Unpicking the Equity Knot in Arts Education

Posted by Lynne Kingsley, May 05, 2011 6 comments

Lynne Kingsley

Lynne Kingsley

If you were to untangle the unified, multi-layered rope that is arts education in public schools in this country, would you find equal amounts of art, music, theater, and dance strands?

Without thinking, most of us would say mildly, “well, not exactly.”

As a theater person, I realize this too, but it can’t be THAT unequal, right?

The Snapshot of Arts Education in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools: 2009-10 (a first look at top level national data from the upcoming FRSS study), published on Monday reveals a huge gap between the number of schools that offer art (83 percent) and music (94 percent) instruction and those that offer drama/theater (4 percent) and dance (3 percent) instruction at the elementary school level. 

The secondary school level results showed not quite as large a gap – art (89 percent), music (91 percent), drama/theater (45 percent), dance (12 percent) – but still present.

What is more, in relation to the 1999-2000 FRSS Study on Arts Education, drama/theater and dance instruction fell by 15 and 17 percentage points respectively in elementary schools and only slightly in secondary schools, while art and music remained the same or gained percentage penetration.

As this is only a snapshot, there will be more complete information revealed late 2011 about what this data means when the full report is published.

In the meantime, this top level national data has prompted me to ask the forbidden question.

I’m just going to put it out there: why is there such disparity among the art forms in terms of arts education presence in schools? (Cue worms coming from inside a can).

Please know, by asking this question I do not mean to de-value the treasured art forms of visual art and music.

Rather, my intention is to celebrate what these art forms are doing well with hopes that we can raise the level of penetration in schools of drama/theater and dance education (no data yet on the media arts).

Also, I should mention, I don’t have the answer, just more questions.

Questions about the results of the survey:

Is the data correct?

Is it skewed by virtue of the nature of respondents (principals)?

What has caused the decrease in drama/theater and dance programs since the 1999-2000 study?

And grander questions about our field:

Are visual art and music doing a better job of marketing or communicating the value of their education programs and student outcomes? Is there more money? More support from businesses, the press, established artists?

Are there more teacher training programs and subsequently more qualified educators in these subjects?

Is it the dwindling state budgets requiring narrowing of curricula and exclusion of arts programs?

Perhaps lack of support from state education policy (only 18 states require one full year equivalent in the visual and performing arts) is contributing to the need for the “pick one” approach

Please join me in asking more questions or providing answers to mine in the comments box below.

I understand the tendency to shy away from these questions, keep the threads united and the worms in the can, so to speak.

From the art and music educators’ point of view – those pesky theater and dance people making a stink about equity may infringe on our programs. And rightfully so.

The time (and $) in a school day is so precious; collectively we would rather AN arts education program rather than NO arts education program.

So let me re-phrase my first question (cue stuffing the worms back in can).

How can we steer education stakeholders away from the “pick one” approach and communicate the value of not only a complete education but a complete arts education?

6 responses for Unpicking the Equity Knot in Arts Education


May 06, 2011 at 6:21 am

Lynne, in PA, part of the problem is that there is no teacher certification in dance or drama. We have certified visual arts and music teachers, but physical education teachers are the ones certified to teach dance and people with degrees in either English or communications are the ones certified to teach drama. So there are no dance or drama teachers, and even those who are certified to teach those subjects are most often not qualified because they've had little to no coursework in those areas. We have to address the certification issue before we can address the issue of inequality.

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David O Fallon says
May 21, 2011 at 8:41 am

Great question and information. Another factor in the continuing disparity is the fact of limited space and time in the k-12 schools. Music and visual arts have a head start in being included,as Bob points out. One result was the creation overtime of strong and effective professional service and advocacy organizations to grow and protect those areas: MENC and NAEA. The number of school days allowed in a year and hours in a school day have changed only a little in many decades. These creates a zero sum mindset in many cases. When the national standard were created we had to battle to get the arts included. We also deliberately linked the arts to the continuing efforts at school reform. While at the JF Kennedy center I helped a national task force create the report The Power of the Arts to Transform Education. And while there are many many improvements and changes education has been much less transformed than many had hoped. Assesments show what the system values and of course few places publicly asses dance and theatre work and hold themselves publicly accountable for it----often the public performance is the public assessment,so to speak. Theatre and dance are then in the position of seeking space and time in an increasingly crowded school. Bob is right that we can celebrate and affirm the places where theatre and dance have become embedded. The long term work must continue to be education transformation.

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May 06, 2011 at 9:46 am

Oregon is preparing to release state level data that correlates to these findings. As a theatre artist, I often wonder why our schools show a dominance in what I see as the more expensive art forms (instrumental music requires the maintenance of instruments and many visual art forms require the purchase of supplies) as opposed to theatre and dance which focus on the use of the body and voice as an instrument. I see creative drama, movement, vocal music, body percussion and recycled-found-object art as the way to sustainably keep arts in our schools. Is there a "green" way we can create equity in both time and funding between ALL art forms?

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May 20, 2011 at 10:34 am

I only just saw your comment, Bob. Stellar analysis, thanks.

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Bob Morrison says
May 10, 2011 at 4:50 pm

Hi Lynne,

Part of the disparity comes from the fact the various art forms have varying histories in our education system. Music started in the 1830s and became further imbedded with the development of the community band movement at the turn of the century. Many states have policies that mandate music and visual art (with dance a theatre as optional). Luckily, I live in a state where all 4 are required. BUt NJ is the exception.

Part of the solution is to look at the strong dance and theatre programs. What can be learned and shared with others. Remember, it is only in 1994 when the standards were released that the first expectation of all 4 arts disciplines was established at the national level (and the arts were made a core subject!) As states have implemented standards and raised expectations I have seen, in our research, increases in dance and theatre. In some places (like AZ) Dance at the secondary level has become very strong... and high schools offering all four arts disciplines are more prevalent than pre-1994.

As I may have mentioned at AEP, I am puzzled by the spike in dance and theatre in the FRSS 2000 report. The data from 2010 is right in line for all 4 art forms from what we are seeing at the state level. This just leads me to wonder what was with the 2000 data.

In any event I come to the old Ronald Reagan question (are you better off today than you were four years ago). And while there is certainly room for improvement I would not trade where we are today for where we were in 1993 for anything. ANd I believe there will be even more opportunities to expand artsed for all four art forms over the next 5 years.

Thanks for the thoughtful post!

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May 24, 2011 at 2:01 pm

Part of my frustration with the inequity of dance and theater in the elementary grades is that these are exactly the arts that our students could use the most to connect with other subject areas. Theater and reading go hand in hand. Dance and math can have the same effect - especially when it comes to learning geometry. And while we have a wonderful presence of art and music (the latter of which I am a teacher), dance and theater should also have a place at the table. Arts integration is a wonderful tool which can and should be used to deepen meaning, and extend creativity beyond the arts classes into the content areas. As such, the arts teachers then become the most valuable players in our schools because they are the resources that our teachers can turn to. Yet, without dance and drama teachers in the elementary grades particularly, our teachers are left fumbling without a vital resource. What if, instead of worrying about the space that would be needed, we hired drama and dance teachers to work in conjunction with the classroom teachers?

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