ARTS EDUCATION PROVIDES vital learning benefits, helping students develop 21st Century skills such as problem solving, critical and creative thinking, collaboration, and teamwork. Research has also shown us for years that an education program that prominently features arts can lead to improved attendance, persistence, focused attention, and intellectual risk taking—all of which correlates strongly with increased success during and after students’ academic careers. Students are more likely to actively engage in their learning with increased self-confidence, and show enhanced awareness of cultural differences and attitudes towards others, when involved with arts education.
Despite these compelling facts, as we all know, arts education has suffered from years of decline in many schools to make room for tested subjects and to balance squeezed school budgets. The Every Student Succeeds Act signed into law last December now defines a well-rounded education to include the arts, and gives states increased flexibility in designing accountability measures. This is a prime opportunity, as we see it, to get robust arts education back in the mix. Yet not all students and schools are able to receive these benefits, as disparities in access to in-school arts learning exist along socioeconomic and racial lines.
To ensure access to arts education for all students regardless of zip code, the inclusion of arts as an indicator in the school accountability system is key. We all know that what gets measured is what matters. To ensure that every student in Massachusetts has access to and participates in arts education—not just those who happen to attend schools in well-funded districts – the state should send all schools and districts the message that arts education matters.
In Boston, an effort known as Boston Public Schools Arts Expansion has been working on this issue of equity and access to arts education for the past eight years. By prioritizing arts education, measuring in-school student participation in the arts, and providing private funding to incent increased public investment in arts education, BPS Arts Expansion has fundamentally changed the landscape of arts education in Boston.
As a result of this work, there are now 80 percent more arts teachers working with 70 community arts partners to deliver arts instruction to 17,000 more students annually as compared to seven years ago. From 2009-2016, the percentage of BPS pre-K-through-8th-grade students receiving a minimum of weekly, year-long arts instruction or its equivalent increased from 67 percent to 94 percent. Boston public schools have seen how the arts improve school climate and bring families into school buildings.
According to a 2014 poll, a majority of public school parents in Boston believe students who participate in the arts do better academically (62 percent) and are happier at school (70 percent) compared to students who do not participate in the arts. Perhaps for this reason, parents value the arts when evaluating the overall quality of a school—60 percent said that the arts are a “very important” component of a good school.
And while we recognize the many learning and developmental benefits of an arts education, we should also recognize it is only the first part of the equation. The product of an arts education is the expressive work artists create to reflect and challenge cultural norms, blend traditions, and create new artistic forms, giving meaning to the world around us.
With the Every Student Succeeds Act, Massachusetts has a real chance to ensure equitable access to arts. By including arts education in its accountability system as a measure of student and school success, Massachusetts will promote access to a well-rounded education for our students in every community. The Commonwealth will be at the forefront of reprioritizing arts education as essential for all, ensuring all students have the opportunity to reach their full potential in school, work, and life.
Roger Brown is president of the Berklee College of Music and Laura Perille is the president and CEO of EdVestors, a nonprofit focused on better educational outcomes for students.