Could the Arts Actually Be Making a Comeback in Our Schools?

Art, music, dance, and theater will soon become a bigger part of the curriculum in Los Angeles public schools.

Arts education has taken a hit in recent years. Slowly, school officials are seeing the value of music, visual arts, dance and theater for kids of all ages. (Photo: Washington Post/Getty Images)

Jul 15, 2013
Vanessa Romo is a journalist and public radio reporter. Her work has aired on 'Morning Edition' and 'Marketplace.'

Arts education advocates are dusting off their dancing shoes in Los Angeles Unified.

The school district will begin restoring art, music, dance, and theater curriculum in classrooms after years of devastating cuts with a $750,000 grant from the Los Angeles Fund for Public Education. Over three years, teachers will partner with local arts organizations to create ways to integrate arts into core subjects.

Imagine a chemistry class where students use dance to understand the inner workings of an atom; learning to keep time with a piece of music as an introduction to fractions; or a Spanish class reciting monologues from a Federico Garcia Lorca play.

"This powerful method of instruction helps students engage in their studies, retain more and become the creative problem-solvers needed in our global economy," Megan Chernin, chief executive of the Los Angeles Fund for Public Education, said in a statement.

Finding innovative ways to link the arts with English, algebra, and biology lessons also prevents the arts from being cut from the curriculum; when resources are tight, a lone drama class is often seen as baby zebra that’s strayed too far from the herd on the Serengeti of the budget cut floor.

Since 2008 L.A. Unified gutted arts funding by 41 percent and "now allots just 2 percent of elementary school student time to the arts," according to the Los Angeles Times.

Now that the economy is on an upswing, L.A. Unified plans to nearly double arts funding back to 2007-08 levels of about $34 million. That's nearly twice the $18.4 million the district spent in 2011-12.

What happened in L.A. Unified is essentially what's happened all over the country.

Between 2006 and 2010, New York City cut arts funding by 68 percent, or $7.2 million. Also, in 2010 the Broward County Public School system, in Florida, reduced arts funding in more than a third of their middle and high schools.

"I think the biggest reason for [the cutting of arts education] has to do with a misconception about the cognitive value of the arts," Nick Rabkin, a senior research scientist at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, told ABC News. "That for the most part, people think about the arts as things that are affective and expressive, but not academic and cognitive."

But as NPR points out, the cuts did not occur across all income levels. Middle-class and upper-class school systems have not fallen victim to the economy's turbulence. Elizabeth Blair reports, "a good 90 percent or more" managed to keep their arts programs intact.

Instead, it has been low-income schools in poor neighborhoods whose stages have gone dark and whose orchestra programs can no longer afford to replace broken violins.

The case for the benefits of arts education in public schools is backed in studies by the Council on Foreign Relations, the Department of Education, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Their research shows students who participate in arts education have higher GPAs and SAT scores, they demonstrate increased creativity, and higher rates of college enrollment and graduation as well as higher aspirations and civic engagement. All three studies have found these benefits are particularly pronounced in high-poverty, low-performing schools.

That final point is what led the Obama Administration's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities last year to launch the Turnaround Arts initiative, a two-year pilot program aiming to improve eight of the nation's lowest-performing schools through arts education.

The committee's co-chairs, George Stevens, Jr. and Margo Lion, said they hope to prove that failing schools can reverse course by encouraging their students' creative expression.

Educators agree that these are positive steps in the direction of developing a new generation of well-rounded, creative students, but many arts advocates have criticized the administration and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan for not doing more.

Diane Ravitch, author of The Life and Death of the Great American School System, said, "This is a teeny, tiny little band-aid on what is a giant, national, festering problem."

The answer, Ravitch said, is to consider music and visual arts as valuable as reading and math.

"The arts are just as important in schools as the basic subjects—[art] is a basic subject."

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