The Good and Bad News About Arts Education in U.S. Schools

The U.S. Department of Education painted a somewhat bleak picture of the state of arts education in America’s schools this week. According to new findings – the first government survey in a decade that tracks the availability of arts in schools –  fewer elementary schools are offering visual arts, dance and drama classes than during a decade ago. More than 1.3 million elementary students fail today to get any music instruction — and the same is true for about 800,000 secondary school students. And nearly four million elementary school students do not get any visual arts instruction at school.

On the brighter side, said US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, there has not been a “dramatic narrowing” of the arts curriculum, despite some troubling patterns, and that dance and drama are still widely offered at the middle and high school level.

“It’s a good news, bad news story,” according to Duncan but cautioned that “a well-rounded education is simply too vital to our students’ success to let the teaching of the arts and humanities erode.”

Deep budget cuts – which haven’t reached their bottom – and the decade-long focus on reading and math have clearly taken their toll on the availability of arts instruction. Duncan said the report is the first survey that enables policymakers to get a clear sense of how the No Child Left Behind law has affected arts education.

The most troubling finding in the report is the “equity gap” between the availability of arts instruction for students in more affluent schools compared to those in high-poverty schools. Economically-disadvantaged students simply do not have the same access to the diverse learning experiences – including arts –  of affluent students.

“The arts opportunity gap is widest for children in high-poverty schools,” Duncan said. “This is absolutely an equity issue and a civil rights issue- just as is access to AP courses and other educational opportunities.”

The DOE’s report come on the heels of a recent study by the National Endowment for the Arts that specifically tracked the impact arts has on economically disadvantaged students. These students who have access to arts in or out of school tend to have better academic results, better workforce opportunities, and more civic engagement, according to the report. Specifically, low-income students who had arts-rich experiences in high school were ten percent more likely to complete, for example, a high school calculus course than similar students who had less exposure to the arts.

In addition, economically-disadvantaged students who had exposure to the arts were more likely to have planned to earn a bachelor’s degree (74 percent) than were economically-disadvantaged students with little or no access to the arts (43 percent).

The National Education Association believes the arts play an important role in providing students with a well-rounded education.

“We must focus on educating the whole child,” NEA President Dennis Van Roekel said. “Students should be exposed to a broad and rich curriculum that includes not only math and reading, but courses and clubs that focus on dance, music, art, theater and other creative disciplines. The arts are important. They enrich our lives. They have always offered ways to learn and express ideas.”

Read the complete Department of Education report (PDF)