture in E flat major. More importantly, using cultural knowledge in core subjects and vice versa helps makes courses relevant and interesting for children, especially those who are already struggling with literacy. One can imagine the possibilities of engaging such students in a class discussing the progressive development of rhyming structures from Italian sonnets to Jay-Z’s Big Pimpin’ to the lyrical masterpieces of Saul Williams.

Yet few traditional districts do a good job of linking, integrating, and reinforcing cultural and core courses, much less making lessons in both sets of courses relevant to the students who must learn them. Save for schools that use Core Knowledge’s reading curricula, few districts provide the kind of reading curricula that adequately helps students with phonics and whole language, much less provide kids with cultural knowledge. While Common Core standards in reading and math will help address some of these deficits, it won’t work unless states, districts, and schools develop curricula that actually aligns with those standards and also integrates art and cultural knowledge. This isn’t difficult to do: Schools such as Harlem Link Charter School in New York City already do this every day in their classrooms.

But it will take more than addressing curricula. While we don’t have enough information to surmise this, it is quite likely that the crisis of low-quality instruction endemic throughout the rest of American public education is also problematic among the nation’s arts and cultural teachers. This problem will be especially hard to ignore as efforts to overhaul teacher evaluations, especially for teachers working in core subjects (and the use of student test score performance data to measure their performance). Given that cultural courses are not likely to be subjected to testing, and the reality that states and districts must find ways to deal with $1.1 trillion in teachers’ pension deficits and unfunded retiree healthcare costs, there will be more-scrutiny on the quality — and necessity — of teachers in cultural subjects. One possible solution may lie in moving away from cultural teachers having full-time jobs and moving to a system of contracting with professional artists and musicians ready, willing and able to take on teaching those subjects at least on a part-time or contractual basis. One can imagine a district putting together a team of professional musicians who can teach at several schools throughout the school year.

But simply integrating lessons and addressing teacher quality isn’t enough. Schools and districts do plenty to provide students with field trips to museums and cultural events that provide kids with some exposure to the world around them. But this is rather shallow. For one, the trips are rarely interactive; kids merely end up taking a day off from school without gaining any knowledge in return. Another issue lies with the fact that districts and schools do little to build close ties to cultural institutions, both in their communities and throughout the nation and world; the latter is especially easy to do in the age of the Internet, which allows people to explore the world at their fingertips. Especially for kids in parts of the country outside of the major metropolitan areas where culture is plentiful, it means that they will never get to see Old Master portraits up close, watch Alvin Alley performances in person, or even get to hold an insect fossilized in amber (unless their families have the money and knowledge needed to provide those experiences to them).

It doesn’t have to be that way. The Smithsonian Institution, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and other institutions have already developed online platforms that allow for kids to do everything from exploring a particular exhibit to engaging in activities such as learning how large the Sun would be if it were a vegetable. Organizations are also working in this space, providing schools with the ability to bring art exhibits into classrooms through virtual means. Meanwhile districts should work to build stronger partnerships with museums, dance troupes, universities, and other players in the cultural space. A district, for example, could actually work with a coalition of arts institutions in their community to craft year-round programs

But we can’t count on districts to do this. School reformers and Parent Power activists can do plenty on their own to work with cultural institutions and help families help their kids get strong cultural (as well as academic) instruction and curricula. After all, plenty of school reform philanthropists also give money to museums and art troupes; while Parent Power groups (along with traditional parent involvement outfits) spend time helping parents understand how to navigate school systems. One possible model may lie with famed surgeon Dr. Benjamin Carson’s initiative to build reading rooms where young boys and girls engage in building their literacy games such as reading contests, while moms and dads can enjoy coffee and join their kids in learning. One can easily see, say, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation teaming up with Pacific Northwest Ballet to build dance education rooms.

Every child, no matter who they are or where they live, deserves a well-rounded education that As reformers, we cannot simply just think about the importance of mastering reading, math, science, and history. We must also ensure that they get a comprehensive cultural education that helps them succeed in the adult world.