Ah, fall! We’ve once again arrived at that time of year when millions of young people return to the classroom. It’s a time most of us remember—and even relive—when that “first day of school” feeling takes over at a new job, or when returning to work after a very long vacation. For our nation’s students, the environments in which their education takes place will vary wildly—particularly with regard to the arts. How many opportunities will young people have to learn about the arts, to develop skills in thinking critically, to discover their own creative and intellectual potential? Will this year be different from any other year—and if so, how?
There are several reasons to expect that this year will be different. In New York City, a considerably larger number of students will have access to arts education than before. And nationwide, students and teachers will benefit from a brand new set of National Core Arts Standards for assessing student progress, in both creating and responding to works of art.
As to the national standards, I am happy to see that—as the federal Department of Education continued to champion the adoption of the Common Core State Standards for English and math (amid controversy and criticism from the likes of Glenn Beck)—a new set of National Core Arts Standards has been voluntarily developed by a coalition of arts educators and practitioners, and it is now available for use. A helpful website outlining these standards can be found at www.nationalartsstandards.org. At TCG, we look forward to sharing more about the value and implementation of NCAS in our annual Education Survey and Report.
Meanwhile, in New York, the uncovering of major deficiencies and inequities in the availability of arts education prompted Mayor Bill de Blasio and the city council to approve $23 million in additional arts funding for city schools. There were some key developments leading to this decision, including the new mayor’s stated priority for reducing income disparity and other forms of inequality in the Big Apple.
In April, the city comptroller’s office released a report titled “State of the Arts—A Plan to Boost Arts Education in New York City Schools.” The report disclosed that 28 percent of schools didn’t have a full-time certified arts teacher and were therefore in violation of state education laws. The numbers were as follows:
- 419 schools in New York City (28 percent) lack even one full-time, certified arts teacher, including 20 percent of all high schools (76), 22 percent of all middle schools (59) and 38 percent of all elementary schools (232);
- 306 schools (20 percent) have neither a full-time nor a part-time certified arts teacher, including 14 percent of all high schools (53), 13 percent of all middle schools (34) and 30 percent of all elementary schools (182); and
- 16 percent of schools have no arts or cultural partnerships, and 10 percent of schools have no dedicated arts room.
The report also demonstrated that schools in Central Brooklyn and the South Bronx, two of the city’s lowest-income areas, were disproportionately affected by reductions in arts education. While these two neighborhoods are home to just 31 percent of all city schools, the report found that schools located there have the highest deficits in certified arts teachers and in arts or cultural partnerships.
Underscoring the logic and urgency of addressing weaknesses in arts education, there were five concluding recommendations:
- Broaden the Department of Education’s accountability framework, including in School Progress Reports, to include arts education.
- Promote strategies that build schools’ capacity to have at least one certified arts teacher on staff.
- Build schools’ capacity to provide a robust arts education by expanding outreach to potential cultural partners.
- Adopt a “no net loss of space” policy as part of a larger effort to increase arts rooms and to ensure that every school has places equipped for the arts.
- Ensure adequate funding to support quality arts education at all city schools.
The report also includes citations of longstanding research about how access to arts education improves academic achievement and graduation rates. It observes that NYC, being the “cultural capital of the world,” must offer equitable access to arts and arts education opportunities. And it celebrates the timeliness of these efforts with the energetic new leadership at the city’s Department of Education, under Carmen Fariña.
Action was made all the more feasible in June, when the mayor announced the additional arts education allotment. In July, a follow-up announcement was made about the use of those funds, including channeling support to the training and employment of 120 new certified arts teachers, the improvement of arts facilities in schools, and new partnerships with cultural institutions, among other programs.
“In the end, providing every child in New York City with a robust arts education should be more than an aspiration. It should be viewed as an essential component of a 21st-century curriculum—one that all our students should have the opportunity to enjoy,” declared the report.
As a New York resident, I am proud of the steps being taken to correct low performance and inequity with respect to arts education. As a member of our national theatre community, I look forward to seeing how the new National Core Arts Standards help raise awareness of the arts and improve their instruction in classrooms everywhere. I believe that access to the arts and creative self-expression helps level the playing field for young people, no matter what their backgrounds or circumstances. And that’s something we should all act upon!