Art Works Blog

Taking Note: Reviewing the Official Numbers on Arts Education

Pencils by Jacson Querubin thanks to a Creative Commons license

Little over a year ago, the National Endowment for the Arts published a research report titled Arts Education in America: What the Declines Mean for Arts Participation [PDF]. As the title suggests, authors Nick Rabkin and Eric Hedberg, both from NORC (National Opinion Research Center) at the University of Chicago, drew at least two main conclusions from their study: a) arts education is on the decline, and b) this pattern holds meaning for the future of arts participation.

The NEA report made clear that its characterization of “arts education”---what activities does this involve, and how closely are they pursued---derived exclusively from the federal Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA). Since 1982, that survey has tracked U.S. adults’ self-reported rates of arts learning in and out of school for a variety of art forms. Because the survey focuses on adults, researchers who want to understand children’s access to arts education have faced serious challenges.

For one thing, those researchers have had to rely on adults’ self-reported memories of what kinds of arts classes or lessons they may have taken when much younger. For another, the distinction between in- and out-of-school arts education was murky, largely because of the wording of the survey questions.

Notwithstanding these limitations, Rabkin and Hedberg showed that 18-24-year-olds (who, presumably, had more accurate memories of childhood than older adults taking the survey) reported far lower rates of arts education in 2008 than the 18-24-year-olds of 1982. The NEA study also showed striking disparities in arts education rates by racial/ethnic cohort, with African American and Hispanic young adults reporting the sharpest declines over the same period.

Today, however, we can hope to have a far clearer picture of what access to arts education looks like in the nation’s public elementary and high school system. The U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) has just issued new findings from its Fast Response Survey System (FRSS) for K-12 arts education. Unlike the NEA’s survey, the FRSS tracks the availability of arts education from the perspective of school principals and teachers at both the elementary and secondary school level.

The report does contain some data about student access to arts activities that occurred outside school hours in 2009-2010 (if those activities were school-sponsored); however, the report is more useful for its trend data, which allows us to compare changes in the availability of classroom arts education between the 1999-2000 and 2009-2010 school years.

Many of us in the arts and cultural research field have been anticipating the FRSS results for several months. Beyond communicating a wealth of information about access to visual, music, theater, and dance arts education, the report discusses the relative teaching load of arts education specialists; the degree to which elementary school teachers and high school arts education specialists report integrating arts education (of various types) into the teaching of other subject areas; teachers’ use of formal assessment strategies to measure student learning in the arts; and school partnerships with outside artists or entities to foster arts education.

The NEA Research staff will continue to mine this report for insights in coming months---especially given the availability of FRSS data files for researchers on the NCES website. But here are a few quick takeaways:

  • ---Between the 1990-2000 and 2009-2010 school years, the share of public elementary schools offering music instruction has remained high: 94 percent in both years. For elementary schools offering visual arts instruction, the share went down only slightly (87 percent to 83 percent).

---In stark contrast, the share of elementary schools offering theater instruction has plummeted---from 20 percent to 4 percent. Dance instruction took a similar dive, with only 3 percent of elementary schools offering it in 2009-2010, versus 20 percent in 1999-2000. (Yet it is worth noting that 53 percent of elementary schools in 2009-2010 reported incorporating drama/theater into other curriculum areas, while 61 percent of schools said they did so for dance.)

---Higher proportions of secondary schools, compared with elementary schools, reported offering dance (12 percent in 2008-2009) and drama/theater instruction (45 percent in 2008-2009), though in each case those shares were slightly down from 1999-2000 levels. As with elementary schools, secondary schools reported high rates of music instruction (91 percent in 2008-2009) and visual arts instruction (89 percent in 2008-2009). And, as with elementary schools, secondary schools reported a four-point decline in the percentage offering visual arts instruction.

---Department of Education researchers estimate that more than 23 million children lack dance and/or theater instruction in elementary schools. Roughly 10 million kids lack theater or drama instruction in secondary schools; that figure is nearly double (18 million) in the case of kids lacking dance instruction in secondary school.

I’ll end with two findings that can be contextualized by recent NEA research. First, the Department of Education study points to the the growing importance of innovative tools and strategies for assessing student learning in the arts. Indeed, more than 95 percent of visual arts and music education specialists relied on observational or performance test protocols for this purpose. Meanwhile, the use of rubrics for arts education testing has surged---from 39 percent of visual arts education specialists in 1999-2000 to 55 percent in 2009-2010, and from 21 percent of music education specialists to 46 percent over the comparable period. Multiple-choice tests? Not so popular. Use of this strategy for assessing student learning in music has dropped, from 45 percent to 38 percent over the decade. These trends complement findings from a national study of arts education assessment [PDF] that the NEA released as part of a February research and policy forum on the subject.

The second finding from the Department of Education that I’ll underscore is this: As with many other amenities, arts instruction is often least prevalent in schools reporting large percentages of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. There is poignancy in this fact, given the remarkable benefits observed in at-risk youth who have high levels of arts engagement. For more information, see NEA Research Report #55: The Arts and Achievement in At-Risk Youth: Findings from Four Longitudinal Studies [PDF] by James Catterall, et al.

By examining outcomes associated with arts engagement both in and out of school, the Catterall study has caused at least one researcher to reflect on the dual importance of the NEA’s Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (whose data are not restricted to in-school learning of the arts) and the Department of Education’s Fast Response Survey (whose data, for good reason, are).

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