Mixed Findings In New Study of School Theater

November 20, 1991 1 min read

A new national survey by the Educational Theatre Association presents a mixed bag of findings on the state of theater education in the nation’s high schools.

Of the 1,514 schools surveyed by the group, fully 90 percent offer students some kind of theater activity, either through drama productions, classes, or both. That figure, however, represents a 4 percent decline from 1970, when the federal government conducted a similar study.

And, while funding for high-school musical productions has increased by as much as 225 percent over the past two decades, according to the study, relatively few principals see the value of theater programs for students not directly involved in them.

“What we’re seeing is a little bit of a glimmer of hope,” said Kent Seidel, director of the group. “But, after 20 years, to have only gotten this far doesn’t say much.”

In other ways, however, the survey documents the maturation of a course of study that is relatively new to American education.

It notes, for example, that 68 percent of the high schools surveyed offer one or more classes in theater education-an increase from 37 percent 21 years ago. Nearly 60 percent of the schools surveyed offered both theater courses and such co-curricular activities as drama clubs or plays.

The length of time that a theater educator has been teaching--an average of about 14 year--has nearly doubled since the 1970 survey. And slightly less than half of those teachers said theater was a major field of study for them in their undergraduate or graduate work.

Many teachers also reported using theater to examine such sensitive social issues as drug abuse, multiculturalism, teenage suicide, and conflicts over sexual identity.

The survey also found that the presence of a “strong” theater teacher is central to creating and maintaining a sound theater program.

“Not long ago, school theater was about the ‘class play,’” Mr. Seidel wrote. ‘today, it is a recognized subject area that can be a distinct and valuable part of the curriculum.”

Copies of “Theatre Education in United States High Schools” are available for $2 each from the Educational Theatre Association, 3368 Central Parkway, Cincinnati, Ohio 45225. --D.V.

A version of this article appeared in the November 20, 1991 edition of Education Week as Mixed Findings In New Study of School Theater