Arts education: More than modeling clay and sing-a-longs

It is a scenario played out in school districts across the nation: budgets tighten and arts programs are put on the chopping block. The reason for the arts being seen as expendable is not completely clear. It may be that in an education system focused on standardized testing, the arts are considered an expendable luxury. Or it could be that unlike high school sports teams, arts programs are not generally money-makers.

Art Design

One thing is clear: while arts programs may be an easy target for cash-strapped school districts, studies indicate arts education is an important component of overall academic success. Music and movement instruction, for example, has been linked to improved reading and speech as well as critical thinking skills. To compensate for reduced budgets, many teachers are forced to seek creative ways to keep arts education a part of their school's curriculum.

Connecting arts and academics

The link between studying the arts and brain function has been studied for decades. However, it wasn't until the 1990s that interest in the subject took off. In 1993, a study published in the journal Nature reported college students who listened to Mozart scored higher in spatial reasoning tests. The so-called Mozart Effect spurred a cottage industry of products and services geared toward harnessing the fine arts for academic benefit.

Later studies, including a 1999 report from the Department of Education, indicated students involved in art activities tended to have higher levels of academic achievement. More recently, a 2010 Guggenheim Foundation study found students receiving instruction in a specific arts curriculum scored higher in three problem-solving skill areas:

  • Connection of ends and aims
  • Flexibility
  • Resource recognition

While researchers continue to study the link between arts and academic achievement, some school districts have already found real-world success integrating arts into core subjects. The Akron School District, for example, piloted a program during the summer of 2011 that combined music and language with cultural studies. Developed by a district initiative known as SMART--Students Making the Arts Relevant Today--the summer program explored Chinese, Ghanaian and Irish cultures and music. By the end of the session, the literacy fluency rate for the third and fourth grade participants increased by an average of 22 words per minute.

Arts as an outlet for students

In addition to improved academics, arts education has been shown to provide social benefits to students. Just as the hit show Glee depicts the majority of its music students as social misfits and outcasts, teachers say there is truth to the idea that arts programs offer an outlet for students who have difficulty fitting in elsewhere.

"Any population that struggles with the norms of school gain immensely from music," said Brian Doherty, a South Bronx music teacher. "These groups could be special education or English language learners, for instance. Since music allows for modalities like movement, singing and playing of instruments, these student groups shine."

Dr. Jennifer Little, a public school teacher with over 40 years of experience and founder of the educational resource firm Parents Teach Kids, agrees the arts fill a need for some students. According to Little, traditional schooling focuses heavily on reading and writing. Children who are not "language-oriented" may struggle and find they excel in artistic pursuits instead.

"Music and the arts enhance education and give some students a reason to attend school," said Little.

Creative solutions for arts exposure

Among fine arts teachers, there seems to be almost universal agreement that schools do not provide adequate funding for the arts. According to the National Education Association, 93 percent of fine arts teachers report the need to fundraise to support their programs. To address the cash shortfall, many teachers are turning to private organizations and parents to make up the difference.

In San Diego, when parents wanted to bring Character Ovations, a performing arts program focused on positive character traits, to their children's classrooms, they footed half the bill and found local businesses to match their money. Elsewhere, national non-profit Little Kids Rock provides a guitar curriculum along with guitars to music teachers in public schools.

Other initiatives step outside the classroom. In Grand Rapids, Mich., area arts organizations combined forces to bring students downtown for ArtPrize, a competition that features the work of nearly 2,000 artists at venues across the city.

As arts teachers across the nation brace for the reality of additional budget cuts, organizations such as the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts--a sponsor of ArtPrize--could play an increased role in providing arts learning opportunities for students. However, given the importance of arts to students at all levels, teachers agree one thing is clear: the show must go on.

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