COMMENTARY | A recent report by the National Center for Education Statistics comparing changes in arts education in public schools from 1999-2000 to 2009-2010 shows that since the start of No Child Left Behind, our public schools have seen a reduction in the arts education offered to students. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, commented on the results, stating it is imperative that "we continue to elevate, enrich, and expand arts education in our nation's schools", according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Among the most disturbing findings in the report is that economically disadvantaged students, many of whom do not have access to arts education anywhere but in public schools, have suffered a 20 percent reduction in arts education offerings, from 100 percent of schools offering such programs in 1999-2000 to only 80 percent in 2009-2010.
One potential reason for this, according to Secretary Duncan, is that schools are being denied access to Title I and Title II funds for arts education, a mistake on the part of State departments of education. Another, of course, is the rigorous No Child Left Behind testing and funding requirements and the harsh economic climate facing public schools, both of which have forced districts to cut courses that are not critical to standardized test performance or graduation. Unfortunately, arts education falls into these categories, making it one of the first programs to go.
Having taught in both a struggling high school and an affluent one, I have witnessed the benefits arts education programs provide to troubled, disadvantaged, and ESL youth as well as the disservice not having such programs does to these same populations. The opportunity gap discussed in the report is indeed devastating.
As Secretary Duncan mentioned in response to the report, arts education is critical for at-risk student populations. Research suggests that those students exposed to arts education "were more than three times as likely to earn a B.A. as low-income students without those experiences...[and]...low-income high school students who earned few or no arts credits were five times more likely not to graduate from high school than low-income students who earned many arts credits."
In a world where graduating from high school and getting a post-secondary degree are almost a requirement for prosperity, it is simply unacceptable to deny our low-income students the opportunities they need to succeed.
Once again, the culprit of this failure to meet students' needs is flawed accountability mandates for school districts and our unwillingness to invest in our children. And while the Department of Education is working to correct these problems through programs such as flexibility under No Child Left Behind and the Promise Neighborhood competition, more needs to be done.
Stringent accountability programs that put public school funding at the mercy of high stakes test results and educators' jobs at the mercy of misleading, data-driven evaluation procedures are hurting our students more and more every year. Finally, we have a study that supports this, something educators have been unsuccessfully warning policy-makers and the public about for years.
But there is hope. The current administration's approach to education, which is also flawed, is at least a step in the right direction. Hopefully, it is just the nudge we need to completely reevaluate and overhaul how we measure student progress and teacher effectiveness.
Let's hope it is, anyway. Our children's futures depend on it.
Laura Sauer is a high school English teacher in Michigan. She holds a BA in English and is pursuing her MA in Curriculum Development and Instruction.
- Arne Duncan