COVID-19 threatens the already precarious status of arts education in schools



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Ryan D. Shaw, Michigan State University

(THE CONVERSATION) Parents can watch their children draw and paint at home or perform in school music concerts and dance recitals. But they may not know how their school arts program compares to others across the country.

As a music education teacher and researcher studying arts education policy, I know that the access and quality of arts programs vary widely between states, districts, and even schools within a single district.

Additionally, I see disruption from the pandemic threatening the already precarious status of the arts in public schools.

Who can study art and music?

Music education first appeared in American public schools in Boston in the 1830s. It began with the teaching of singing, followed by instrumental music later in the century. Today, arts programs in K-12 schools include visual arts, music, drama, dance, and multimedia or design.

A 2011 congress-commissioned study provides insight into what is available for children. At the time, 94% of public elementary schools said they offered music instruction and 83% offered visual arts. Theater (4%) and dance (3%) were much less common.

The data also shows that, at least at the secondary level, large schools and traditional public schools offer more art lessons than small schools and private or charter schools.

But the more we look locally, the more the disparities appear. For example, only 22% of high-poverty high schools offer five or more visual arts courses, compared to 56% of low-poverty high schools. There is some evidence to suggest that schools with predominantly white students offer much more musical offerings than schools in the same metropolitan area which cater primarily to students of color.

There are also disparities in terms of the level of qualification of art teachers in the different schools. In Utah, for example, less than 10% of elementary school students receive music education from certified specialists. And in my own analysis of music education in Michigan in 2017-18, I found that only two-thirds of urban schools had certified music teachers, compared to almost 90% of suburban schools.

Training cuts

These results offer clues about the current position of the arts in American schools.

Although the arts were considered a major subject in the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, they were not considered in annual tests or related sanctions against underperforming schools. As a result, the teaching time in the arts has been reduced.

In two studies from 2007 to 2008, schools reported that they cut an average of 145 minutes per week for untested subjects, lunch and recess. Where visual arts and music were cut back, it was for an average of 57 minutes per week.

Because states determine curriculum requirements and other policies, the landscape varies. Arkansas, for example, requires 40 minutes of elementary school art and music per week, while Michigan has none. Only 32 states consider the arts to be a central subject.

Additionally, a principal’s priorities can be the deciding factor in whether a school district’s arts education is solid or just an afterthought. In a 2017 study I conducted on arts education in Lansing, Michigan, a mid-sized school district that had cut staff to fill a budget deficit, I found that elementary schools offered only one music and art lessons every eight weeks.

Benefits of arts education

Arts education has been associated with increased cognitive abilities, academic achievement, creative thinking, academic engagement, and so-called “soft skills” like compassion for others. However, many of these studies are correlational rather than causal. It may be that the more advanced and privileged students have had artistic training in the first place.

Yet research into the benefits of the arts has prompted many schools to invest in the integration of the arts. This approach marries artistic content with traditional academic subjects. For example, students can learn history through theatrical performances. Other policies aim to use artistic integration and artist residencies to improve test scores, attendance, graduation rates and other parameters.

Some advocates of arts education fought back with a rallying cry of “art for the sake of art”. They fear that while arts education is always justified by its impact on math and reading performance, it may be viewed as enjoyable but not necessary.

More recently, advocates of arts education have spoken of access to a full and rich curriculum as a matter of equity. This has led large districts of Chicago, Seattle, Boston and Houston to slowly reduce disparities in arts education.

COVID-19 and arts education

Hands-on art classes designed for a delicate fit with distance learning when schools suspended in-person education during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many music teachers said they were told not to run live virtual lessons with students and that their students did not engage much with homework.

Yet when schools returned to face-to-face teaching, frustrations and confusion continued to abound. After a community choir rehearsal in Washington state turned into a large-scale event, singing and playing wind instruments were banned in many schools. In visual arts classes, sharing of materials was an issue. And in all schools, art teachers were limited by social distancing restrictions and guidelines for separating groups of students.

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Preliminary results from a survey I’m conducting suggest that high school music enrollment has suffered during the pandemic. This may be because students are leaving the public school system or because of safety concerns about singing and performing in large groups.

And after?

As normalcy returns to schools, will arts education programs bounce back? Two forces can help determine the answer.

On the one hand, concern over the so-called loss of learning is driving school districts to invest in additional tutoring and coaching in traditionally tested subjects like math and English. As in the aftermath of No Child Left Behind, this could crowd out arts education time.

However, the pandemic has also drawn more attention to the mental health and well-being of students. Arts classes can provide a natural place for social and emotional learning due to the emphasis on collaboration, goal setting and emotional expression.

The government and nonprofits are also making efforts to make arts education more cohesive across the country. Proposed legislation such as the Arts Education for All Act would expand arts education in public schools from Kindergarten to Grade 12 and require more data on artistic achievement at the state and federal levels.

For now, access to formal arts education remains uneven in the United States. The COVID-19 pandemic could help draw attention to these inequalities and spur solutions, or it could further complicate the still precarious state of the arts in schools.

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