The literature on the implementation of arts education programs in the public schools of the United States is clear: the arts are underfunded, under appreciated, yet incredibly important. It is clear to see the effects of No Child Left Behind, which pushed non-test based programs (such as arts) out of schools. Race to the Top was in theory supposed to help bring arts back, but did little to do so. The federal government understands the importance of arts education, but still does not create legislation that will make programs more widely available for all students. Rather than looking at the the long-term benefits of arts in schools, these law makers are focused on the short-term costs of bringing opportunities for students to express themselves and engage in material in different ways. Schools should not only offer arts programs, but also necessitate that students participate in these programs. This will lead to more success in high school, more success in higher education, and more success in the world in general. Students who engage with the arts will become better communicators, more effective critical thinkers, more willing and able to collaborate with others, and carry with them an improved sense of self and an improved sense of community.
But how do we build public confidence in arts program so that voters and legislators alike will fight to not only fund the creation of these programs but continue to fund them for years after creation? In current times, many people, including educators, are reticent to put so much emphasis on these programs. This is for many reasons. The cost of the programs certainly poses an issue. The classification of exactly what types of art should be taught and how it should be taught also requires a fair amount of thinking for policymakers and educators. However clear the evidence on the merits of arts programs is, so too is the evidence that it takes a lot of effort, a lot of shifting of resources, and a lot of money to integrate arts into the curriculum of every public school. The difficulty of this does not mean that these programs should not exist. All students should graduate high school with an understanding of art, as well as an understanding of how important it is. Perhaps the real issue is that people in power never gained an appreciation for the arts because of a lack of programs in their schools. Scholars agree that in order for students to succeed, there must be an increased emphasis on arts education in schools. They also agree that current legislation has led to an under privileging of arts programs and has created public sentiment that regards arts as far less important than other subjects.
There is a fair amount of professional literature that addresses the issue of arts education, from how to implement arts into curricula that usually would be exclusionary towards this subject, to how to be an advocate for arts education for all students.
Title I and the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) mandate that every student, regardless of income, race, religion, disability, etc, have access to a high quality education. The Arts Education Partnership along with the Education Commission of the States shows how access to high quality education necessitates access to arts programs and education, specifically in public schools. The arts can be used to improve students’ skills in not only the academic and test-score realm (ensuring more funding under No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top) but also in improving and polishing non-academic skills, including communication, collaboration, self-efficacy, and attendance.
Some states, such as New Jersey and Connecticut, have already made the move to mandate arts education as a graduation requirement. This has improved student engagement and motivation, school climate and culture, and teacher engagement and retention. It seems, based on this evidence, that arts education is a remedy for many issues that plague all public schools, especially urban schools.
Just as accountability measures exist for core academic subjects, such as language arts, mathematics, and sometimes science, there should be accountability measure to ensure that all students are able to successfully create and engage with both visual and performing arts mediums. This would improve relationships with students to their learning, teachers to their students, and individuals to communities.
As we have seen with the necessity for grassroots organizations to become involved in the fight for arts education attainment for all students, there are significant legislative and political barriers to implementing arts programs. The Kennedy Center produced a guide to help people become engaged with advocacy for arts education. They make clear that despite the naming of arts as a core academic subject by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, many students still do not have access to these vital and life changing programs. It is time that arts education advocates step up their game and work even harder to ensure that every student has access to arts. This would mean that there is actually no child left behind.
A successful advocate lives with their cause in mind at all time. This means that an arts education advocate must be well versed in their cause, keep up to date with new legislation and developments regarding the attainment of an inclusive, art integrated curriculum for every school and every child. They must understand the merits of arts education, from the creation of good citizens to simply being a meaningful way for youth and adults alike to spend their time and enrich their communities. A good advocate is organized and responsible and does not forget why they are fighting. They are passionate about disseminating information. Finally, a good advocate encourages others to engage in advocacy as well.
Using the guide that helps map out the educational opportunities afforded to students in the realm of arts in conjunction with the guide on how to be a good advocate can create a generation of people who fight for arts education, followed by a generation of people who can participate in arts education.