Arts Education Poised for Comeback in Nation's Largest School Districts

After years of budget cuts, and a narrowing of curriculum at public schools across the country, urban school districts are taking bold steps to expand the school day curriculum and once again invest in arts education.
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kids hands covered with paint in classroom
kids hands covered with paint in classroom

After years of budget cuts, and a narrowing of curriculum at public schools across the country, urban school districts, such as New York and Chicago, are taking bold steps to expand the school day curriculum and once again invest in arts education.

Owing largely to mandates of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, school districts of all sizes spent years focusing educational goals very narrowly on improving test scores in just two subject areas -- English Language Arts and Math. This came at the expense of the arts, music, and other subject areas that were not being tested.

Fortunately, the tide may be turning, and arts education may be making comeback.

Take New York for example. This past July, after a multi-year campaign organized by The Center for Arts Education, and the release of a ground-breaking report by the City Comptroller that revealed major inequities in the delivery of arts education in city schools, Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council agreed to a four-year $92 million investment to improve and expand arts education citywide.

In the first year alone, the initiative has led to the hiring of arts teachers in 84 city schools that were underserved in the arts. Over 120 schools have also received grants to partner with the city's rich array of arts and cultural organizations to address pressing educational priorities, including engaging English language learners and students with special needs, and fostering parent engagement through the arts. And over $8 million has been committed to purchase instruments and technology and to refurbish neglected arts spaces in city schools.

Chicago has made an equally impressive commitment. Under the leadership of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the city undertook a cultural planning process in which community members identified arts education as one of the city's most pressing cultural needs. The Mayor responded with a commitment to increase the number of arts teachers in Chicago Public Schools, and the district's first arts education plan was adopted by the board of education which made arts a core subject, increased the dedicated minutes of weekly arts instruction in K-8, and added professional development opportunities for arts teachers and general classroom teachers alike.

And through the work of Ingenuity, the organization implementing the arts plan with Chicago Public Schools, an already engaged community of arts organizations and philanthropic partners are more engaged than ever in expanding access to arts education. Along with the city's recent commitment of $10 million for the current school year, the philanthropic sector has already pledged $12 million towards the goal of raising $38 million to fully implement the arts plan, and ensure the arts reach every child.

Los Angeles, Seattle and San Diego, as well as other large and small school districts alike, have also embarked on efforts within the last several years to bolster dwindling arts education opportunities in their schools. And while all of these efforts will have their growing pains and critics, the momentum is real, as are the dollars.

So, what gives?

The steady drumbeat of parents making the case against increased testing in public schools is finally being heard at school board meetings, in city government, and in the halls of Congress.

The growing backlash against the test-heavy mandates of No Child Left Behind -- and more currently the adoption of the Common Core state standards -- coupled with an economic upswing and increasing revenues for cities and school districts has presented a unique window of opportunity to redefine what is expected from a public school education.

In announcing New York City's new initiative, Mayor de Blasio spoke of the spark that the arts light in students, but importantly noted that, "The investments we are making here won't just help our students explore music, dance and the arts. They will help these children grow in a way that helps them succeed in school and in life."

In fact, according to a 2012 report by the National Endowment for the Arts, students who have access to the arts also tend to have better academic results overall, better workforce opportunities, and more civic engagement. And these benefits are most pronounced for students of low socioeconomic status.

Big city mayors, school superintendents, and even the federal government, are noticing these results and taking advantage of opportunities to infuse the arts and music into the school day, and let them act as a turnaround agent for struggling schools.

However, the landscape is ever shifting. Powerful forces are calling for even narrower accountability for schools, as well as teachers, based on student test scores, and support for public schools is always tenuous in light of other funding priorities. And students in high poverty elementary schools are still 50 percent less likely to have access to arts and music classes.

What comes next is up to us. If arts education is truly going to be the comeback kid, we'll need to learn from, and build upon, the initial successes of cities like New York and Chicago, while continuing to make a clear and compelling case for the arts and creative learning as a centerpiece of a quality education.

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