3 Stories That Reveal How Important Arts Education Really Is

The arts have always had a secondary place in K-12 learning. If you doubt that statement, think of the first programs to go whenever budget cuts are implemented – music, fine arts and even physical fitness which includes dance. I’ve yet to hear of a school board or administrators discussing the way cutting math programs could help the school’s bottom line. There is a hierarchy of academics in America, and arts education tends to fall pretty low on the totem pole.

Let’s look at three notable events that show the state of arts education in America and what that reveals about our society.

  1. New York City schools lack arts education—and low-income students suffer the most.

A report from the New York City comptroller finds that many public schools offer no arts programs, and that low-income and minority students are hurt the most by it. The report is written based on data from the U.S. Department of Education that finds 20 percent of New York’s public schools have NO arts teachers. This includes one in seven middle and high schools, despite that fact that arts instruction at that level is a state requirement.

The biggest areas hit by the lack of arts teachers? Central Brooklyn and the South Bronx. In those schools, more than 42 percent have no state-certified arts instructors. Between 2006 and 2013, spending on arts equipment and other supplies dropped a whopping 84 percent, perhaps due to pressure to meet higher accountability standards in basic subjects.

At any rate, the lack of arts education in NYC schools is indicative of a larger cultural issue that undercuts arts education for the sake of higher test scores.

  1. The First Lady wants to make arts education a priority.

An estimated 6 million children have no access to arts education, and another 6 million have a “minimal” exposure, First Lady Michelle Obama said.

The First Lady Michelle Obama joined the stage with middle- and high-schoolers who performed in the first ever White House Talent Show, created to celebrate the importance of the arts in American education. At the opening of the show, the First Lady emphasized the need for arts programs to be a part of all school curriculum, and not something that comes secondary to other academic pursuits like reading, math and science.

“Arts education isn’t something we add on after we’ve achieved other priorities, like raising test scores and getting kids into college,” said the First Lady. “It’s actually critical for achieving those priorities in the first place.”

The Talent Show celebration comes two years after President Obama introduced the Turnaround Arts program in partnership with the U.S. Department of Education. The goal of the program is to see if strong arts programs aid in other strong student academic outcomes. In the original eight schools where the program has been implemented, reading and math scores have improved, and so has behavior. Two of the schools have shown so much progress that they are no longer considered in need of a “turnaround.” In each case, big-name artists or performers like Alfre Woodard and Sarah Jessica Parker have adopted the turnaround schools and provided guidance in the programming.

At the show, the First Lady announced that the program will expand to 35 schools in 10 states and the District of Columbia.

  1. Some districts have adopted arts integration as a creative solution.

Sometimes schools cannot afford to implement arts departments in their schools. Some districts have instead integrated the arts in their existing curricula. Instead of treating the arts like a separate, distant relative to other classroom endeavors, these programs integrate musical instruments, painting, dancing, drawing, singing and more into traditional subjects like science, math and language. When implemented correctly, these programs are enthusiastically received by students who learn comprehensively.

Take a look at the West Michigan Academy of Arts & Academics in Ferrysburg, Michigan. The charter school has found ways to make stale topics like economics interesting through dance, music and visual art learning components. WMAAA may appear to be a “fun” learning environment, but its arts integration actually has legitimate outcomes. The test scores of WMAAA students rival the highest-rated traditional public schools in its district and in neighboring ones too. By allowing students to be active, instead of burying them in text books or regular written assignments alone, learning moves from a place of isolation to one that has other applications beyond the topic at hand.

Public Middle School 223 in the Bronx is another example of a school using arts integration methods effectively. Students in the school – the lowest income district in all of New York – participated in a four-year arts integration program that took students from basically no arts learning to multi-faceted lesson plans with arts inclusion. The results? An 8 percent improvement in Language Arts scores, 9 percent improvement in math scores and less absenteeism. Whether the last point impacted the higher scores is irrelevant. If students want to be in school more because of arts integration, and their test scores improve as a result, that is reason enough to call a program a success.

Even when schools do not have the money to support an official arts integration program, teachers can make arts integration a reality on their own. Teachers do not need to be artistic to successfully use arts integration – they simply need to be innovative enough to merge art concepts with other content. Social media is an amazing platform for teaching ideas, particularly when it comes to the arts, and teachers should take advantage of these available resources from around the world to integrate arts and traditional academics.

As results range from increased engagement in schools to better test scores, one thing is clear from all this: arts education should be made a priority in U.S. schools.


Choose your Reaction!