Educators and arts professionals have long advocated for arts in schools as vital to fostering well-rounded students who can contribute to society in multiple ways. Nevertheless, arts programs are often the first to be cut when school districts need to reduce expenditures. The problem is so severe that in a 2011 document titled “Smart Ideas to Increase Educational Productivity and Student Achievement,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan advised governors nationwide to “avoid short-sighted cost-cutting” of “instruction in the arts and foreign languages.”
Cuts still occur, but that trend may be changing.
Multiple studies have now shown that student participation in and study of various arts produces measurable benefits. Steven N. Kelly, an associate professor of music education in the College of Music at Florida State University, wrote that the data shows that “individuals who participate in school music, art, theatre, and dance experiences achieve higher academic success in the classroom and higher scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test” than those who do not.
Kelly analyzed data from the Florida Department of Education and found that “students who participate in K–12 music and arts classes have a lower dropout rate than students not enrolled in arts classes and that these individuals score higher on SAT exams.” The more time students spent in arts programs, the more pronounced were the effects. This holds true across all ethnic and socioeconomic groups. A nationwide study of middle and high school students performed by the University of California at Los Angeles had similar findings.
A study by the National Governors Association found that arts can even be an economic driver. In a report titled “New Engines of Growth: Arts, Culture, and Design,” the association showed that the arts contribute to economic growth in five ways:
• Providing a fast-growth, dynamic industry cluster
• Helping mature industries become more competitive
• Providing the critical ingredients for innovative places
• Catalyzing community revitalization
• Delivering a better-prepared workforce
Since the arts have proved so vital to both education and the economy, parents will do well to consider how to provide their children with early access to the arts as part of a comprehensive education. If you are choosing a private school for your child or are considering a public school magnet program, ask administrators what their school is doing to support arts education.
When we think of arts education, we can often fall into the trap of believing that this kind of learning is only important to musicians, dancers, visual artists, or others who intend to pursue art as a career or primary avocation. But in addition to direct arts studies, students can study art-related subjects such as literature, art history, or music appreciation without learning to write a novel, draw a picture, or play an instrument.
Participation in arts or art-related studies can benefit any student. In addition to the overall improvement in grades, test scores, and graduation rates, arts-related courses can improve students’ lives in multiple ways.
Career Goals. A study by the National Endowment for the Arts found that students with high exposure to arts were more likely than others to choose a professional career rather than a vocational one.
Civic Engagement. The NEA study also found that students with high levels of exposure to art were more likely to be civic-minded than those with less experience in the arts.
Cognitive Ability. Music in particular has been shown to improve students’ mathematical skills, since musical notation requires an understanding of proportion and ratios. Music and dance can boost understanding of spatial relationships.
Critical Thinking. The kind of analysis that goes into pursuing an art or examining the art of others enhances problem-solving abilities. Those who engage in an art form also get experience in giving and receiving constructive feedback.
Communication. Different art forms can help kids develop verbal or non-verbal communications skills. For example, dance requires attention to body language, writing involves careful construction of verbal messages, and theater can enhance both.
Teamwork. Although some visual and literary arts are solitary, many art forms are collaborative, including music, dance, and drama. Learning to work in an ensemble toward a common goal is great experience that can apply to work and life. Collaboration also improves students’ social skills.
Creativity and Innovation. In our current global marketplace, low-skill and low-wage jobs are often either automated or performed by workers in developing countries. The U.S. economy is shifting to one where the majority of jobs will require not only the math and reading skills emphasized by standardized tests, but also the kind of imagination that is fostered by exposure to fine arts.
Perseverance. The pursuit of an art form, especially under the guidance of a teacher or mentor, gives a student a sense of accountability, since their outcome is dependent upon their effort. Because many art forms take years, if not a lifetime, to master, students learn to press ahead in the face of setbacks.
In “Critical Evidence: How the Arts Benefit Student Achievement,” Sandra S. Ruppert writes, “an arts-rich learning environment can have far-reaching effects that extend to the entire school and surrounding community.” Among her points is that because studies in the arts are part of a well-rounded education, the benefits extend not only to individual students, but to the student body and the instructors, producing what she calls a positive school environment. Just as studying the arts improves student creativity, teaching the arts improves instructor creativity and innovation.
Because of the proven benefits of arts to education, both the No Child Left Behind Act and the Common Core curriculum promote the importance of arts education. Most attention is placed on the STEM subjects—Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, but arts advocates are instead promoting STEAM—adding Arts to the list.
Susan Riley, an educator who specializes in integrating arts into the classroom, notes that the Common Core teaching approach, which places an emphasis on processes that lead to products, has a parallel in art instruction, where much of the focus is on the process. Writing at the Edutopia website, she says, “These parallels attest to the rigors of the arts and the need for their processes in today’s global workforce and the unforeseen future.” For example, she offers a lesson plan in which students analyze the popularity of smartphones and apps to compare mobile phone networks, and then use writing and visual art to create advertisements for their preferred platform.
United Arts of Central Florida is one of the leading organizations fostering arts education in the region. The organization provides field trips, in-school programs, and other arts education experiences to students in Lake, Orange, Osceola, and Seminole counties. In its 26-year history, United Arts has invested more than $131 million in local organizations and education, including Arts and Culture Access Grants to help teachers prevent arts programs from being eliminated when budgets are cut.
In addition to support from the community, educators need support from parents to keep art programs integrated into the schools. ArtsEdge, an education program of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, notes on its website that parents can do several things to support arts education:
• Talk to teachers and offer to help.
• Provide data to administrators and school board members.
• Set goals for your community or school’s art programs.
• Recruit other parents to help.
• Engage elected officials and school board candidates in discussion about arts programs.
• Join local or national advocacy groups.
• Sharpen your research and presentation skills.
• Be persistent.
One key to increasing student participation in the arts is encouraging them to enter competitions or exhibitions where they have an opportunity to display their abilities and receive critical feedback. Such opportunities are often offered to those in performing arts, such as band concerts, dance recitals, and theatrical performances, many of which are organized by the school or studio at which they study.
The Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, a nine-acre facility in downtown Orlando, will be the primary location for many students’ exposure to the arts, as it is the home of the Orlando Ballet and the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as plays and musicals.
The Dr. Phillips Center School of Arts is located on the center’s campus and provides a wide variety of dance, music, and theater classes not only for children but also for adults. The center sponsors the Applause Awards for excellence in high school musical theater and the Young Composers Challenge, which is open to musicians ages 13 to 18 who compose ensemble or orchestra music.
Here are a few other local contest opportunities for kids:
The Florida Art Education Association offers the K-12 Student Art Assessment and Virtual Exhibition, a statewide visual art contest that promotes the achievements of visual art students. Entries are judged in four age categories. The exhibition is shown at the FAEA Conference, on the FAEA website, and selected works are featured in Fresh Paint.
The annual Education Guide Art Contest is an art contest all students kindergarten through twelfth-grade, in five Central Florida counties: Lake, Orange, Osceola, Seminole, and Volusia. Students can win cash prizes and have their art printed in the following year’s guide. More information can be found on pages 12 and 13 of the 2016 Central Florida Education Guide.
For writers in middle and high school, the Florida Writers Association Youth Program, known as FWAY, features two contests. The Collection Competition gives entrants a chance at having their short stories published in an annual anthology published by FWA. The Royal Palm Literary Awards are open to FWAY members, with entries judged in two age divisions and multiple genres.
Young photographers can enter a contest organized by the Center for Research and Education in Optics and Lasers at the University of Central Florida. One student will win a cash prize.
Athletes sometimes seem to receive a disproportionate amount of attention in college recruiting, but most recruiters will tell you that, although they may need a skilled quarterback for the football team, they are just as concerned about finding a talented tuba player for the marching band.
The College Confidential website, which offers high school students advice on university applications, says, “Colleges look for both a well-rounded, balanced student and that ‘standout’ special gift, skill, or talent. Make sure your application shows that you have the right portfolio to show to the admissions officers, and that your special talents are easy to identify in your materials.”
Allen Grove, a college admissions expert for About.com, says, “Colleges would rather see depth of involvement in one or two activities than a large number of extracurricular activities that reflect superficial involvement.” Students actively pursuing a fine art usually demonstrate just this level of involvement.
Arts education is a complex subject, not only from a funding and instructional standpoint, but also in terms of its results. There are benefits to artistic experiences that cannot be measured. Writing in The Qualities of Quality: Understanding Excellence in Arts Education, five researchers from Harvard Graduate School of Education—Steve Seidel, Shari Tishman, Ellen Winner, Lois Hetland, and Patricia Palmer—said, “A hallmark sign of high quality arts learning in any program is that the learning experiences are rich and complex for all learners, engaging them on many levels and helping them learn and grow in a variety of ways.”
Because of the wide variety of learning styles students may have, the variety of artistic endeavors available to them, and the variety of ways people can react even to the same experience, the arts are an important part of education because they are important to learning about ourselves.