U.S. Educators Must Continue to Push for Robust Arts Programs
It's no secret that arts education hasn't been a priority for public schools in the United States for many years. The reasons for it have been the subject of intense debate for almost as long. Some point to a lack of capital funds devoted to such programs, while others bemoan the prioritization of standardized testing in STEM fields as the primary culprit. The reality, of course, is that you can take your pick of the causes because they're all correct.
Seeking to identify the causes of the decline of public arts education risks not seeing the forest for the trees, however. What's more important is the effect that this gap in education is having on kids nationwide, and that effect might be huge. It's also important to note that the situation doesn't need to stay this way. There are plenty of examples of public education systems in the world that place an emphasis on arts education as a core part of the educational experience. Also, the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is creating opportunities for educational institutions nationwide to make improvements in arts education.
The Importance of The Arts
Well supported arts education programs have benefits that extend well beyond simple knowledge acquisition. Studies have found that such programs have measurable effects on things like lowering dropout rates and increasing attendance, as well as fostering the desire of students to learn and grow. One such study found that "Children in the top quartile of high arts exposure (both in and out of school), as determined by the student questionnaire, were compared with those in the lowest quartile of arts exposure. High arts children scored higher on a figural creativity test (no statistics reported). High arts children scored higher (from teacher ratings) on expression, risk-taking, creativity-imagination, and cooperative learning." All of these skills play a large role in overall educational outcomes and therefore socioeconomic outcomes, as well.
The World View
There's no lack of positive examples of well-supported arts education programs to be found throughout the industrialized world. Australia is one such example. Their population is demographically similar to that of the United States, and the education system there has long recognized the value of arts education in improving educational outcomes. In 2015, that importance was codified in the National Arts Curriculum, which cemented the role of arts programs throughout the public school system nationwide. It doesn't stop there, though. Through the national TAFE vocational training programs, interested students can pursue careers in the arts with relative ease. There are TAFE music courses, TAFE visual arts programs, and courses covering a wide array of arts-related career paths.
The ESSA as an Opportunity
Here in the U. S., the passage of the ESSA finally elevated the arts to an importance befitting such a vital subject, declaring them to be "part of a well-rounded education". That distinction is important because it allows for federal funds to be directed to arts programs in ways that were previously unavailable. In addition, the act also authorized a 20 million dollar grant program focused directly on arts education. Unfortunately, the flexibility afforded to the states in allocating those funds means that it's difficult to assess exactly where they are being spent and to what effect. To make the most of the funds, advocates are pressing states to provide performance data that will allow an outside view of how they are performing.
A Hopeful Future
It's still too early to tell if the renewed focus on arts education within American public schools will become a long-term commitment or just another blip on the radar. To make the required progress, it falls to educators everywhere to continue to press for the adoption of robust arts education programs wherever possible. The only thing that is clear is that there's a long road ahead for those that recognize just how important the arts are for current and future generations of students, and it's a road that will no doubt contain plenty of detours, bumps, and obstructions. It is, however, a road worth traveling – and one that leads to a destination that our students must be allowed to reach.