Edutopia on Facebook
Edutopia on Twitter
Edutopia on Google+
Edutopia on Pinterest Follow Me on Pinterest
WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Why Arts Education Is Crucial, and Who's Doing It Best

Art and music are key to student development.
By Fran Smith

"Art does not solve problems, but makes us aware of their existence," sculptor Magdalena Abakanowicz has said. Arts education, on the other hand, does solve problems. Years of research show that it's closely linked to almost everything that we as a nation say we want for our children and demand from our schools: academic achievement, social and emotional development, civic engagement, and equitable opportunity.

Involvement in the arts is associated with gains in math, reading, cognitive ability, critical thinking, and verbal skill. Arts learning can also improve motivation, concentration, confidence, and teamwork. A 2005 report by the Rand Corporation about the visual arts argues that the intrinsic pleasures and stimulation of the art experience do more than sweeten an individual's life -- according to the report, they "can connect people more deeply to the world and open them to new ways of seeing," creating the foundation to forge social bonds and community cohesion. And strong arts programming in schools helps close a gap that has left many a child behind: From Mozart for babies to tutus for toddlers to family trips to the museum, the children of affluent, aspiring parents generally get exposed to the arts whether or not public schools provide them. Low-income children, often, do not. "Arts education enables those children from a financially challenged background to have a more level playing field with children who have had those enrichment experiences,'' says Eric Cooper, president and founder of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education.

It has become a mantra in education that No Child Left Behind, with its pressure to raise test scores, has reduced classroom time devoted to the arts (and science, social studies, and everything else besides reading and math). Evidence supports this contention -- we'll get to the statistics in a minute -- but the reality is more complex. Arts education has been slipping for more than three decades, the result of tight budgets, an ever-growing list of state mandates that have crammed the classroom curriculum, and a public sense that the arts are lovely but not essential.

This erosion chipped away at the constituencies that might have defended the arts in the era of NCLB -- children who had no music and art classes in the 1970s and 1980s may not appreciate their value now. "We have a whole generation of teachers and parents who have not had the advantage of arts in their own education,'' says Sandra Ruppert, director of the Arts Education Partnership (AEP), a national coalition of arts, business, education, philanthropic, and government organizations.

The Connection Between Arts Education and Academic Achievement

Yet against this backdrop, a new picture is emerging. Comprehensive, innovative arts initiatives are taking root in a growing number of school districts. Many of these models are based on new findings in brain research and cognitive development, and they embrace a variety of approaches: using the arts as a learning tool (for example, musical notes to teach fractions); incorporating arts into other core classes (writing and performing a play about, say, slavery); creating a school environment rich in arts and culture (Mozart in the hallways every day) and hands-on arts instruction. Although most of these initiatives are in the early stages, some are beginning to rack up impressive results. This trend may send a message to schools focused maniacally, and perhaps counterproductively, on reading and math.

"If they're worried about their test scores and want a way to get them higher, they need to give kids more arts, not less," says Tom Horne, Arizona's state superintendent of public instruction. "There's lots of evidence that kids immersed in the arts do better on their academic tests."

Education policies almost universally recognize the value of arts. Forty-seven states have arts-education mandates, forty-eight have arts-education standards, and forty have arts requirements for high school graduation, according to the 2007-08 AEP state policy database. The Goals 2000 Educate America Act, passed in 1994 to set the school-reform agenda of the Clinton and Bush administrations, declared art to be part of what all schools should teach. NCLB, enacted in 2001, included art as one of the ten core academic subjects of public education, a designation that qualified arts programs for an assortment of federal grants.

In a 2003 report, "The Complete Curriculum: Ensuring a Place for the Arts and Foreign Languages in American's Schools," a study group from the National Association of State Boards of Education noted that a substantial body of research highlights the benefits of arts in curriculum and called for stronger emphasis on the arts and foreign languages. As chairman of the Education Commission of the States from 2004 to 2006, Mike Huckabee, then governor of Arkansas, launched an initiative designed, according to commission literature, to ensure every child has the opportunity to learn about, enjoy, and participate directly in the arts.

Top-down mandates are one thing, of course, and implementation in the classroom is another. Whatever NCLB says about the arts, it measures achievement through math and language arts scores, not drawing proficiency or music skills. It's no surprise, then, that many districts have zeroed in on the tests. A 2006 national survey by the Center on Education Policy, an independent advocacy organization in Washington, DC, found that in the five years after enactment of NCLB, 44 percent of districts had increased instruction time in elementary school English language arts and math while decreasing time spent on other subjects. A follow-up analysis, released in February 2008, showed that 16 percent of districts had reduced elementary school class time for music and art -- and had done so by an average of 35 percent, or fifty-seven minutes a week.

Some states report even bleaker numbers. In California, for example, participation in music courses dropped 46 percent from 1999-2000 through 2000-04, while total school enrollment grew nearly 6 percent, according to a study by the Music for All Foundation. The number of music teachers, meanwhile, declined 26.7 percent. In 2001, the California Board of Education set standards at each grade level for what students should know and be able to do in music, visual arts, theater, and dance, but a statewide study in 2006, by SRI International, found that 89 percent of K-12 schools failed to offer a standards-based course of study in all four disciplines. Sixty-one percent of schools didn't even have a full-time arts specialist.

Nor does support for the arts by top administrators necessarily translate into instruction for kids. For example, a 2005 report in Illinois found almost no opposition to arts education among principals and district superintendents, yet there were large disparities in school offerings around the state.

Reviving Arts Education

In many districts, the arts have suffered so long that it will take years, and massive investment, to turn things around. New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg has made arts education a priority in his school reform plans, and the city has launched sweeping initiatives to connect more students with the city's vast cultural resources. Nearly every school now offers at least some arts instruction and cultural programming, yet in 2007-08, only 45 percent of elementary schools and 33 percent of middle schools provided education in all four required art forms, according to an analysis by the New York City Department of Education, and only 34 percent of high schools offered students the opportunity to exceed the minimum graduation requirement.

Yet some districts have made great strides toward not only revitalizing the arts but also using them to reinvent schools. The work takes leadership, innovation, broad partnerships, and a dogged insistence that the arts are central to what we want students to learn.

In Dallas, for example, a coalition of arts advocates, philanthropists, educators, and business leaders have worked for years to get arts into all schools, and to get students out into the city's thriving arts community. Today, for the first time in thirty years, every elementary student in the Dallas Independent School District receives forty-five minutes a week of art and music instruction. In a February 2007 op-ed piece in the Dallas Morning News, Gigi Antoni, president and CEO of Big Thought, the nonprofit partnership working with the district, the Wallace Foundation, and more than sixty local arts and cultural institutions, explained the rationale behind what was then called the Dallas Arts Learning Initiative: "DALI was created on one unabashedly idealistic, yet meticulously researched, premise -- that students flourish when creativity drives learning."

The Minneapolis and Chicago communities, too, are forging partnerships with their vibrant arts and cultural resources to infuse the schools with rich comprehensive, sustainable programs -- not add-ons that come and go with this year's budget or administrator.

In Arizona, Tom Horne, the state superintendant of public instruction, made it his goal to provide high-quality, comprehensive arts education to all K-12 students. Horne, a classically trained pianist and founder of the Phoenix Baroque Ensemble, hasn't yet achieved his objective, but he has made progress: He pushed through higher standards for arts education, appointed an arts specialist in the state Department of Education, and steered $4 million in federal funds under NCLB to support arts integration in schools throughout the state. Some have restored art and music after a decade without them.

"When you think about the purposes of education, there are three," Horne says. "We're preparing kids for jobs. We're preparing them to be citizens. And we're teaching them to be human beings who can enjoy the deeper forms of beauty. The third is as important as the other two."

Fran Smith is a contributing editor for Edutopia.
Why Arts Education Must Be Saved Series

Comments (49)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

dr watkins's picture

I believe with all my heart that art education schools are an absolute must have in our school districts today. Not only is it scientifically proven to increase our children's IQ, but also help them relieve possible stress.

Georgette Yakman's picture
Georgette Yakman
STEAM Education Expert

I've been working on a way to integrated Arts into the Science-Technology-Engineering-Mathematics realms on a regular basis. It's been catching on - Korea adopts science-based STEAM for next year and I travel there this summer to help get it going. For my research backed papers to help all of you prove your arguments see - www.steamedu.com

viviankirkfield's picture
Author of parenting book and former kindergarten & Head Start teacher

Thank you for this great article. A friend posted it on facebook and I am grateful.
Our state "mandators" keep trying to reinvent the wheel...to no avail. We need more art and music for our children, not less. I've been implementing a picture book story and craft program in our local Colorado Springs' kindergartens since January as a volunteer...and was sorry to see the state mandates have reached that level as well. Almost no play and art in many of the classes...with so much emphasis on reading and writing and a pace so hectic, even I felt stressed. I did a post called: Is Kindergarten the New First Grade?


Elana Leoni's picture
Elana Leoni
Director of Social Media Strategy and Marketing @Edutopia, edcamp organizer

"WASHINGTON -- A study by the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities says arts education is an effective tool for school reform, even as arts education funding has declined.

The "Reinvesting in Arts Education" study being released Friday examined recent data from schools in Maryland, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Chicago and New York City. It finds integrating the arts with other subjects is particularly effective at raising achievement in math and reading."

Read more: http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/study-from-white-house-arts-integ...

Mary-Helen Rossi's picture
Mary-Helen Rossi
Business Director at Merge Education

Reading this article and all of the comments written over the years, I can't help but hope that we - those of us who care about this - are ready to put our walk behind our talk. To paraphrase a comment, we now need to "Turn the paradigm on its head and put the arts at the top". Not just in education, but in life.

Those of us who are enriched by our creative involvement in life need to speak up! We need to (gasp) act in ways that might to us might feel pushy, but only because we've been too quiet for too long. We need to call our children's schools and write letters to the editor - and blog - to protest the ongoing cuts, because we are also citizens and quite possibly even in the majority.

And while we continue to listen to the beat of another drummer, we need to share with others the hope and positivity our sensitivity brings to our lives; this will give them the opportunity to join us. THEN we will begin to create a critical mass that can bring about the change we want to see.

Mark Sad's picture
Mark Sad

I hate it when we say a person's MATH grade goes up if they take music or Art.....Are we are still saying that Math or Science or...? is the end goal? I think it still sends the message that the "academic" subjects are more important!
Personally, I can live a better, more fulfilling, more productive life with music .........I'll take the ARTS over a few science facts everyday!

circusmojo's picture
performer producer & social entrepreneur (teacher too)

Circus as art, Circus as sport, performance opportunities and challenging people.

In my gifted class it took 12 class hours to get 100% of the class proficient in juggling 3 objects and to spin a plate yet my students in jail learned these skills in 20 minutes. We all have different gifts. some are great at shooting people and stealing cars and are perfect for the circus.
I believe challenging the tough kids via arts as a tool that needs to be developed! My results from working with kids from a school that boasted 3.3% of the juniors prepared for college and a 56% graduation rate thanks to social promotion: http://socialcircus.wordpress.com/2012/07/04/youth-development-courtesy-...

It just makes economic sense. My goal is to train kids in jail to perform around the world at events, casinos, hospitals, circuses, cruise ships etc. If we keep locking kids up we will not solve the social security crisis.... ARTIST PAY TAXES! One day soon people will realize the cost benefit ratio to in investing in the arts!

viviankirkfield's picture
Author of parenting book and former kindergarten & Head Start teacher

With budget cuts rampant across the country, many schools are forced to reduce arts and music education. But we all know how crucial this type of education is for kids. One option is for community members to volunteer their time and services, even if it is only an hour a month. Local musicians and artists, as well as retired teachers, can donate their time and expertise. I've volunteered one morning a week at local kindergarten and Pre-K classrooms, reading classic picture book stories and then doing a related arts and crafts project with the children. THe teachers love it and the kids don't want me to leave. :)

Deborah Coates's picture
Deborah Coates
Middle School Visual Art Teacher

The Arts make creative problem solving thinkers. A student can know alot of information but can't use it to creatively solve a problem or invent a new idea. I have taught many a student who were academically gifted but when given a 12" x 18" piece of paper and a 12 " ruler and scissors , they couldn't figure out how to get a 12" x 12" square and then graph it into 1" x 1" squares for a drawing project. The funniest--and saddest-- common comment I got was "My ruler isn't long enough." The next most common request was that they needed a calculator. A simple assignment but the problem solving skills weren't there.

Discussion The Day of Remembrance: Using Film to Learn about the Holocaust

Last comment 6 days 8 hours ago in Arts Integration

blog Brisk and Bright Approaches for National Poetry Month

Last comment 3 weeks 3 hours ago in Literacy

blog 9 Mobile Apps for Poetry Month

Last comment 1 month 2 days ago in Apps

blog National Poetry Month: Useful Resources for Teachers and Students

Last comment 2 weeks 6 days ago in Lesson Plans

blog Through the Lens of Filmmaking

Last comment 1 month 5 days ago in Arts Integration

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.