Time Spent on Arts in School Falls Short, Report Says

By Debra Viadero — November 06, 1991 3 min read

The amount of time devoted to arts education in the nation’s schools is “totally inadequate,” according to the first comprehensive national survey of school fine-arts programs in nearly two decades.

The report, published last month, is based on a 1989 survey of 1,329 elementary and secondary schools across the country. Researchers at the now-defunct National Arks Education Research Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign looked at the status of education programs in four disciplines--music, visual arts, dance, and drama.

Of those, they found, music programs tended to enjoy the greatest parental support at all levels of schooling. That is because those programs are based almost entirely on performance, according to Charles Leonhard, former director of research at the center and a music professor emeritus at the university.

“This exemplifies what I call the ‘that’s my boy’ syndrome,” Mr. Leonhard said in an interview. “Parents like to see their children appear in public.”

That emphasis, however, runs counter to recent recommendations from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Getty Center for Education and the Arts calling for arts-education programs that teach students about the history, criticism, and aesthetics of the discipline and encourage them to “produce” their own art.

While more than 80 percent of elementary schools offer music programs, usually taught by a specialist, students study music for an average of only 56 minutes a week.

“Even the most skilled music specialist finds it difficult, if not impossible, to bring about skilled musical learning in about 55 or 60 minutes a week,” the report states. “The small amount of time offered to all the arts in elementary school amounts to no more than lip service to their value .”

Outside of performance-focused programs, the study said, courses in general music are “scanty.” They are offered at 57 percent of small middle schools, 59 percent of large middle schools, 35 percent of small secondary schools, and 27 percent of large secondary schools.

Growth in Dance

Visual art has the next highest level of parental support, the report says, until the high-school level.

“In large secondary schools, when kids start appearing in plays, parental support for drama/theater programs overtakes art,” Mr. Leonhard said.

Almost every elementary school, however, and 70 percent of small middle schools offer visual-arts programs. But, as with music education, those classes are offered an average of 50 to 57 minutes a week, the study says.

The report also documents a marked increase in the number of arts programs that include study of history, criticism and aesthetics-an approach known as “discipline-based arts education.”

About 95 percent of the respondents said their programs reflect that approach “to a great extent” or “to some extent.”

Mr. Leonhard attributed that growth to the efforts of the arts endowment and the Getty Center in that area as well as ingrained traditions in the discipline itself.

“Art teachers have always been better prepared and encouraged to get into art history and art criticism,” he said. “In music, this is all done by the teacher, so students never have any opportunity to do anything but respond to cues from the teacher.” The study also found that dance is offered at 7.2 percent of small elementary schools and 8.9 percent of large elementary schools. At the middle-school level, however, those percentages range from 31.7 percent to 33 percent--a “remarkable growth,” according to the study. The subject is most often taught, however, by physical-education teachers.

And, while almost every high school puts on a play, almost 65 percent of large secondary schools also offer a for-credit course in drama.

In all areas, Mr. Leonhard said, the strength of the arts programs appeared to be directly linked to the presence of arts specialists in those schools.

The last comprehensive national arts-education survey was conducted by the National Education Association in 1962 and focused on music and visual arts. Few comparisons can be drawn between the two surveys. The researchers did find that the percentage of schools offering vocal and instrumental instruction and performance groups had declined since 1962.

In general, Mr. Leonhard said, “financial support for arts programs has been in the process of diminishing since the 1960’s.”

Based on anecdotal evidence, he added, the decline has intensified since his center’s 1989 survey. Financial pressures facing school districts nationwide in recent years have caused a number of them to pare down their arts programs, he noted.

A version of this article appeared in the November 06, 1991 edition of Education Week as Time Spent on Arts in School Falls Short, Report Says