Think back to when you were in elementary school. In between doing all the dittos and spelling tests and times tables, there were specials (and aptly named, too). Nothing was quite as exciting as the gleeful anticipation of putting on your smock for art class or pulling out the wooden recorders for music. And when it was time for the class play, just forget it. Whether you starred as Snow White or donned a furry costume as Woodland Creature #7, school couldn't get much better. And that was the whole point.
These days, however, not only are many kids lucky if they have art-on-a-cart, but when they do, proponents often have to justify the programs in relation to students' performance on standardized reading and math tests. Because in the age of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), few things matter more than test scores (read our report on NCLB at Parenting.com/nclb). Well, the bad news first: Although kids who are involved in the arts do tend to test better, there's no direct cause-and-effect evidence that participation actually helps raise scores.
This sounds like awful news and justification to slash school arts programs even further, right? But "dismissing the arts if they don't directly boost scores is a big mistake," says Richard Kessler, executive director of the Center for Arts Education in New York City. "In fact, plenty of research shows that children who spend time in school doing visual art, performing music or dance, or even acting in a play gain a whole set of creative and analytical skills that are quickly disappearing from the rest of the curriculum."
That's because in the majority of public schools, the emphasis is on test prep, which means lots of memorization, rote learning, and following directions. In fact, many have more than doubled instructional time in math and English language arts (ELA) since NCLB was enacted in 2002. More math and reading instruction might sound like a good thing -- that is, until you realize what's being eliminated to make room for it. Those same schools have cut arts education by an average of 35 percent. Ideally, children should have an hour of each arts discipline once a week. But few schools make the grade. Twelve percent of school districts don't offer any arts instruction at all.
And it's not like putting all the focus on nonstop test-prep is having the desired effect. Test scores have failed to rise as hoped. Meanwhile, Hong Kong as well as Japan, Canada, Finland, and five other countries that consistently outperform us in math and reading all require extensive education in the arts without narrowing their curriculum, according to a new report from Common Core, a Washington, DC, educational research and advocacy organization. For example, national guidelines in Hong Kong recommend that fourth-graders visit artists' studios and study great works of sculpture and painting; in Ontario, Canada, learning musical composition and conducting are standard for eighth-graders. "The situation here is extremely frustrating," says Lynne Munson, Common Core's executive director. "We have lots of proof that a broad education that includes the arts works better than what we're doing -- and yet we're ignoring it."