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

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Parents can watch their children paint and paint at home or perform at school concerts and dance parties. But they may not know how their school’s arts program compares to other programs across the country.

As a professor of music education and researcher who studies arts education politics, I know that the access and quality of arts programs vary greatly between states, districts, and even schools within the same area.

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Additionally, I see the disruptions caused by the pandemic threatening the already fragile state of the arts in public schools.

Who can study art and music?

Music education first made its way to American public schools in Boston in the 1830s. It began with singing instructions, with instrumental music to follow later in the century. Today, arts programs at K-12 schools include visual arts, music, theater, dance, and multimedia or design.

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A congressional-commissioned study from 2011 provides a snapshot of what’s available for children. In that time, 94% of public elementary schools reported offering music lessons, and 83% offering visual arts. Theater (4%) and dance (3%) were less common.

The data also shows that, at least at the high school level, larger schools and traditional public schools offer more arts courses than smaller schools and private or independent schools.

But the more one looks at the local level, the more nuances emerge. For example, only 22% of high schools with high concentrations of poverty offer five or more courses in the visual arts, compared to 56% of high schools with low concentrations of poverty. Some evidence suggests that schools with predominantly white students offer significantly more music performances than schools in the same metropolitan area that cater predominantly to students of color.

There are also disparities in the qualifications of art teachers in the different schools. In Utah, for example, less than 10% of elementary school students receive musical instruction from certified professionals. And in my own analysis of Michigan music education in 2017-2018, I found that only two-thirds of urban schools had certified music teachers, compared to nearly 90% of suburban schools.

Visual arts and music classes are common in public elementary schools, while theater and dance are rare.
Ben Hasty / MediaNews Group / Reading Eagle via Getty Images

Discounts on instructions

These findings provide clues to how the arts are currently positioned in American schools.

Although the arts were considered a core theme in the 2001 federal “No Child Left Behind” law, it was not taken into account in annual exams or related penalties against underperforming schools. As a result, teaching time in the arts was curtailed.

In two studies from 2007 to 2008, schools indicated that they cut an average of 145 minutes per week across the uncontested subjects, lunch and break. Where visual arts and music were cut back, it averaged 57 minutes per week.

As states set curriculum and other policy requirements, the landscape varies. Arkansas, for example, requires 40 minutes of arts and music in elementary school per week, while Michigan requires neither. Only 32 countries consider arts an essential subject.

Furthermore, the school superintendent’s priorities may be the deciding factor in whether the arts education in the school district is strong or just an afterthought. In a 2017 study of arts education in Lansing, Michigan, a mid-sized school district that cut staff to plug a budget gap, it found that elementary schools offer one music and arts lesson once every eight weeks.

Benefits of art education

Arts education has been associated with increased cognitive ability, academic achievement, creative thinking, school involvement and so-called “soft skills” such as empathy for others. However, many of these studies are correlative rather than causal. The more advanced and more privileged students may have pursued an arts education primarily.

However, research on the benefits of the arts has encouraged many schools to invest in arts integration. This approach combines arts content with traditional academic subjects. For example, students might learn history through theater performances. Other policies aim to use arts integration and art residencies to improve test scores, attendance, graduation rates, and other metrics.

Some advocates of arts education responded with a rallying cry of “art for art’s sake”. They worry that if arts education is always justified by its impact on achievement in mathematics and reading, it may be seen as a good thing but not a necessary thing.

More recently, proponents of arts education speak of access to a rich, integrated curriculum as an equity issue. This has resulted in large areas of Chicago, Seattle, Boston, and Houston slowly eliminating disparities in arts education.

High school students sing in individual green tents during choir class
COVID-19 has changed how students participate in art classes.
David Ryder / Getty Images

COVID-19 and arts education

Practical arts classes were unduly tailored to fit distance learning when schools suspended in-person education during the COVID-19 pandemic. Several music teachers reported that they were told not to hold live virtual classes with students, and that their students were not very involved with their assignments.

However, when schools returned to in-person teaching, frustrations and confusion continued to build. After a community choir rehearsal in Washington state was turned into a high-speed event, singing and playing wind instruments were banned in many schools. In visual arts classes, sharing material was an issue. And across schools, art teachers have been constrained by social distancing restrictions and guidelines around segregation between groups of students.

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Preliminary results of a survey I conducted indicate that enrollment in high school music classes has struggled during the pandemic. This may be the result of students leaving the public school system or due to safety concerns regarding singing and performing in large groups.

What then?

With normalcy returning to schools, will arts education programs rebound? Two forces may help determine the answer.

On the other hand, concern about so-called learning loss is driving school districts to invest in more tutoring and training in traditionally tested subjects such as mathematics and English language arts. As in the wake of No Child Left Behind, this may displace educational time for the arts.

However, the pandemic has also drawn more attention to the mental health and wellness of students. Art classes may provide a natural setting for social and emotional learning because of the emphasis on collaboration, goal setting, and emotional expression.

There are also government and nonprofit efforts to make arts education more consistent across the country. Proposed legislation such as the Arts Education for All Act would expand arts education in public schools from kindergarten through 12th grade and require more reporting of data on art achievement at the state and federal levels.

Currently, access to school arts education remains unequal in the United States. The COVID-19 pandemic could help focus attention on these inequalities and spur solutions, or it could further complicate the ever-shaky situation of the arts in schools.

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