White House Panel Calls for ‘Reinvesting’ in Arts Education

By Erik W. Robelen — May 06, 2011 5 min read
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A presidential advisory panel today issued a report that makes the case for expanding access to arts education in schools, arguing that the arts hold great potential to bolster student engagement and academic achievement. At the same time, the report laments that, if anything, the current trend is toward the erosion of the arts on campus.

The report gives special attention to the practice of arts integration, where subjects such as math, science, and language arts are integrated with teaching arts disciplines. (I wrote about how dance was used for that purpose last fall, including an example in Maryland where dance and science were brought together in elementary classrooms.)

“This is an educational solution that has been hiding in plain sight,” Rachel Goslins, the executive director of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, said in a press release. "[E]veryone stands to benefit from integrating the arts more fully into our schools.”

The report, “Reinvesting in Arts Education: Winning America’s Future Through Creative Schools,” will be formally released this afternoon at an event in Washington, as part of the Arts Education Partnership‘s national forum.

It was developed over the past 18 months in response to President Obama’s arts policy campaign platform, issued during his run for the presidency. Preparation of the report included a survey and analysis of recent research, visits to schools across the country, and meetings with a variety of stakeholders, the press release explains.

The presidential committee, first created in 1982, includes a mix of public officials (such as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Rocco Landesman) and private individuals. You might have heard of at least a few of the private members: musician Yo-Yo Ma and actors Edward Norton and Sarah Jessica Parker are among them.

Research on teaching the arts suggests it can have some powerful benefits beyond the specific disciplines taught, but cautions that more study is needed, the report says.

“Decades of research show strong and consistent links between high-quality arts education and a wide range of impressive educational outcomes,” it says. “This is true even though, as in most areas where learning is complex, the research base does not yet establish causal proof. Arts integration models, the practice of teaching across classroom subjects in tandem with the arts, have been yielding some particularly promising results in school reform and closing the achievement gap.”

And yet, the committee laments that arts education appears to be losing ground in schools.

“At the same time, due to budget constraints and emphasis on the subjects of high stakes testing, arts instruction in schools is on a downward trend,” the report says. “Just when they need it most, the classroom tasks and tools that could best reach and inspire these students—art, music, movement, and performing—are less available to them.”

In fact, the committee suggests this is especially true for schools serving low-income populations.

I should note here that some arts education advocates have complained for some time about at least one policy proposal from the Obama administration itself that might make matters worse. The administration has called for consolidating the Arts in Education program at the U.S. Department of Education into a broader, competitive funding stream called Effective Teaching and Learning for a Well-Rounded Education. This is part of a larger effort to consolidate a variety of programs at the federal agency into several “teaching and learning” funds. Critics of the approach worry that it will make it much harder to ensure aid for the many programs included.

That plan has not been embraced by Congress so far, but as part of the recent federal budget deal for fiscal 2011, the arts education program’s funding was reduced from $40 million to $25 million, according to Americans for the Arts. Meanwhile, total funding for the National Endowment for the Arts was reduced from $167.5 million to $155 million.

The advisory panel offers five recommendations to strengthen arts education:

• Build collaborations among different approaches; • Develop the field of arts integration; • Expand in-school opportunities for teaching artists; • Utilize federal and state policies to reinforce the place of the arts in K-12 education; and • Widen the focus of evidence gathering about arts education.

The president’s council said it “envisions schools in cities and towns across our nation that are alive with the energy of creating thinking and fresh ideas, full of art, music, and movement.”

One other thing. Earlier this week, the National Center for Education Statistics released what it calls a “first look” at data that provides a snapshot of arts education in public schools during the 2009-10 academic year. I haven’t had time to go through it yet, but will provide an update later today with more information.

UPDATE (4:10pm)

So, I’ve taken a quick glance at the NCES study on arts education. Keep in mind that the document is only a “first look.” Far more data and analysis will come out later this year.

The results in the report suggest that arts instruction is actually quite widespread in U.S. public schools, though it’s typically offered only once or twice a week. And at the elementary level, it’s mainly offered in music and visual arts. At the secondary level, drama and theater is more common, but dance remains relatively rare. (When I did my story on dance education, I consistently heard frustration that dance is often ignored in schools.)

Also, the report does not appear to offer any insights into the quality of arts instruction.

In any case, here are a few key findings, based on surveys of teachers and principals during the 2009-10 school year.

• Most public elementary schools offered instruction designated specifically for music (94 percent) and visual arts (83 percent).

• Very few of those schools offered instruction in dance (3 percent) and drama/theater (4 percent).

• Of those elementary schools that delivered music or visual arts instruction, three-quarters provided it one to two times a week. Relatively few offered it three or more times a week.

• In most cases, the arts instruction was incorporated with other subject areas, rather than taught as a separate discipline.

As the secondary level, where the report provided less information, most public schools offered arts instruction, though again the two dominant forms were music (91 percent) and visual arts (89 percent). Drama fared better than at the elementary level, with 45 percent offering it; dance was available at 12 percent of public secondary schools, the report said.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.