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.
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.