Federal Opinion

The Arts Gap in America

By John Wilson — April 10, 2012 2 min read
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We have a major arts equity issue in this country. And, we have a major denial issue about the power of the arts in driving student achievement. Who gets hurt? Of course, as always, the poor children of America are the have-nots. The facts don’t lie.

Recently, Education Secretary Arne Duncan spoke eloquently about this issue. He called for all schools to be “arts-rich.” He lamented that the arts opportunity gap is widest for children in high poverty schools. He said, " Low-income students who had arts-rich experiences in high schools were more than three times as likely to earn a B.A. degree as low income students without those experiences.” Ignoring the research on this issue is malpractice.

Secretary Duncan was presenting the results of the latest arts survey conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics(NCES), a division of the Education Department’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES). This survey was last conducted ten years ago so we can get an idea of how far we have come. The truth is that we have not made progress in expanding opportunities for all students, and we have lost ground in providing dance and drama to all. Most disturbing, the gap between high poverty and low poverty schools is significant in coursework in music and the visual arts.

One thing the Secretary said that hit home for me was his comment on the lack of enrichment experiences for children with disadvantaged backgrounds, limited English proficiency, and disabilities. As a former teacher of students with special needs, I remember the experiences my students had in music, visual arts, dance, and drama. You see, my school district was one of a few that valued equity and the arts. My students had this wonderful opportunity for inclusion, tapping into their imaginations, and developing their God-given talents.

I still have a framed picture of a drawing that one of my students did in his art class over 20 years ago. I display it proudly in my home office. Many people are stunned to learn that the artist was only 11-years-old and was a special needs student. The colors are vibrant, the contrast is stark, and the images are brilliant. When I look at that picture, I think of the student, and I think of the art teacher Mrs. Schwall. She taught with high expectations, inspiration, and a deep knowledge of multi-media art techniques. The arts are a part of a basic education, and we should never shortchange the education of our students.

America is blessed to have some of the best artists in the world. We have some of the best museums, concert halls, Broadway theatres, and dance studios. What we don’t have is the will to assure that all children have access to all the arts from the time they arrive in our schools until they graduate. Who knows how many Meryl Streeps, Denzel Washingtons, Jennifer Lopezes, Georgia O’Keefes, and Beverly Sills we have lost because no one was there to nurture and mentor the talents of our youngest.

Let’s continue to insist that the arts are fully funded for our public schools. Let’s take the advice of Secretary Duncan and use Title I and Title II funds for arts education as well as reading and math. Let’s utilize the lessons of Finland that has a robust arts program and integrate the arts in all teaching. America will be a better country for it.

The opinions expressed in John Wilson Unleashed are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.