If It Seems Too Good To Be True...

There comes a point when our professional lives are informed not just by statistics, consultants or wise mentors but also by plain common sense based on personal knowledge and experience. The survey released April 2 by the Department of Education has my common sense antenna about ready to explode. Just one example: 94% of all American elementary schools offer music programs. Really? What does that mean? What I know it doesn't mean, based on my experience, is that 94% of all American students are having sequential, meaningful experiences in learning to understand, perform, and appreciate music taught by a qualified teacher.

So these kinds of studies, based on surveys sent to schools become broad strokes of misinformation especially for untested subject areas like the arts. Call me a pessimist but I just don't believe it. What I do believe from the report is that there is a growing gap of arts learning opportunities between poor students in poor schools and everyone else. This issue of equity is becoming the American tragedy of our public schools. Grantmakers in the Arts has responded with a press release, which I've included below. We'll keep working to inform policy makers what appropriate arts learning entails and how valuable an American education would be where every child had opportunities to pursue their passion, stay in school because they are engaged and express themselves with confidence.

On Education Department Release of New Arts Education Data, Grantmakers Call for Deeper Study, Better Access to Arts Programs Nationwide

On Monday, April 2, the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) released findings from seven surveys on arts education from the Fast Response Survey System (FRSS). The report provides valuable data on national arts education activities – but leaves important questions unanswered for federal and state policymakers. Grantmakers in the Arts, through its Arts Education Funders Coalition is embarking on an initiative which seeks to reinvigorate the federal education policy landscape to counteract the alarming trend -- that arts is increasingly being left out of elementary and secondary curricula.

Today's report includes valuable information to help inform policymakers about access to arts education in our public schools. Unfortunately, the report is a stark reminder that low-income students have disproportionately fewer opportunities for arts education than their peers, and that schools everywhere are cutting back on arts education. A major finding of this report, which has been echoed by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, is that as poverty increases in schools, access to arts education decreases. America needs a creative workforce that utilizes all of its citizens to successfully rebuild its economy."

Equally alarming is the report's finding that arts programs are being sacrificed across the board. While the percentage of music programs being offered has remained steady at 94% over the last ten years, other programs are being eliminated. Visual arts programs have decreased from 87% to 83%, and the numbers are starker in other subjects. Only 3% of elementary schools are offering dedicated instruction for dance, and only 4% are dedicating time to drama or theatre. And only 40% of secondary schools offer more than five visual arts courses (46% for music) – making it impossible for students with a passion for the arts to pursue this study in middle or high school and limiting the reach to students for whom the arts are a lifeline to stay in school.

Most importantly, today's report also doesn't provide the full picture of art offerings in schools. Left unanswered are the important questions about the quality and impact of arts education offerings in our public schools. Unfortunately, this study was not set up to answer these questions, but we already know from previous evaluations that access to art education does not equal quality.

The Arts Education Funders Coalition, a new program of Grantmakers in the Arts, is embarking on an arts education policy development effort, aimed at strengthening federal education laws and programs. A reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act must include measures to address shortcomings in the arts through systemic and effective policy. The arts are uniquely able to boost learning and achievement for young children, students with disabilities, and low-income children.