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Ten Years Later: A Puzzling Picture of Arts Education in America

Narric Rome

On April 2, the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) released a study glamorously entitled Arts Education in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools 1999-2000 and 2009-10.

The surveys that contributed to this report were conducted through the NCES Fast Response Survey System (FRSS), mailed to about 3,400 elementary and secondary school principals and approximately 5,000 music and visual arts teachers.

National arts education leaders, through policy statements, have been calling for this study to be administered for many years, and helped to direct specific funding from Congress to make it possible.

Ten years is a long time to wait for a federal study to be published and finally it has arrived!

This report presents information on the availability and characteristics of arts education programs of those surveyed, broken down by discipline (music, visual arts, dance, and theatre).

  • It indicates that while music and visual art are widely available in some form, six percent of the nation’s public elementary schools offer no specific instruction in music, and 17 percent offer no specific instruction in the visual arts.
  • Nine percent of public secondary schools reported that they did not offer music, and 11 percent did not offer the visual arts.
  • Only three percent offer any specific dance instruction and only four percent offer any specific theatre instruction in elementary schools. In secondary schools the numbers improve somewhat as 12 percent offer dance and 45 percent offer theatre. Sadly, the study was unable to survey dance and theatre specialists because the data sample didn’t have sufficient contact information in those disciplines.

Despite being designated a “core academic subject” in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 and being included in mandated elementary school curriculum in 44 states, this survey demonstrates that access to arts education remains elusive to a tremendous number of students across the nation.

This may not be surprising to many following the state of our education system as recent surveys from Common Core and the National Arts Education Foundation have provided fresh evidence of the arts being a victim of the narrowing of the curriculum.

Furthermore, this report mostly found schools with the highest percentage of free or reduced-price lunch-eligible populations significantly less likely to provide students with access to arts education at both the elementary and secondary levels.

This means that the nation’s poorest students, the ones who could benefit the most from arts education, are receiving it the least.

While the FRSS report does provide valuable information about how the arts are being offered in our public schools at the aggregate level—broken down by region, demographic community types, school enrollment size, and population of minority and reduced or free lunch students—the study is unable to provide this on a state by state basis.

Data collection at the state level is essential to ensuring equitable access to arts instruction for all students. Existing state studies indicate an uneven landscape in providing access to arts education.

A current list of state studies is available on our website and the Arts Education Partnership’s state policy database contains further information on state education policies and practices.

In addition to revealing critical equity gaps in access to arts education, this study tells us little about the quality of arts education such as teacher preparation and availability of instruction to students; the availability of appropriate facilities and equipment for instruction; and the use of standards-based curriculum. Further measures of quality are needed to get a better picture of the status of arts education.

Ultimately, national studies on arts education are rare and more are desperately needed. Virtually every major educational reform effort is built using federal and state data, so data in arts education must be collected with a rigor and sense of purpose equal to that of all other core academic subjects.

While some of the data about access to arts education was encouraging from the FRSS report, daily news reports from across the country continue to show local communities struggling to keep teachers and programs in place.

So what can advocates do to improve arts education?

Americans for the Arts recently published an Arts Education Field Guide that offers an introduction to the various constituencies impacting arts education, from school house to the White House.

The Kennedy Center Alliance for Arts Education Network offers a community audit toolkit to help local leaders assess the status of arts education in their communities. For more ideas, check out our list of The Top 10 Ways to Support Arts Education.

As education reform efforts continue at the state and federal levels, advocates can use the resources above to make the case for strengthening arts education locally.

Additional analysis of the FRSS report Arts Education in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools: 2009-10 will be forthcoming in the next several weeks.

In the interim, please email us any FRSS or arts education related questions.

Thank you to the research assistance provided by Arts Education Coordinator Kristen Engebretsen and Government Affairs Fellow Kelly Fabian.

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