March is Arts Education Month, which makes it fitting to point out that when school budgets get cut to the bone, as they are in this current budget crisis, art and music education are always among the first casualties. Because this crisis is unprecedented, so is the depth of the cuts being made.
It’s clear why art and music take the first cut in the current climate. As a result of No Child Left Behind legislation, every school and every classroom is rated according to how students achieve on standardized tests. You can look at those tests until you grow very weary, and you will never see mention of a treble clef or a two-point perspective drawing technique. When tests measure reading, math, and social studies, that is what is taught and that is where resources must be allocated.
What remains much more difficult to understand is the political arena and social context that makes those choices necessary in the first place. It is shortsighted. The arts are not frills—they are essential elements of a complete education, often providing the very skills and motivation required for school success.
The arts represent a form of thinking that is both sensory and academic, involving human imagination and judgment. They are a form of expression and communication that is essential to the human experience.
What’s more, the arts provide unique ways of reaching students who may not access knowledge as readily through language and mathematics alone.
The research is unequivocal. In a comprehensive report, the Education Commission of the States cited “a growing body of evidence that points to the importance of arts education in improving student achievement, affirming positive alternatives to troubled youth, and developing and building a workforce capable of competing in an increasingly knowledge-based global economy.”
Among the most critical findings was the fact that learning through the arts can level the playing field for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. In a national sample of 25,000 students, those with high levels of art instruction or experiences earned higher grades and scored better on standardized tests than those with little or no involvement in the arts, regardless of socioeconomic status.
Other studies have shown that in terms of reading and language development, certain forms of arts instruction enhance basic reading instruction aimed at helping children “break the phonetic code” that unlocks written language by associating letters, words, and phrases with sounds, sentences, and meanings. Also, in the area of mathematics, certain music instruction develops spatial reasoning, which is fundamental to understanding mathematical concepts.
Art experiences strengthen problem solving and creative thinking. Learning in the arts also nurtures growth in self-confidence, self-control, conflict resolution, collaboration, empathy, and social tolerance.
What’s more, another researcher showed that an education rich in the arts and humanities develops skills that are increasingly crucial to the productivity and competitiveness of the nation’s workforce: the ability to think creatively, communicate effectively and work collaboratively, and to deal with ambiguity and complexity.
In Santa Barbara County, thanks to the power of partnerships, we have managed to keep the arts alive in our schools so far.
The Children’s Creative Project, started by my office after Proposition 13, uses an artist-in-residence approach and sends professionals in the visual and performing arts to more than 60 schools in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, reaching more than 30,000 students.
It is also important to underscore the link between careers and the arts. New technologies for the arts, arts-related computer applications, and emerging arts-related careers are especially vital in California. One study of the arts found that spending on the nonprofit arts alone supports more than 115,000 full-time and part-time jobs in the state. In addition, entertainment products, such as movies, television shows, video games, and music CDs, form one of the country’s highest export categories.
Many young people find great joy in artistic expression. For some, it is an outlet and a source of inspiration. It helps them keep connected to their teachers and their schools.
The benefits of arts education can translate into real advantages, including closing the achievement gaps between groups of students, keeping young people in school who otherwise might drop out, and preparing students for the demands of college and an ever-changing workforce.
Bill Cirone is Santa Barbara County superintendent of schools. Send comments to the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.