When it was time for Anani Ramos to think about high school, she had to decide whether to enroll in the zoned school in her neighborhood or compete for a place in one of New York’s City’s more than 30 specialized programs. It was a huge decision, but since Ramos had been singing classical compositions since age eight, she decided to follow her passion and auditioned for one of 50 ninth-grade seats at the Special Music School (SMS) of the Kaufman Music Center on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The school’s website reports that SMS is the only public school in the U.S. to combine a full academic program with performance-oriented training.
As part of the admissions process, Ramos not only had to perform, she also had to collaborate with a small group of peers — strangers and competitors. The point, she told Truthout, “was to evoke leadership and coordinate with people I did not know.”
Since her acceptance into the prestigious program, Ramos has taken many music-related courses: theory, history, technology, composition, orchestra, big band and chorus. She’s also studied more standard high school fare: English, history, math and science.
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Like most SMS students, Ramos has excelled. Now a senior, she is in the throes of applying to university but stresses that she is not unusual. Since its founding in 1996, the school has had a 100 percent graduation rate and every student has been admitted to college.
Still, SMS, with a student body of just 200, is obviously quite different from most public schools and educational institutions.
Nonetheless, teachers and education activists throughout the U.S. are taking a page from programs like SMS and are becoming increasingly vocal about the importance of integrating the arts — dance, fine arts, music and theater — into the academic curriculum for everyone, regardless of talent level. This demand has been supported by teachers’ unions, including the National Education Association, which has advocated for comprehensive, arts-inclusive education for every public school student.
The school board in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, has taken the lead on this, voting in late September to restore music classes in every public school in the city. In fact, the movement is pushing to move from a STEM focus — (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) — to a STEAM focus — (science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics).
Research supports the shift.
Brian Kisida, an assistant professor of public affairs at the University of Missouri’s Truman School, has studied the impact of arts education on public school students, first in Bentonville, Arkansas, and later in Houston, Texas.
“The pendulum is starting to swing back in favor of arts education,” Kisida told Truthout. “The opt-out-of-standardized-testing movement was an important milestone. Folks have seen the statistics about teen anxiety and suicide and have a general sense that we are not okay as a body politic.” This has resulted in teachers, parents and school administrators looking to the arts as a way to give students a creative outlet for feelings and fears that might otherwise go unexpressed.
These worries have been burbling for a while, Kisida said, adding that about a decade ago he and several of his colleagues became concerned about the “data-obsessed” direction of public education. They shared apprehensions that the constant testing of U.S. students was having a deleterious impact on learning and was creating an atmosphere that left both teachers and students on edge.
Were We “a Nation at Risk”?
The standardized testing trend started, Kisida said, with the release of a 1983 report called “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform,” but ramped up with the 2002 passage of No Child Left Behind legislation.
Indeed, “A Nation at Risk,” written by then-President Ronald Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education, sent federal lawmakers into a tizzy over the allegedly horrific state of public education. “Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world,” the report said. “The educational foundations of our society are being eroded by a rising ride of mediocrity.”
The proposed solution? “Rigorous and measurable standards.” The upshot was the removal of most arts’ education classes in favor of a fixation on math, science and reading.
This, of course, is not to imply that these skills are unimportant, since everyone needs to be able to read, calculate numbers and think. But is the elimination of the arts a necessary means to this end?
Many lawmakers thought so, and the report’s legacy includes a series of legislative measures meant to elevate the performance of U.S. students: 2002’s No Child Left Behind Act, 2009’s Race to the Top Initiative, and 2015’s Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).
ESSA spans fiscal 2017 to 2020 and mandates annual testing in reading and math during grades three to eight and once during high school. At the same time, it allows each state to develop its own educational plan. In addition, it emphasizes — in a marked departure from No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top — that “every child should have access to a well-rounded education that includes the arts.”
Kisida lauds ESSA for explicitly valuing arts education since exposure to the arts has been shown to reduce school drop-out rates, reduce school violence and reduce truancy.
The Arts Provide an Education in Empathy
Kisida began his research at the Crystal Bridges Museum of Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, in 2012. The goal? Determining the short- and long-term impacts of one daylong museum visit, aided by pre- and post-visit curriculum materials, on a small cohort of students.
“You can’t underestimate the power of going into a museum, especially if you’ve never been before,” Kisida said. “It transfers you to a magical place. It can be amazing. The tours we evaluated were thematic, focusing intently on four or five pieces of art, with a docent who addressed the depictions of women, Native Americans and African Americans. After the visit, the students were shown DVDs and other materials to extend the experience.”
After this, Kisida’s team evaluated the students and found increased school engagement and empathy toward others.
The Houston study, conducted five years later, during the 2017-2018 academic year, involved a much bigger sample — 5,000 kids in a control group that received no supplemental arts education, and 5,000 in a group that received enhanced arts instruction from community-based arts organizations. These groups came in to the schools to conduct workshops and classes in dance, music, visual arts and theater for a full academic year.
The impact was measurable.
“We found a decrease in disciplinary infractions at every level, kindergarten to grade 12,” Kisida said. “Their expository writing scores increased and they exhibited increased compassion for others [and], concern about the well-being of people who had been treated badly. For many kids, finding something you like in school makes you want more of it, and as students got more exposure to the arts, they felt better about school. For some kids, this translated into college aspirations.”
This finding is not unique to Houston. An earlier study, “The Arts and Achievement in At-Risk Youth,” found that an exclusive focus on hard-core academics can backfire. “What’s lost?” the report asked? “The chance for a child to express himself [sic]. The chance for the idiosyncratic child who has not succeeded elsewhere to shine. A sense of play, of fun, of discovery,” researchers James S. Catterall, Susan A. Dumais and Gillian Hampden-Thompson wrote in 2012.
Dumais, now an associate professor of sociology at Lehman College, stresses that the arts teach discipline and perseverance. “For many people, thinking about music taps into skills that help them do well in math,” she told Truthout. “There is also great creativity in producing something that is uniquely yours — a dance, a poem, a story, a piece of art or music that did not exist in the world before. It builds confidence and helps children gain a sense of control over their lives.”
Linda Louis, a professor of art education at Brooklyn College, agrees. “The arts have always been seen as soft subjects that don’t require much thinking,” she said. “For years now, artists of all kinds have tried to make the point that there is actually a lot of thought that goes into making something. We’ve stressed that the arts give students the reflective tools that support profound habits of mind. We use these tools in every aspect of our lives. The arts teach us to think creatively and critically, to be flexible and resourceful.”
Even the World Economic Forum understands this. A 2016 report, “The Future of Jobs,” recognized that the skills employers value most — creativity, critical thinking and the ability to solve complex problems — are enhanced by exposure to the arts.
Funding Remains Major Obstacle
Nonetheless, restoring arts education programs has remained a hard sell, and the reason is money. Cash-starved school boards across the country have often been reluctant to use their financial resources on art supplies, musical instruments or theater props when the money is needed to buy textbooks, computers or equipment for the science lab. While some school districts and Parent Teacher Associations — typically in middle- and upper-class communities — have become expert fundraisers, collecting donations from local businesses and community members, poorer districts have largely failed to raise enough to supplement state, federal and local allocations. As a result, arts education has floundered in many parts of the country.
And it’s likely to get worse. Education Week reports that although the share of the federal budget dedicated to education went from 5.4 percent in 1990 to 10.6 percent in 2010, this trend has now reversed. By 2018, federal spending was at its lowest level in a decade.
Still, schools have choices. Liza Politi, founder of Statement Arts, a privately-funded theater arts program for low-income children and teens throughout New York City’s five boroughs, notes that sports programs are typically well-funded. “School systems understand athletics and raise money for teams and cheerleaders because they say that sports promote teamwork,” she said. “But theater and other arts do the same thing.”
Politi said that at one point, she had 72 kids taking part in a production of The Wiz. “With that number of kids working on one program, you learn team-building, confidence and communication skills. When you yank the arts out of schools, you pull a lot of the reasons that kids come to school,” she told Truthout. “Not every kid learns the same way. You need different programs to accommodate different learning styles. Creative kids are often untraditional learners. You need to find ways to keep them engaged.”
What’s needed is a “bubble-up strategy,” a grassroots community-based campaign to push the arts back into the curriculum, Brooklyn College Professor Linda Louis said. “Trickle down has not worked in economics. Why do we think it will work in education?”
As she describes it, the trickle-down idea — that those who can afford classes in the arts will pass what they learn down to their less moneyed friends and neighbors — is flawed. “A bubble-up strategy starts with a sequential, thoughtful curriculum for all kids,” Louis told Truthout. But, she continues, this will require an attitude shift at the highest levels, with both educators and politicians “valuing children” and working to help them to grow into creative, critical-thinking adults.