It’s Arts in Education Week: Let’s Celebrate and Get to Work!

student dance performance

As Arts in Education Week concludes,  it is a time to recognize the importance of the arts a well-rounded education for all students. Through dance, music, theatre and the visual arts, young children explore the world through sight and sound, creative movement and drama.  Through the arts, young persons acquire invaluable cognitive abilities and social skills — problem solving and perseverance to name only two — that prepare them for the rigors of college, careers, and life in the 21st century. We also know through research that arts-rich schools make for quality learning environments, heightening student engagement and correlating with increases in attendance and decreases in behavior problems, as well as short and long-term academic achievement, including pursuing higher education and college completion.

Despite all this, a recent Department of Education survey tells us that for far too many students, the arts don’t play a role at all in their K-12 experience.  Here are some disconcerting facts as of the 2009-10 school year:

  • More than 1.3 million elementary students attended schools where no music learning occurred and 3.9 million students, in nearly 20 percent of America’s elementary schools, lacked the opportunity to paint, sculpt or draw a picture.
  • Since 2000, when an earlier survey occurred, the availability of theater and dance in elementary schools went from bad to worse —20 percent of elementary schools offered these arts disciplines in 2000; in 2010, only one out of every 33 schools offered dance and one out of every 25 offered theatre.
  • In more than 40 percent of our nation’s secondary schools, students can graduate without taking a single arts course.

What’s more troubling is the opportunity gap – the differences in access to the arts for advantaged students (in schools with less than 25 percent of students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch), and disadvantaged students (in schools with more than 76 percent of students eligible for subsidized meals). For  example:

  • While nearly all (97 percent) of the lowest-poverty elementary schools offered music instruction in 2009-10, music instruction was available in only 89 percent of the highest-poverty elementary schools.  And the opportunity gap was similar for elementary visual arts instruction.
  • At the secondary level, the opportunity gaps for both music and visual arts instruction actually increased to 15 percent, with only 81 and 80 percent of high-poverty schools offering instruction in music and visual arts, respectively.

In his remarks at the April 2nd survey report release, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan declared these gaps a “bad news story” for disadvantaged students. They constitute “absolutely an equity issue,” he said. “All children should have arts-rich schools,” according to Secretary Duncan, but “it is clear that our public schools have a long way to go before they are providing a rich and rigorous arts education for all students.”

OII Grants Help to Innovate and Disseminate

The Office of Innovation and Improvement supports a number of competitive funding programs to improve arts teaching and learning, better understand the effects of arts education, and disseminate effective programs and practices, including:

  • OII’s Arts in Education Model Development and Dissemination (AEMDD) grants are developing, implementing and evaluating innovative practices in arts teaching and learning, particularly in arts integration. Professional Development for Arts Educators (PDAE) grants are combining the efforts of school districts with the resources of arts and cultural organizations to improve the quality of both standards-based arts instruction and arts integration at all grade levels. This video highlights the outcomes of several AEMDD and PDAE projects.
  • Several i3 projects are exploring promising approaches to arts teaching and learning, using federal support and technical assistance to increase their understandings of why and how their efforts result in high levels of achievement in the arts and other subjects, as well as increases in engagement, teamwork, and other byproducts of quality arts education programs.
  • A majority of our Promise Neighborhoods grantees have made the arts an integral part of their plans and actions. Both planning and implementation projects are involving museums and performing arts centers, film festivals, and local arts groups as well as teaching artists and folklorists in urban, suburban, and rural communities. They are  making the arts a vital part of a cradle-to-career commitment to children and youth in our most distressed communities.

Now is the Time to Act

Use this week to take stock of how the arts are doing in your schools, districts, and states. Where the arts are available and thriving, celebrate that and bring more awareness, both in the school and community, to the importance of the arts in a well-rounded education.  But where arts courses and learning opportunities are in short supply or don’t exist at all, take action now. To get started, visit the website of the Arts Education Partnership, and within it, the Toolkit for Arts Access in U.S. Schools.

Doug Herbert is a special assistant in the Office of Innovation and Improvement and works on issues of national arts education policy and practice.


  1. I believe strongly a Self-Sustained Living class should be mandatory alongside Math, Reading, English, and Science.

    Benefits from such a class would be far reaching. Examples; Willingness to assist, obesity rate lowered, interests in the frivolous lowered, innovations in various fields drastically increased(because everyone would have the basic working knowledge of the world around them), laziness decreased, more people taking interest in the various fields of study. Knowledge is power and people do not have the basic knowledge of the working world around them, therefore they feel powerless and uninterested. That creates a dysfunctional and weak society.

    Teach kids from an early age through age appropriate progression; how to grow their own crops using the best methods for the various circumstances, how to work safely with electricity, how to raise livestock, how to butcher, how to field dress, how to make cheese, how to culture yeast, how to do basic plumbing work, basic automotive work….etc..

    This era of specialization I believe makes us weak, both physically and mentally as an individual and a society.

    Not too long ago self-sustained living was a necessity therefore practiced by just about everyone. Self-sustained Living was practiced by those who made this Country great. It would absolutely make us stronger as a Nation if we were made up of citizens that had the knowledge to live dependent on one’s self.

    I’m not suggesting that we go back to primitive way of life, not at all. Textbooks and the other various teaching tools that would be used to teach the subject of Self Sustained Living would constantly change and evolve with the times. As new various common everyday technology advances, appliances, and methods are introduced to the world around us the Self Sustained Living classes would then incorporate these new advances into their teachings. For example; If a new toilet is invented that operates with different working parts and is becoming the common toilet installed then the section and information about basic working knowledge of the old style of toilet decreases and the information regarding the new style of toilet increases.

    Imagine this for a moment; Your child is in High School, the living room light will not turn on. You change the bulb, but it still will not work. Your son says “We studied the basics of home lighting last week. First we need to turn off the breaker, they taught us safety first and foremost…” From there you and your son go on to check the integrity of the circuit, together you check the light switch and solve the problem together.

    It may sound dangerous and scary to have your high schooler showing initiative to fix your lighting problem, but equipped with the correct knowledge it’s not any scarier than teaching your kid to ride a bike or drive a car, there are many dangers that go along with those basic skills. We must equip citizens with basic working knowledge of their everyday environment.

    It just seems unwise and illogical for people to drive cars they don’t know how to work on, rely on electrical appliances that they don’t know how to work on, stand in long lines at the grocery store to buy vegetables they could grow themselves, call a plumber for something they could do themselves. I’m not saying we can become experts at everything, there will still be specialization, but at least give people the basic knowledge to troubleshoot the problems presented around them. Specialization would grow by leaps and bounds if everyone had basic working knowledge of the world around them. The innovations in the areas of specialization would rapidly increase because it would have to in order for someone to still be considered an expert in their area of specialization. The bar would be raised and therefore innovations and advancement would be a necessity in the areas of specialization so that they remained ahead of the everyday citizen’s working knowledge.
    I also believe that just by teaching Self-Sustained Living that it would positively affect our culture and individual’s perspective on life.

    I think making such a class mandatory would make a huge difference.

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