Policy Paradox in Arts Education

One of the reasons that I wanted to study the arts was that the effect on all students is powerful. I had felt the effect of using the arts first in project work, for example, drawing maps of the states for social studies. I grew up and participated in the arts in college by taking theatre classes and joining the summer repertory program. But it really wasn’t until I taught theatre at a K-12 school in Denver that I discovered the types of students who were on my technical theatre team. I also taught acting classes, but this was a group of high school students who were assigned to help me “rig” the theatre every morning. The theatre was a multi-use facility and we would prepare it for assembly, or dance class, or student drawing of models class, or the rehearsal of the current play.

These student loved coming to my class because I would have music playing, they were mostly just waking up, and we would work hard in 50 minutes to prepare for the day’s events. Then they would run off to other classes happy and confident. What I learned was that many of them did not fit into the rest of the high school. Their parents would ask me what I was doing that was so special and I told them it was probably more about the confidence-building work, the focus on art, and a little bit about me being supportive of all who came to help.

Which brings me to a “policy paradox in arts education” (Arts Education Partnership) that has been known for some time:

Good policy starts with good data, but it shouldn’t end there: Every state but one has adopted elementary and secondary standards for the arts and 45 states require that elementary schools provide instruction in the arts. Given these figures, how does one account, then, for the millions of elementary school students each year who receive no specific arts instruction as part of their regular education? According to the most recent federal survey of our nation’s public elementary and secondary schools (2009-2010), these students disproportionately attend high-poverty schools—the same schools that are more likely to serve English-language learners and students with special needs. These are the very students research shows could benefit most from an education in and through the arts. How does one explain this “policy paradox” of strong policies for arts education at the state level and weak implementation of those same policies at the local level? States have the legal authority and responsibility to hold school districts and schools accountable for meeting state goals. However, without state, district, and school level information on the status and condition of arts education, it is nearly impossible to monitor compliance with state policy requirements. Since 2000, 24 states as well as several large school districts have conducted such surveys and publicly reported the results. The promise of an equitable and high quality education that includes the arts for every student depends upon the combination of strong policies at the state level, adequate resources and support to implement them at the local level, and mechanisms in place to hold all parties accountable for compliance (Arts Education Partnership).

So the mis-match is strong state policies and weak local implementation. But the irony is that the very students who would benefit most are the least likely to get a strong look at arts education. My own work in measuring student achievement in arts integration inside of disadvantaged schools brought this out—that all students benefit in arts education and students who are at risk for poverty, English-language learning, special education and academics benefit amazingly! Unfortunately, this disconnect exists in all disciplines and if there is a fertile area for school reform that you might want to get into, it is helping local schools implement the well-understood Federal or State-level policies that many school reformers have worked so hard to craft.

Let’s take the polished state policies in education and make them effective at the local level! IF you need a way into this, write to me.

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

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