The Center for Arts Education recently released the findings of a 2-year study on the correlation between participation in arts programs and high school graduation rates at more than 200 New York high schools. The study identified nine key indicators for conveying a school’s commitment to offering quality arts programs:
- Certified Arts Teachers
- Dedicated Arts Classrooms
- Appropriately Equipped Classrooms
- Arts & Cultural Partnerships
- External Funds to Support The Arts
- Coursework in the Arts
- Access to Multiyear Arts Sequence
- School Sponsorship of Student Arts Participation
- School Sponsorship of Arts Field Trips
For those high schools demonstrating a strong presence of the nine indicators, graduation rates were higher over the 2-year period. The study also points out the fact that access to arts is unequal. Students attending schools in low socioeconomic or majority-minority neighborhoods have less access to quality arts programs than students attending schools in more affluent neighborhoods. This is problematic, especially since students in those groups have higher drop-out rates. Furthermore, these student-groups are at the center of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), as academic achievement, attendance and graduation rates are significantly lower than those of White and Asian students across the country.
CAE is not the first organization to publish such a study so why, then, do our public schools look to arts programs first when faced with budget cuts? Some districts claim that having comprehensive arts programs would be too costly; others insist that it is not possible to offer a variety of arts programs during the traditional school day. I wonder, though, if the real reason has anything to do with the fact that disadvantaged students may actually begin to perform as well as, or better, than their advantaged peers. Perfect example: DeKalb Elementary School of the Arts – DESA (formerly Hooper Elementary), a magnet school located in the DeKalb County School System. For the 2008-09 school year, DESA’s students outperformed their peers at traditional schools without an arts focus. There were 345 students who took the Criterion Referenced Competency Test (CRCT), where passing scores are required for both Mathematics and Reading/Language Arts1. Of DESA’s 331 Black students tested, 14.2% Did Not Meet (DNM) the standard, compared to 28.8% for the district’s Black students. Sixty percent of DESA’s Black students met the standards, while only 53.6% of the district’s students met the standard. Students eligible for Free and Reduced Lunch at DESA also outperformed students in the same group at the district level.
I have my opinion of academic disparities, especially when many students (victims of their zip code) can be helped with something as simple as access to quality arts programs. Unfortunately, those in charge of making important curricular decisions tend to be ignorant of research in support of such programs. As a result, more kids suffer through less-than-engaging curricula, from minimal opportunities at differentiated instructional practices and superficial arts exposure masquerading as ‘arts-integration.’
1 All of the students attending DESA for the 2008-09 school year were classified as Black.