From the Trenches: The Report of Our Death Has Been Greatly Exaggerated
In response to reading newspaper coverage of his supposed demise, Mark Twain famously stated, “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” I was reminded of this statement after seeing recent newspaper reports and arts leaders’ comments touting the demise of arts education in our schools and recommendations that we significantly alter music and arts education as a result of “decline.”
Sometime during this past winter as we were working on yet another state report on the status and condition of arts education, I started seeing articles, blog postings, and news headlines about the supposed decline in arts education in the United States.
Here are just a few:
HOUSE COMMITTEE PASSES BUDGET WITH STEEP CUTS: Doesn’t include money for full-day pre-kindergarten, teacher incentive pay, arts education and numerous other school programs.
‘GLEE’ HITS FEVER PITCH, DESPITE DECLINE OF MUSIC PROGRAMS IN SCHOOLS: Many schools across the country continue to reduce music and arts education or cut music programs altogether.
FILLING THE VOID! Most of the arts programs in the schools are being eliminated. The good news is that there are many individual artists and performers within the state that feel compelled to provide arts education where the schools cannot.
And then there are quotes from national arts leaders like these:
“Arts education has been severely diminished in public education over the past 30 years.”
“Arts instruction in schools is on a downward trend.”
Or my favorite: “Public school arts education is virtually dead”
Cuts, Elimination, 30 Year Decline, Downward Trend, Virtually Dead! My god! What have we done! This makes me want to curl up in a corner in the fetal position and suck my thumb in fear! Except for one thing… it is not true!
I am happy to say that the reported nationwide decline in access to music and arts education in our schools is a myth.
Before I started to look at the data I had also been of the opinion there had been broad cuts to programs. This must mean there were fewer programs in our country. Recently, as we have had greater visibility on actual school data about courses, teachers, and student enrollment, I began to have my doubts. So with this contradiction gnawing at me I decided to look at all the various state data we had access to in order to compare information and see if, indeed, music and arts was lacking for most students or if they were more widely available than is being reported.
What did we see? Music and visual art are nearly universally available in all public schools. (Dance and theater are barely present in the elementary schools while showing a greater presence in middle and high schools.)
Chart 1 includes data from reports Quadrant completed for New Jersey, New Hampshire, Oklahoma and Arizona. Data for Florida and Texas are from state data files. The column marked FRSS is the most recent data released from the Fast Response Survey System of the US Department of Education (released in May, 2011). As you can see, most states report more than 90 percent of their schools have music. The FRSS data supports these finding.
When we look at the secondary level we see a similar pattern of near universal access to music with most states reporting more than 90 percent of schools with programs and the FRSS data supports these findings. We see very similar findings for visual art as well.
US Department of Education Fast Response Survey System Data on Arts Education
When we look at the FRSS data and compare the current findings to the results from the two prior surveys going back to 1994 we see a pretty steady holding pattern for music and visual arts.
To quote the FRSS report, “most of the nation’s public elementary schools offered instruction that was designated specifically for music and visual arts.” Going further the report shows for music, “91 percent employed arts specialists to teach the subject.”
How about instrumental music?
We then reviewed proprietary data from one of our research partners to see if there was any change in instrumental music programs between 2008 and 2010. This is during the heart of the great recession. What we found was that there was a decline of 0.58 percent. Less than 1 percent of our instrumental music programs were eliminated. Any program being eliminated is a problem. But a decline of less than 1 percent does not support the kind of hysterical headlines we have been seeing recently.
Music and arts education in the US is the rule… not the exception!
With music and visual arts nearly universally available in our schools it is hard to put stock in claims that arts education is in decline or virtually dead. There is just no evidence this is true. While there are certainly places where cuts have been implemented it is now clear these are the exceptions and the presence of music and visual art in our most of our schools is the rule.
To me this is the best news possible! And here is why: These findings allow us to fight for our programs from a position of strength. If access to arts education is the rule in this country, then a school that cuts a program is out of step with the main stream of our educational expectations. This allows us to put a clear focus on the places where these cuts are occurring while promoting the expectations established for all students. This also makes it difficult for school administrators, who bemoan the need to make cuts to arts programs, to cite the false fact that this is something most districts are being forced to do. This is clearly not the case.
Can things be better? You bet! Certainly the recent testing frenzy has put a squeeze on time and some programs have been altered to deal with testing and remediation. These are challenges we must continue to address. We are in a much better position to address these points from the position that music and arts education programs have a significant presence in our schools. Not virtually dead.
We must avoid the temptation to buy into the negative narrative that most programs are being eliminated and embrace the positive position of strength we have in our profession. More than 200,000 arts educators report to school each day to give the gift of music and the arts to our children. We must not allow these negative erroneous headlines to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The future of our profession and the education of our children depend on it.
Robert B. Morrison is the founder of Quadrant Arts Education Research, an arts education research and intelligence organization. In addition to other related pursuits in the field of arts education advocacy, Mr. Morrison has helped create, found, and run Music for All, the VH1 Save The Music Foundation, and, along with Richard Dreyfuss and the late Michael Kaman, the Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation.
He may be reached directly at email@example.com.