Want to Make School Great Again? Fund Arts Education.

17th May 2019

The share of black K-12 students receiving arts education has been sliced in half over recent decades.


The dollars don’t lie.

We live in an era that devalues the arts (fine, performing and music) in our schools.

Sure, we recognize the entertainment value of tv, film, music and live events, but — in gutting art education funding as supposedly frivolous —  we have decided that art itself, as something to teach and pass on to the next generation, is worth less than a “real” education and the ever-present state tests and Common Core.

There was a time, not too long ago, when all American children received at least some arts education in grammar and high school. Older people can talk about music and art-history classes, about reading and seeing plays (and I’m not talking about Disney plays) and seeing it as a value. It led to a shared cultural inheritance, a baseline of understanding and larger sense that the arts belong to everyone. The arts were part of everyday life, like shop-class. There was nothing special about them, but there was a sense that they belonged in the curriculum, that they belonged to everyone.

But, starting in the 1980s, when the government (the great beast in Reagan parlance) needed to be cut and starved, educational budgets and spending have been continuously cut, forcing painful choices and a reorganization of national educational priorities. The clear winners have been math and English, with some science thrown in for good measure. The losers have been the arts, humanities and social studies, as they have now been defined out of the core, central part of education. Math and English are valued, funded, tested and measured, while the other subjects have languished.

That’s at best a penny-wise solution, as studies show that there is a direct correlation between arts education and improved scores in math, science and writing. Compounding the problem is the trend of closing failing schools in large urban areas and replacing them with smaller ones, which lack the shared resources for arts education, and particularly music classes and bands — a problem disproportionately affecting the same students of color that  these school closures are largely intended to help.

The latest Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (PDF) reveals the sad story in K-12 education. While 47.2% of African American K-12 students received some arts education in 1982, just 26.2% did in 2008.

For all our talk about closing the educational achievement gap, we are missing a critical opportunity by ignoring the arts. If there is a direct correlation between arts and music education and higher educational performance (PDF), as the research points to, we owe it to our students to do all we can to expose them to the arts.

The arts not only enrich and enliven our lives but can also help close the terribly persistent racial achievement gap. We know their value, and are, collectively, choosing to waste it. Don’t our children deserve more?