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State of the Arts

Despite mounting evidence of its role in student achievement, arts education is disappearing in the schools that need it most.

By Sabrina Holcomb

Does art imitate life at Adams Middle School?

Picture full-length mirrors reflecting an empty dance studio where no one practices at the barre, while cameras from a terminated television class sit in a computer lab. How does music sound in a room where instruments lie silent? And is the play still the thing in a theater that’s now merely a set for an English class?

Like many schools across the country, Adams once had a flourishing arts program. Now, five years after the No Child Left Behind law (NCLB) first opened to mixed reviews from captive audiences, arts education must fight for a seat in the classroom, despite the law’s inclusion of the arts as a core academic subject. A small number of forward-thinking school districts have begun to integrate the arts across the curriculum and into the fabric of the school day. But in the vast majority of public schools, arts programs—and teachers—are in more trouble than ever, despite the growing body of evidence showing a powerful link between arts education, student achievement, and teacher performance.

“With the push from NCLB to focus on testing, arts and education are treated as if they’re not compatible,” says Jamie Myrick, an English teacher at Adams. “People are forgetting that math is taught when a child is playing an instrument. English is taught when a child is reading or writing a script. Critical thinking is taught when a child is analyzing art.”

Today, Adams, located in California’s West Contra Costa school district, offers visual arts and band classes just 60 percent of the time, while drama, dance, piano keyboarding, photography, and television classes have been cut entirely from the school day. Despite the cutbacks, Myrick and her colleagues have been fighting valiantly to keep the arts alive at their school.

In the early days of NCLB, says Myrick, all the teachers pitched in to offer students “anime, poetry, dance, drama—a little bit of everything” twice a week. Even though the school recorded growth under California’s Academic Performance Indicator, the pressure to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) has intensified, and a significant percentage of the student body is now enrolled in double English and math classes. Electives such as dance, television, and crafts were relegated to an after-school program run by educators and community artists. Some educators worry that after-school programs make the arts an afterthought, but for many students, these programs are the only access they have to the arts—and even that access is limited. It’s hard for students who have to ride the bus to stay after school, says Myrick, especially in winter when night comes early.

An urban school with a transient population of English-language learners, Adams fits a growing profile of schools most likely to have their curriculum stripped to the bone. “We’re finding that the kids who are not getting art are often Hispanics and African-Americans,” say Myrick and her colleague, part-time art teacher Cathy Coleman. A 2004 study commissioned by the Council for Basic Education states that research “lends support to the overall thrust of anecdotal accounts that poor and minority students are bearing the brunt of...a waning commitment to the arts.” The “greatest erosion of the curriculum,” the study reports, “is occurring in schools with high minority populations, the very populations whose access to such curriculum has been historically most limited.”

Gateway to Learning

Both Myrick and Coleman do their creative best to address the inequity. Myrick, a professional storyteller and former drama teacher, integrates the dramatic arts into her English curriculum. “Storytelling captures the attention of every learning style and every type of student,” she says. Myrick, who sometimes dresses in character, had students spellbound when she recently taught a lesson dressed as the Statue of Liberty. “We were reading about immigrants, and I acted out the lesson for the kids from the point of view of ‘Liberty’ watching all these different people coming into America.”

Now, many students who enter her class reading at second-, third-, and fourth-grade levels end up testing close to—or at—grade level. Last year, she had a “miracle.” A student who entered her class reading at a fourth-grade level in August tested at a 12th-grade level by January. “Dramatic instruction works well with all children,” explains Myrick, “the tough ‘I don’t want to sit down and listen to you’ students and the children who are very on-task. No one is lost on the fringes.”

“And that’s the part that breaks my heart,” says Myrick about NCLB. “We’re losing the ability to hook our students with what their joy is. It might be playing a musical instrument. Or working with their hands in an art class. That joy is a natural bridge that can transfer over to math, history, and science. The things that are complex and heavy in these subjects become clearer when students do work they have joy in.”

Coleman knows about this bridging effect firsthand. “That’s what happened to me when I was in school,” she says. “I didn’t like history, but as I learned more about art, I realized how art and history were interconnected, and I started to really enjoy and do well in history.”

Which is why Coleman makes sure her own students understand how fully art is interwoven into their daily lives. She tells them everything they touch was created by an artist: industrial designers made the cars they ride in and the furniture they use, fashion designers made the clothes they wear, and graphic artists illustrated the video games they play. Her students’ first assignment is choosing the art career that most intrigues them and designing a product in that field. Coleman also rounds out her art lessons with vocabulary tests and writing assignments.

Even so, Coleman worries that her students don’t have the opportunities she did when she was in school. “If students aren’t testing proficient in English and math, they can’t take an elective. Instead, they take double English and double math. Of course, our children must be literate, but I question the way we’re going about it.” She recounts the saga of one talented student who begged to study art all through middle school, but is now graduating without ever taking an art class.

 “I see all these children who may never take a dance, art, or music class,” says Coleman. When these same kids are encouraged to think creatively, she adds, they invent their own learning opportunities. She describes walking into her art room one day and hearing her sixth-graders singing. “They had made up a rap with my vocabulary words to study for their vocabulary test,” Coleman recalls. “Every one of them got an A! It just blew me away.”

State of the Nation

As beleaguered schools across the country cut arts programs, some teachers’ jobs are being eliminated entirely, while others, like Coleman’s, have been reduced to part-time. Many arts teachers who still have full-time positions end up juggling so many schools that, in essence, they’re really working two full-time jobs, says Janis Leiberman, an instrumental music teacher and head of the West Contra Costa school district’s music department. To provide every elementary school in the district with an instrumental music program, each full-time music teacher has to divide his or her time among six schools. The end result: Many instructors teach 30 to 40 students playing very different instruments for just a half hour twice a week.

Art teacher Cathy Coleman sees many children who may never take a dance, art, or music class.

In Dallas, Texas, elementary school students will lose their band programs entirely as they are phased out over the next three years as part of a restructuring that shifts the programs to middle schools, reports Charles Turner, chair of NEA’s Fine Arts Caucus and a band instructor at Fred Florence Middle School. “Some elementary schools will retain their orchestra programs,” says Turner, “but the principal will have to choose between hiring an orchestra teacher or a teacher of another curriculum.”

Even arts magnet schools are not immune. “We’re getting hit from everywhere,” reports Albert Stellmach, chair of the United Teachers of Dade Fine Arts Caucus, who teaches music at Miami’s Perrine Elementary School, an “expressive arts” magnet. “At my school, they allow pullouts for extra reading and math classes. A student who signed up for music can be taken out for half a year. They’re there on paper, but not in reality.”

While Perrine has been able to retain all its teachers because of its magnet school status, it’s been a different story for other district schools. Keeping track of “disappearing” art teachers was one of the goals for starting the Fine Arts Caucus last year, says Stellmach. “Everybody knows we’ve lost teachers, but no one knows how many,” he says. “We asked the union to run the numbers, and we found out we lost eight fine arts middle school teachers in one year.” The caucus is distributing a survey to get more information on what’s actually happening in the schools. Once they’ve collected the evidence, they’ll meet first with their state legislators and then with their senators in Washington, D.C.

The caucus is also gathering data on the link between arts instruction and higher SAT scores. Stellmach refers to a 2005 College Board study that found that students who took four years of arts coursework outperformed peers who had taken similar classes for a half-year or less by 58 points on the verbal portion of the SAT and by 38 points on the math portion. “We know there’s a big resistance to spending time and money on arts education,” says Stellmach. “Our response is, ‘Keep kids in band and drama, and their SAT scores will improve.’”

A New Attitude

With study after study showing powerful links between arts education and student performance—especially for struggling students—why are the arts still expendable? Because fine arts are traditionally viewed as “affective and expressive, not academic or cognitive,” says Nick Rabkin, executive director of the Center for Arts Policy at Columbia College in Chicago. That conventional view is beginning to change, however, as organizations advocate for arts instruction in public schools and educators develop new instructional strategies to integrate arts across the entire school curriculum.

“By recognizing the arts as cognitive, the field of education is starting to acknowledge the academic value and potential of arts instruction,” says Amy Duma, director of the Kennedy Center’s Changing Education Through the Arts (CETA), a Washington, D.C.-based professional development program focused on arts integration that was established with a pilot grant from the NEA Foundation.

One of the original CETA schools, Bailey’s Elementary School for the Arts and Sciences in Fairfax County, Virginia, serves an elementary student population that’s the most culturally, linguistically, and economically diverse in an increasingly diverse county. “The arts are a universal language,” says Melanie Layne, the integration resource teacher at Bailey’s, where over 70 percent of students are English-language learners.

At Bailey’s, grade-level teachers and arts teachers work in tandem to guide students through sophisticated and complex assignments. “You really do need the expertise of someone in the arts to truly integrate,” says third-grade teacher Allyn Kurin. “Otherwise, you’re just making up pretend dance steps that aren’t connected to the content.”

In one such assignment, students are given a scenario: As members of the professional dance troupe Geometry in Motion, they’ve been hired to create a performance for students in the lower grades. Choreography must include math objectives (similar polygons, congruent acute angles, quadrilaterals, and other geometric shapes) and dance objectives (using space at low, middle, and high levels and dance phrases with beginning, middle, and ending sequences). Another project integrates visual art, drama, history, and writing as students explore Virginia’s history from European, African, and Native American perspectives.

“Fully integrating the arts has dramatically improved teaching and learning in my classroom,” says Van Hoffman, a fifth-grade teacher at Bailey’s. “I’ve learned to meld different content-area objectives and teach them in a fun and interesting way that’s accessible.”

Even when arts instruction is integrated into other subjects, arts teachers play another critical role, stress drama teachers Gloretta Wilson-Omolo Shale and Carmen Boatwright-Bacon. They can call students on their artistic choices and performances in a way classroom teachers often don’t. “Classroom teachers have standards and expectations for their curriculum, but they don’t always feel comfortable applying those standards and expectations to the artistic components of a lesson,” says Wilson-Omolo Shale.

In Boatwright-Bacon’s theater class, for instance, it’s not enough for students to memorize their lines for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. When Grace recites her lines without any emotion, the drama teacher good-naturedly exclaims, “Stop! You’re putting me to sleep!” “Do you have a pet?” she asks the fifth-grader. “Think of how happy you are to see her when you walk in the door. Then put that emotion and caring into your lines!” On her second try, a beaming Grace wins bravas and applause from her “audience.”

But even the best-funded, most supportive schools aren’t immune to the relentless pressures of standardized testing. The year before last, Bailey’s missed AYP for the first time. Unlike Stellmach’s arts magnet school in Florida, however, no children were pulled from arts classes to take double English and math. Instead of sacrificing their core philosophy, the staff at Bailey’s decided to use art to help them beat the test.

They invited a Kennedy Center artist to work with the staff on a drama strategy that targeted testing vocabulary. “We passed AYP this year by the skin of our teeth,” says Layne, “but we passed.”

It’s Showtime

As a growing consensus of policymakers, educators, and parents agree that the arts are integral to learning, some districts are seeing a policy shift on the local and state levels. In California, education and arts organizations have worked to secure a windfall arts budget that, in theory, would guarantee arts education in every public school in the state. The monies—$105 million in ongoing funds, and a one-time, $500 million line item for classroom equipment—are a legacy of the California Teacher Association’s successful lawsuit on education funding.

Efforts are underway statewide to help districts spend the money strategically, but “my guess,” says one CTA member, “is that the actual impact will vary according to the level of commitment at the district and school levels.”

Back at Adams, part-time art teacher Cathy Coleman is pleased about the arts allocation but anxious to see what impact it will have at her school. Will visual arts be offered full-time next year? What about the standards-based arts textbook she’s been trying to get for her students for the past two years?

She’s still waiting, but she’s hopeful that with the new emphasis on the importance of arts education, she’ll never again have to watch a talented student graduate without the chance to pick up a paintbrush.


Bravura Performances

Boosting Student Achievement

Critical Evidence, a report commissioned by the Arts Education Partnership and the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies in 2005, cites research studies documenting more than 65 distinct relationships between the arts and academic and social outcomes, including:

  • Visual arts instruction and reading readiness
  • Dramatic enactment and conflict resolution skills
  • Learning piano and mathematics proficiency
  • Traditional dance and nonverbal reasoning (Dancers scored higher than non-dancers on creative thinking measures, especially abstract thought.)

Promoting Social Growth

Arts activities promoted growth in students’ social skills, including:

  • Self-confidence and self-control
  • Conflict resolution and
  • collaboration
  • Empathy and social tolerance

The arts also play a key role in developing social competencies among educationally or economically disadvantaged youth who are at the greatest risk of dropping out.

Improving Instruction

The arts create a learning environment that fosters teacher innovation, a positive professional culture, and effective instructional practice.

NEA is an active member of the Arts Education Partnership (AEP), a national coalition of over 140 arts, education, business, philanthropic, and government organizations promoting the essential role of the arts in learning. For more information on AEP and the power of arts education to transform and enliven schools, visit

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