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Arts education: The true picture

Most K-12 schools in Arizona offer students some sort of arts instruction, but the vast majority of those schools spend less than $1 per student per year in supporting those classes, according to a report released in July.

“The results show a remarkable dichotomy,” says Robert Booker, executive director of Arizona Commission on the Arts. “On one hand, we know that there are opportunities for students across the state to access arts education programs, but at the same time limited or no funding exists to support these programs.”

Arizona’s budget crisis has led to massive spending reductions by school districts, which have been forced to lay off thousands of teachers and support staff, increase class sizes and eliminate portions of their curriculum. In many cases, arts programs were among the first to go.

Eliminating funding for arts programs is a big concern for education experts who say that studies in arts improve students’ abilities in core academic areas, set them up for success in other facets of life and even improve scores on the state-mandated AIMS test.

“Research suggests that there are tremendous gains for students who are exposed to arts education and fine arts,” says Andrew Morrill, president of the Arizona Education Association. “For instance, evidence strongly suggests a relationship between music and math skills, even language skills.”

Arts educators and advocates have been looking for school-level data on arts education in the state since at least the mid-1990s. This study was the first-of-its-kind to seek school-level data from every school in Arizona.

The study, which focused on support for arts classes but did not measure arts teachers’ salaries, found that half of Arizona schools have no budget for “curricular support” in arts education, which includes providing items such as classroom arts supplies and costumes for plays. More than three-fourths of schools that did have an arts-support budget spent less than $1 per student per year.

“The study shows that schools have invested in people to teach arts more than the paper and crayons to conduct the classes,” says Lynn Tuttle, director of arts education and comprehensive curriculum for the Arizona Department of Education. “It is relatively inexpensive to invest in one teacher if that teacher is teaching 1,200 students.”

Booker says support for arts education should be on par with any other class because the arts have proven to contribute to students’ success.

“All classes in all disciplines or areas of study require a school’s investment in learning materials for the classroom. The arts are no different,” he says. “Arts classrooms need choir books, visual arts supplies, theater sets, costumes and more. You wouldn’t place students in a geography classroom without a map, or in gym class without basketballs.”

Sen. Ron Gould, a Lake Havasu City Republican, isn’t convinced that arts hold such an esteemed position in students’ educational equation. He says districts “use arts as another way to cry for more money” and that arts classes aren’t vital to students’ education.

Gould says districts get plenty of money to provide each student a “very well-rounded” education.

“Arts classes are a luxury, not a necessity,” he says. “I’m not saying that arts are unimportant, but they’re not as important as mathematics. If they can’t find the money to at least give the kids some basic arts classes, then they’re not doing a very good job of managing their money.”

But lawmakers like Gould who believe that schools should be more efficient — and that arts programs are unnecessary — are challenging a widespread belief among education experts that the arts play a vital role in student development.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne says the value of an arts education can be measured in higher test scores.

“In my values profile, it is second to nothing else. AIMS scores would be raised by having kids do more arts, not less,” he says.

The study revealed music and visual arts instruction as areas of relative strength for Arizona schools, with most students having “access to some dance, music, theater or visual arts in their schools.”

Of those schools, 90 percent use certified arts specialists to teach music and 76 percent use certified arts specialists for visual arts classes. Both the Arizona Education Association and Education Department support using certified specialists wherever possible.

“We’re using professional development or a mentor for training,” Tuttle says. “One certified music teacher can go around to different schools to teach lots of students”

However, the report also showed that slightly more than half of Arizona schools are providing the required instruction in music and visual arts, and approximately one-fifth reported that none of these types of classes are available.

While most schools seem to be able to offer some type of arts instruction to students, some surprising roadblocks still exist.

“The grade-weighting part caused the most eye-popping reactions,” Tuttle says. “We are finding ways to tackle that inequity.”

“Grade weighting” refers to how schools count a grade earned in a specific class toward a student’s overall GPA. The study found that arts classes fall on the negative side of that equation, with less than half of high schools weighting grades earned in arts courses equally with other academic subjects.

When considering advanced courses, slightly more than one-tenth weigh advanced art courses equally with other advanced academic courses.

Tuttle says the grade weighting inequity creates a barrier for students to continue with arts education in high school.

The Arts Commission says the inequity minimizes the effort students put forth in pursuing and achieving mastery of arts-related fields of study.

“This fails to acknowledge the learning required to acquire skills in the arts. It diminishes the rigor of the learning required to master these academic disciplines,” Booker says.

Morrill, of the Education Association, says arts should be an area of study equal with all other areas of academic pursuit.

“I put arts education on par with other areas. Fine arts study is an academic area,” he says. “Our students deserve access in study to become great musicians and artists just like they deserve access to becoming great doctors and engineers.”

2009 Arizona Arts Education Census

The 2009 Arizona Arts Education Census was the brainchild of Arizona arts educators and advocates who had been unable to find comparable statewide and school-level information on how the arts are being taught.

The survey produced responses from 409 charter and district schools representing 236,645 students in every county and school district in the state. It was conducted March 15, 2009, through Sept. 15, 2009, by New Jersey-based Quadrant Arts Education Research on behalf of the Arizona Department of Education and the Arizona Commission on the Arts.

Major funding for the study was provided by the Arizona Arts Education Research Institute and the Arizona Community Foundation.

Here are some significant findings from the study:

• 50% of schools have no budget for curricular support in arts education.
• 79% of schools spend less than $1 per student in a year, or less than half of one cent per day.
• 39% of high schools weight arts courses equally with other academic subjects.
• 12% weight advanced arts courses equally with other advanced academic courses.
• 34% of rural schools do not have a highly qualified arts teacher.
• 15% of suburban schools do not have a highly qualified arts teacher.
• 134,000 students attend schools every day with no access to arts education taught by a highly qualified teacher.
• 87% of students have access to some dance, music, theater or visual arts in their schools.
• 55% of schools provide the required instruction in music and visual arts.
• 21% of schools reported no arts classes or courses for students.
• 90% of schools with music classes use certified arts specialists.
• 76% of schools with visual arts classes use certified arts specialists.
• 56% of schools have updated curricula reflecting the Arizona Academic Arts Standards.

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