Arts Education

Flickr/Alan Cleaver (CC BY 2.0)

Arts Education

Paints, pantomimes and piccolos – the arts are on display in our movies, on TV sets, and along city streets. But in recent years schools have had an uneasy relationship with arts education, sidelining stand-alone classes here while adding elements of the arts there. Yet after years of debate over perceived declines in access to arts education in U.S. schools, efforts are underway to expand funding and opportunities for students to draw, drum or dance.

Paints, pantomimes and piccolos – the arts are on display in our movies, on TV sets, and along city streets. But in recent years schools have had an uneasy relationship with arts education, sidelining stand-alone classes here while adding elements of the arts there. Yet after years of debate over perceived declines in access to arts education in U.S. schools, efforts are underway to expand funding and opportunities for students to draw, drum or dance.

The movement’s allies range from music and film stars to labor leaders and even President Barack Obama. Actors and pop stars have joined the White House in the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities to highlight school turnaround models that rely on instruction in the arts.

Backers of arts education cite key large-scale research suggesting access to visual arts, theater and music all positively contribute to a student’s academic well-being, something particularly true for low-income students. There’s also evidence that parents and policymakers familiar with schools containing robust arts programs were much more likely to value the arts as a core subject and believe that the arts can improve student achievement. Other supporters claim more modest benefits, arguing that while few studies show the arts have a causal positive impact on other subjects, arts education shouldn’t be judged by the value it brings to courses like math or English.

Meanwhile, supporters of arts education are armed with large survey sets that suggest access to arts education has on average declined for U.S. students since the start of the millennium and that public schools serving predominantly low-income students offer fewer music, dance, theater and visual arts classes than schools with wealthier students. And although roughly half the states mandate that the arts be taught in schools, compliance varies dramatically, with many schools in possible violation of state laws.

Data on Access and Funding

Did the No Child Left Behind Act leave no time for the arts? Even though the primary federal K-12 education law designated the arts as one of the “core academic subjects,” the 2002 statute has been blamed for cutting into the time that schools spent teaching students the arts. There’s no final verdict on the matter, as studies that tried to document NCLB’s impact on the arts came to differing conclusions. However, some evidence suggests wealthier districts provide more access to the arts than those that serve lower-income students.

In 2007, the Center on Education Policy estimated that for 44 percent of the school districts it evaluated, the time students spent studying the arts had fallen by an average of 31 percent following the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act compared to the year before NCLB was enacted. The report suggested that the time had been dedicated to increased math and English instruction. However, the U.S. Government Accountability Office released a report in 2009 finding that no significant time was cut from the arts.

In 2010, a comprehensive survey designed by F. Robert Sabol of Purdue University and based on a questionnaire filled out by more than 3,000 arts educators — the grand majority of whom were public school K-12 instructors — found that NCLB had had a mixed effect on the visual arts in K-12 education. Two-thirds of respondents reported that the number of arts educators had not declined since NCLB’s enactment and that student enrollment hadn’t changed in the period. But the study found that roughly half of respondents reported that their workloads had increased, in part because they had to teach non-arts courses. And nearly half reported that funding for the arts had declined.

Meanwhile, a U.S. Department of Education survey examining national arts education trends in public schools between 2000 and 2010 found that access to some arts subjects had declined in the era of No Child Left Behind. 

One in every five elementary school students were taught dance and theater as standalone classes in 2000, but that figure dropped to one in 25 a decade later, according to the Education Department survey. More than half of elementary teachers reported incorporating dance into their classrooms once a week by 2010, up from 23 percent in 2000. Schools integrated theater into the classroom at higher rates, too, though schools that taught students from wealthier households were more likely to offer some form of theater than schools with poorer students.

The survey also found differing levels of access to the arts along socio-economic lines. Music instruction was available at 81 percent of high schools with concentrated poverty, compared to 96 percent of wealthier schools offering music classes. More than three-quarters of high school students didn’t have access to dance classes, though more than 90 percent of high schools in the U.S. provided music and visual arts classes.

 Attitudes Vary

Some studies indicate that many school leaders don’t value arts education as an integral aspect of the curriculum, and the reason may not necessarily be rooted in concerns about funding. School leaders cite challenges such as adjusting the school calendar and finding space on school property — and suggest that they view the arts as primarily after-school activities — in surveys gauging educators’ attitudes toward the role art plays in students’ lives.

There’s debate over how the arts should be delivered to the classroom. A growing trend in cash-strapped districts is to use available dollars to integrate arts into the classroom rather than maintaining stand-alone arts classes. While arts integration exists at all grade levels, the practice tends to be most visible at the elementary school level, where schools may lack the resources to hire a full-time arts educator. Instead, teachers sprinkle the arts into their instruction of other subjects.

Backers contend arts integration motivates students and lends a playful and energetic atmosphere that may contribute to increased student learning. Critics argue that the arts are part of the core curriculum, and should be funded in such a way that all students have full classes in their schedules designated for the arts.

The academic benefits of arts exposure have been hyped before, however, breeding skepticism among policymakers and educators. For example, a 1993 study claiming that merely listening to classical music boosted IQs unleashed a cottage industry of child-oriented toys and games. The governor of Georgia in 1998 even considered providing every newborn in the state a classical music CD. The study’s findings were called into question by many researchers.

Ellen Winner, a psychologist at Boston College, has written extensively about what types of arts education spur academic gains in other subjects. In some cases the links are causal, she found, while in others the connections are either overstated or correlational in ways that the arts programming can’t take credit for. (See the meta-analysis Winner co-wrote in the “Reports” section of the topics page below.)

While listening to Mozart may not be the cognitive spark plug some had hoped, an emerging class of research explores whether learning an arts subject over a period of time improves students’ cognitive abilities. Nina Kraus, who runs the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University, argues that learning to play an instrument sharpens the brain’s ability to process consonants and vowels, which can go a long way to boost a young learner’s ability to understand what teachers say.

The Arts Education Partnership’s “Arts Ed Search” is a clearinghouse of arts research spanning the elementary, middle and high school grades. It provides short summaries of numerous studies evaluating the effectiveness of arts education.


75th EWA National Seminar
Orlando • July 24-26, 2022

National Seminar graphic

Celebrating 75 Years! 

As those in education and journalism work to recover from an extended pandemic, bringing together the community has never been more critical. The Education Writers Association’s 75th annual National Seminar will provide a long-awaited opportunity to gather in person for three days of training, networking, and inspiration. 


How Arts Education Can Help Students — and Schools — Recover

How Arts Education Can Help Students — and Schools — Recover

As schools gear up for education recovery over the next year, robust arts programs – in music, visual arts, theater and more – can be a powerful lever to help address key pandemic-driven challenges. That’s the case some arts education advocates are making. 


74th EWA National Seminar
Virtual, May 2-5, 2021

EWA 74th National Seminar  graphic

The Education Writers Association’s 74th National Seminar will focus on the theme of “Now What? Reporting on Education Amid Uncertainty.” Four afternoons of conversations, training and presentations will give attendees deeper understanding of these crises, as well as tools, skills and context to help them better serve their communities — and advance their careers. 

To be held May 2-5, 2021, the seminar will feature education newsmakers, including leaders, policy makers, researchers, practitioners and journalists. And it will offer practical data and other skills training. 


73rd EWA National Seminar

EWA’s National Seminar is the largest annual gathering of journalists on the education beat. 

This multi-day conference is designed to give participants the skills, understanding, and inspiration to improve their coverage of education at all levels. It also will deliver a lengthy list of story ideas. We will offer numerous sessions on important education issues, as well as on journalism skills.


72nd EWA National Seminar
Baltimore • May 6-8, 2019

EWA’s National Seminar is the largest annual gathering of journalists on the education beat. This year’s event in Baltimore, hosted by Johns Hopkins University’s School of Education, will explore an array of timely topics of interest to journalists from across the country, with a thematic focus on student success, safety, and well-being.


71st EWA National Seminar
Los Angeles • May 16-18, 2018

EWA 71st National Seminar Los Angeles graphic

EWA’s National Seminar is the largest annual gathering of journalists on the education beat. This multiday conference provides participants with top-notch training delivered through dozens of interactive sessions on covering education from early childhood through graduate school. Featuring prominent speakers, engaging campus visits, and plentiful networking opportunities, this must-attend conference provides participants with deeper understanding of the latest developments in education, a lengthy list of story ideas, and a toolbox of sharpened journalistic skills.

EWA Radio

A Houston High School’s Transformation
EWA Radio: Episode 129

Laura Isensee of Houston Public Media discusses Furr High School, which recently received a $10 million grant to help it reinvent what, when, and how students learn. The changes are already underway: a veteran principal was lured out of retirement to take the helm; students are able dig into their own areas of interest during regular periods of “Genius Time”; and even the hiring process for teachers and staff has taken some innovative turns. What’s been the response of the school community to these new developments?

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Advocates Fear Impact of Trump Budget on Arts Education

President Donald Trump’s plans to eliminate some big-tickets items in the federal education budget — such as aid for after-school and teacher quality programs – have sparked sharp criticism. At the same time, supporters of the arts are rallying against the president’s proposal to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts — which provides some grants for arts education.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Back-to-School: You Need Stories, We’ve Got Ideas

Back-to-School: You Need Stories, We’ve Got Ideas

The boys (and girls) are back in town. For class, that is.

See how forced that lede was? Back-to-school reporting can take on a similar tinge of predictability, with journalists wondering how an occasion as locked in as the changing of the seasons can be written about with the freshness of spring.

Recently some of the beat’s heavy hitters dished with EWA’s Emily Richmond about ways newsrooms can take advantage of the first week of school to tell important stories and cover overlooked issues.

EWA Radio

Hard Numbers — and Hard Truths — About Chicago’s Dropout Crisis
EWA Radio: Episode 78

The press releases from Chicago Public Schools seemed almost too good to be true: the city’s graduation rate was rising more quickly than even its staunchest supporters might have predicted.

But what happened after reporters Becky Vevea and Sarah Karp uncovered discrepancies in those numbers, and raised serious questions about the city’s dropout prevention polices and practices. Vevea (WBEZ) and Karp (formerly of Catalyst Chicago and now with WBEZ) talk with EWA public editor Emily Richmond about their award-winning investigation, the significant changes to district policy that have followed in its wake, and some examples of CPS programs that are making legitimate strides toward helping more students graduate. 

EWA Radio

‘Hamilton’ Changed Broadway. Now It’s Changing Teaching.
EWA Radio: Episode 77

Flickr/Rachel Lovinger

Thanks to Broadway star Lin-Manuel Miranda and two nonprofit groups, thousands of public high school students in New York City are getting access to the hottest ticket in town.

Wayne D’Orio, editor in chief of Scholastic magazine, joins EWA public editor Emily Richmond to discuss an innovative curriculum built around the hip-hop infused musical about the life of Alexander Hamilton, the nation’s first secretary of the treasury. How are teachers using the show as a springboard to connect students to challenging academic content aligned to New York’s Common Core State Standards? Why is the show so popular with Advanced Placement U.S. History classes? And what are some smart story ideas of other pop culture influences being used by teachers to engage kids? 

Blog: The Educated Reporter

When Arts and Academics Share Center Stage

Students participate in a dance class at Boston Arts Academy, the only public arts high school in the city. (Natalie Gross/ EWA)

In the shadow of Boston’s Fenway Park, young playwrights do a read-through of a student script. Down the hall, dancers are flicking their toes in soulful precision.

On a tour of the Boston Arts Academy during the Education Writers Association’s national conference in May, visiting journalists listened in as students in a photo class talk about composition and critique one another’s work.

EWA Radio

When Artists Visit a Low-Income School to Teach Theater and Music
EWA Radio: Episode 37

(Staten Island Advance/Lauren Steussy)

Over the summer The Staten Island Advance published a three-part series about an arts residency program that tasked professional artists to teach elementary school students to teach them theater and music – arts instruction that otherwise didn’t exist at PS 57, a largely low-income school in the New York borough. Reporter Lauren Steussy followed the kids, teachers and parents of the school as they took in the sights and sounds of a campus suddenly abuzz with the stomps and squeaks of performing arts.


69th EWA National Seminar

The Education Writers Association, the national professional organization for journalists who cover education, is thrilled to announce that its annual conference will take place from Sunday, May 1, through Tuesday, May 3, 2016, in the historic city of Boston.

Co-hosted by Boston University’s College of Communication and School of Education, EWA’s 69th National Seminar will examine a wide array of timely topics in education — from early childhood through career — while expanding and sharpening participants’ skills in reporting and storytelling.

Boston, Massachusetts
Blog: The Educated Reporter

Beyond NCLB: New Era in Federal Education Policy?

Screenshot of a tweet by @KristenRencher

Fifty years ago, the federal government enacted the landmark Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty. The newest version of the ESEA, the No Child Left Behind Act, became law 13 years ago and has stayed in place ever since. On Thursday, a new version of the federal government’s most far-reaching K-12 education law moved closer to adoption. The U.S. Senate passed the Every Child Achieves Act, one week after the U.S. House of Representatives passed its own version, the Student Success Act.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

White House School Arts Program Expands to D.C., New York

Yo-Yo Ma performs at the 2008 World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos. He's one of several dozen artists affiliated with Turnaround Arts. (Source:
By World Economic Forum from Cologny, Switzerland CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

A program that pairs celebrities with struggling schools to develop their arts education is expanding to more large cities, The U.S. Department of Education announced today. 

Known as the Turnaround Arts initiative, the $10-million effort pools public and private funds to teach music, dance and other arts disciplines at schools that are considered among the worst in their respective states.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Nashville Magnet School Students Sing Different Tune

More than a few reporters at EWA’s National Seminar who signed up for the visit to Pearl Cohn Entertainment Magnet High School in Nashville suggested that the campus would certainly be infused with country music elements. Perhaps cowboy hats and boots on each student, with future Taylor Swifts and Scotty McCreerys singing their way through the halls – right?

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Kids Got the Beat: Arts and Music Enrich Student Learning

When Sandra Ruppert was growing up in Los Angeles every classroom at her school, Hancock Park Elementary, had a piano. And every teacher could play it.

“I made my first trip to the opera in third grade, learned ballroom dancing in the fourth grade and took violin in fifth grade,” Ruppert told those in attendance at “Kids Got the Beat,” one of the final panels of EWA’s 2014 National Seminar, held last month in Nashville. At her school, “there was artwork in the halls and seamlessly integrated into all kinds of classes.”


The Wallace Foundation

The Wallace Foundation is a national philanthropy, based in New York City, that aims to improve the educational opportunities for disadvantaged students. The foundation has invested heavily in research and resources aimed at improving the positive effect principals can have on school and student performance. They have also put significant funding toward expanded learning, summer learning, and after-school.


New Opportunities for Interest-Driven Arts Learning in a Digital Age – The Wallace Foundation
Kylie Peppler, The Wallace Foundation

Arts may be scarce in many public schools, especially in disadvantaged communities. But outside school, one sees a “strikingly different landscape,” according to this report. Why? Digital technologies are offering young people new ways to engage in the arts on their own time and according to their own interests. The report describes the new technologies, young people’s media use and a framework for thinking about “interest-driven” arts learning.


Turnaround Arts

Presidential Council on Arts and the Humanities: Turnaround Arts is a school turnaround pilot conducted out of the White House with the goal of narrowing the achievement gap and improving student academics at low-performing schools by relying on the arts. The program’s backers include major music and screen celebrities, plus moguls like Russell Simmons, who adopt the schools and work directly with students and teachers in implementing the turnaround project’s key tenets.


Harmony Project

Harmony Project is a multi-city nonprofit that provides music education to low-income students. The group offers lessons, instruments and supporting events to hundreds of students who would unlikely be exposed to music instruction. 


The Arts Education Partnership

The Arts Education Partnership is a state- and federal-funded policy group that advocates for increased arts access for students and guides local and state authorities on arts education policy. AEP also maintains two clearinghouses, one on state arts education policy and the other on arts education research. 


Music Enrichment Programs Improve the Neural Encoding of Speech in At-Risk Children
Nina Kraus

Musicians are often reported to have enhanced neurophysiological functions, especially in the auditory system. Musical training is thought to improve nervous system function by focusing attention on meaningful acoustic cues, and these improvements in auditory processing cascade to language and cognitive skills. Correlational studies have reported musician enhancements in a variety of populations across the life span.


The Arts and Achievement in At-Risk Youth: Findings from Four Longitudinal Studies
James Catterall, et al.

This report examines arts-related variables from four large datasets — three maintained by the U.S. Department of Education and one by the Department of Labor — to understand the relationship between arts engagement and positive academic and social outcomes in children and young adults of low socioeconomic status (SES). Conducted by James Catterall, University of California Los Angeles, et al., the analyses show that achievement gaps between high- and low-SES groups appear to be mitigated for children and young adults who have arts-rich backgrounds.


Oklahoma A+ Schools: What the Research Tells Us 2002 – 2007
Nancy H. Barry

Oklahoma A+ Schools/University of Central Oklahoma. Five-year evaluation study on the effectiveness of A+ arts-integrated school reform strategies in Oklahoma schools, based on a survey of students, teachers, and professional-development faculty. Students participating in the A+ Schools program had higher achievement on standardized tests, better attendance, and decreased disciplinary problems, were more engaged, and demonstrated more positive attitudes toward classroom activities.


Cognitive Transfer from Arts Education to Non-arts Outcomes: Research Evidence and Policy Implications
Lois Hetland and Ellen Winner

This chapter reports methods, findings, and implications for research and policy from 10 meta analytic reviews of the effects on non-arts cognition from instruction in various art forms. Three analyses demonstrate generalizable, causal relationships: classroom drama and verbal achievement, music listening and spatial reasoning, and music learning and spatial reasoning. Five do not allow causal conclusions: multi-arts and academic achievement, arts rich instruction