A recently published federal report from the National Center on Education Statistics (NCES) on arts education has some good news: Even in a decade in which many school districts have faced significant budget cuts, the availability of music and visual arts education has remained little changed.
There is also some less than encouraging news revealing differences in arts education availability based on students’ economic levels. While music and visual arts instruction was more available in high-poverty elementary schools in 2009-2010 than in the previous decade, the reverse situation was the case at the secondary level. When comparing high-poverty secondary schools in 1999-2000 with those in 2008-09, music instruction decreased from 100 percent to 81 percent and visual arts instruction from 93 percent to 80 percent.
Availability of Arts Education Fairly Consistent
The NCES is a division of the Department of Education; Jared Coopersmith, a project officer, tells Education Week that “generally, what we really found is there is no consistent trend of decline in arts education in public schools.” The NCES report found discrepancies in the types of arts education offered. Music was available at 90 percent of the public schools surveyed and, for the most part, visual arts.
But instruction in dance at the elementary level fell from 20 percent of schools in 1999-2000 to 3 percent in 2009-10 while instruction in drama/theater declined from 20 to 4 percent. Jane Bonbright, the executive director of the National Dance Education Organization, questioned these figures, noting that dance at the elementary level is often integrated with other subject matters. At the secondary level, the availability of dance changed little, going from from 14 percent to 12 percent in a decade; drama/theater went from 48 percent 45 percent.
Differences in Arts Education at High-Poverty vs. Low-Poverty Schools
In 2011, the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities released a report that called for “reinvesting” in arts education. The committee issued a statement about the NCES report that singled out a gap between arts instruction between high- and low-poverty schools that was especially apparent at the secondary level:
For instance, 80 percent of high-poverty schools reported visual-arts instruction for 2008-09, compared with 95 percent of low-poverty schools. In addition, 81 percent of high-poverty schools reported music instruction, compared with 96 percent of low-poverty schools. (The report defines high-poverty schools as having three-fourths or more students eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch. Low-poverty schools have no more than a quarter of such students.)
While music instruction was generally available at high- and low-poverty schools, the committee noted disparities in the presence of faculty specializing in teaching the arts and in facilities, such as rooms with specialized equipment for arts instruction.
The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) also recently issued a report describing an association between at-risk students and access to arts instruction. At-risk students who had a “history of intensive arts experiences” had better outcomes in many academic areas, from test scores and school grades to honors-society memberships, high school graduation and college enrollment and attainment. They were also more likely to become involved in volunteer work and local politics.
The NEA report contains a compelling argument for maintaining arts instruction in public schools. Despite the focus on reading and math achievement under No Child Left Behind, the arts have managed to retain their place in school curriula. But findings such as the decreased availability of arts instruction at high-poverty secondary schools — coupled with the NEA report linking at-risk students’ academic achievements to arts instruction — should be a wake-up call to educators about the importance the arts can play in helping such students to succeed.
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