Art in Schools

Why Arts Education Is Crucial, and Who’s Doing It Best

The sculptor Magdalena Abakanowicz has stated that “art does not fix issues, but rather makes us aware of their existence.” Arts education, on the other hand, can resolve issues. Studies have shown that it is closely associated with practically everything that we as a country claim we want for our children and demand from our schools, including academic achievement, social and emotional development, civic involvement, and equal opportunity.

Engagement in the arts is related to improvements in arithmetic, reading, and other cognitive abilities such as problem-solving and critical thinking, as well as verbal ability. Learning the arts can also help students enhance their drive, concentration, confidence, and ability to work in groups. According to a 2005 report by the Rand Corporation on the visual arts, the intrinsic pleasures and stimulation of the art experience do more than just make a person’s life more enjoyable; they “can connect people more deeply to the world and open them to new ways of seeing,” laying the groundwork for the formation of social bonds and community cohesion, according to the report. Furthermore, good arts programming in schools contributes to closing a gap that has left many children behind. In general, whether or whether public schools provide arts education, the children of affluent, aspirant parents are exposed to the arts, whether through Mozart for babies or tutus for toddlers or through family outings to museums. Low-income children, on the other hand, frequently do not. “According to Eric Cooper, president and founder of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, “arts education allows children from economically disadvantaged families to compete on a more level playing field with children who have enjoyed those enriching experiences.”

No Child Left Behind has become a catchphrase in education, and the drive to boost test scores has resulted in a reduction in classroom time given to the arts as a result of this (and science, social studies, and everything else besides reading and math). However, while there is evidence to support this claim — we’ll get to the figures in a minute — the truth is more complicated. Over three decades, arts education has been deteriorating as a result of restricted budgets, an ever-growing number of legislative regulations that have jammed the classroom curriculum, and a public perception that the arts are beautiful but not necessary.

This degradation cut away at the constituencies that might have supported the arts in the period of NCLB — students who did not have access to music and art programs in the 1970s and 1980s may not recognize the importance of these subjects today. “According to Sandra Ruppert, director of the Arts Education Partnership (AEP), a national coalition of organizations in the fields of arts and education as well as philanthropic and government organizations, “we are dealing with a whole generation of teachers and parents who did not have the opportunity to benefit from the arts in their education.”

Understanding the Relationship Between Arts Education and Academic Success
However, against this backdrop, a new picture is beginning to emerge. Comprehensive and innovative arts initiatives are gaining root in an increasing number of school districts around the country… The arts as a learning tool (for example, using musical notes to teach fractions); incorporating the arts into other core classes (for example, writing and performing a play about slavery); creating a school environment rich in arts and culture (for example, playing Mozart in the hallways every day); and engaging students in hands-on art instruction are all examples of approaches that have been developed in response to new findings in brain research and cognitive development. Even though the majority of these efforts are still in their infancy, some are already producing spectacular outcomes. This trend may serve as a warning to schools that are obsessively, and sometimes counterproductively, focused on reading and mathematics.

According to Tom Horne, Arizona’s state superintendent of public instruction, “If they’re concerned about their test scores and want to find a method to raise them, they need to give them more arts, not fewer.” “There is a great deal of evidence showing children who are immersed in the arts perform better on academic assessments.”

The importance of the arts is nearly universally recognized in educational policies. According to the 2007-08 AEP state policy database, forty-seven states have arts-education mandates, forty-eight states have arts-education standards, and forty states demand arts instruction as a condition for high school graduation. The Goals 2000 Educate America Act, which was passed in 1994 and served as the foundation for the school-reform agendas of the Clinton and Bush administrations, stipulated that art should be included in the curriculum of all public schools. Art was designated as one of the ten core academic areas of public education under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which was passed in 2001 and qualified arts programs for a variety of federal funds.

NASBE’s study group, “The Complete Curriculum: Ensuring a Place for the Arts and Foreign Languages in American’s Schools,” published a report in 2003 stating that a substantial body of research has demonstrated the importance and benefits of arts education in the classroom, and calling for a greater emphasis on the arts and foreign languages in schools. Mike Huckabee, then governor of Arkansas, served as chairman of the Education Commission of the States from 2004 to 2006. During his tenure, the commission launched an initiative aimed at ensuring that every child has the opportunity to learn about, enjoy, and participate directly in the arts, according to commission literature.

Top-down regulations are one thing, but putting them into practice in the classroom is quite another thing entirely. Whatever the National Council on Learning and Development says about the arts, it assesses achievement through math and language arts scores rather than drawing proficiency or musical ability. As a result, it should come as no surprise that many districts have focused their attention on the examinations. The Center on Education Policy, a nonpartisan advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C., conducted a national survey in 2006 and discovered that five years after the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, 44 percent of districts had increased instruction time in elementary school English language arts and mathematics while decreasing instruction time in other subjects. A follow-up analysis, published in February 2008, revealed that 16 percent of districts had reduced elementary school class time for music and art — and that they had done so by an average of 35 percent or fifty-seven minutes per week — since the previous survey.

Some states have even more depressing figures. According to research conducted by the Music for All Foundation, participation in music classes in California decreased by 46 percent from 1999-2000 to 2000-04, although total school attendance increased by roughly 6 percent during the same period. The number of music professors, on the other hand, has decreased by 26.7 percent. However, according to an SRI International study conducted in 2006, 89 percent of K-12 schools in California failed to provide students with a standards-based course of study in all four disciplines, even though the California Board of Education established standards at each grade level for what students should know and be able to do in music, visual arts, theatre, and dance back in 2001. Only 61 percent of schools had a full-time arts expert on staff, according to the survey.

Furthermore, support for the arts from the highest levels of administration does not always transfer into education for children. Among principals and district superintendents in Illinois, for example, a 2005 research revealed virtually no opposition to arts education, despite significant differences in school offerings across the state.

Reviving Arts Education in the U.S.
In many neighborhoods, the arts have been neglected for so long that it will take years and a significant amount of money to turn things around. Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York City, has made arts education a priority in his school reform plans, and the city has initiated several projects to connect more kids with the city’s extensive cultural resources. However, according to an analysis conducted by the New York City Department of Education, only 45 percent of elementary schools and 33 percent of middle schools provided education in all four required art forms in 2007-08, and only 34 percent of high schools provided students with the opportunity to graduate with a diploma that was higher than the minimum graduation requirement in 2007.

However, several districts have made significant strides in not just rejuvenating the arts, but also in utilizing them to rethink educational institutions. Leadership, innovation, broad relationships, and a steadfast commitment that the arts are important to what we want students to learn are required for our effort to succeed.

For example, in Dallas, a coalition of arts supporters, philanthropists, educators, and business leaders has been working for years to provide arts education to all schools and to get children involved in the city’s booming arts community after school hours. The Dallas Independent School District is offering art and music training to every primary student for the first time in thirty years, for a total of 45 minutes per week. According to a February 2007 op-ed piece published in the Dallas Morning News, Gigi Antoni, president and CEO of Big Thought, the nonprofit partnership that collaborates with the district, the Wallace Foundation, and more than sixty local arts and cultural institutions, explained the rationale behind what was then known as The Dallas Arts Learning Initiative: “DALI was created on one unabashedly idealistic, yet meticulously researched, the premise — that students flourish when creativity drives learning.”

Additionally, the communities of Minneapolis and Chicago are forging partnerships with their thriving arts and cultural resources to infuse the schools with rich comprehensive, and sustainable programs — not add-ons that come and go with the fiscal year’s budget or the administration’s tenure in office.

In Arizona, Tom Horne, the state superintendent of public instruction, has made it his mission to give all K-12 students a high-quality, comprehensive arts education of the highest caliber. However, Horne has made significant strides toward his goal. He has pushed for higher standards for arts education in the state, appointed an art specialist to the state Department of Education, and directed $4 million in federal funds under the No Child Left Behind Act toward arts integration in schools throughout the state. Horne, a classically trained pianist who founded the Phoenix Baroque Ensemble, hasn’t yet achieved his goal, but he has made significant strides toward it. Some people have returned art and music to their homes after a decade without them.

As Horne explains, “When you think about the reasons for education, there are three of them.” “We’re training children for future employment. We’re preparing them to be productive members of society. And we’re preparing them to be human beings capable of appreciating the more subtle types of beauty. The third point is equally vital as the first two.”