Late last year, Congress took a rare, bipartisan step away from two decades of education reform steeped in the high-stakes testing that many educators, parents and policymakers have come to loathe. The Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, signed into law by President Obama Dec. 10, 2015, replaces the No Child Left Behind Act, which emphasized a focus on the core subjects of math and English, coupled with annual testing as a means of measuring progress, at the expense of creativity and critical thinking.
One of the unintended consequences of No Child Left Behind has been a national decline in access to and participation in sequential arts education (dance, drama, media, music, visual arts). This deterioration is especially noticeable in low-income urban and rural districts, resulting in an even greater disparity of educational opportunity.
Under ESSA, instruction in the arts is included in the definition of a “well-rounded education.” As states prepare to implement ESSA during the 2017-18 school year, they must update their benchmarks for success and, in addition to test scores, can include broader measures. This presents an important opportunity for Massachusetts, whose Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is currently writing the new accountability standards required by ESSA.
Massachusetts should put participation in arts education in its new accountability plan. This will ensure that every student in Massachusetts has access to and participates in arts education — not just those who happen to attend schools in well-funded districts.
Under ESSA, there is a clear emphasis on the importance of the arts. States are encouraged to use arts education to meet the goals of Title I funding, which provides increased educational opportunities to disadvantaged students, through arts programs. Arts teachers are eligible for Title II funds, which supports professional development for educators. ESSA specifically offers funding for integrating arts education into the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) curriculum and includes a $20 million grant program for arts education.
The benefits of doing this are obvious to anyone who pays even passing attention to research in fostering critical thinking, innovation and creativity — frequent descriptors of what’s needed to succeed in our fast-changing global economy. Citing a large body of research, the 2011 Reinvesting in Arts Education report of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities noted that arts engagement fosters better habits of mind such as problem-solving, critical thinking and independence.
Locally, a study of K-8 students in the Gardner Museum’s School Partnership Program, in which students in five Boston public schools visited the museum multiple times over the course of a school year for arts instruction, found positive effects, too. Those students exhibited statistically significant improvement in skills like associating, comparing and flexible thinking compared with peers who did not participate in the program.
Embracing the arts in this way does not mean that we are abandoning the quest to educate students at the highest academic levels. Quite the opposite. Data are abundant that arts education improves achievement across all disciplines.
The Reinvesting in Arts Education report also found that higher levels of arts participation related to higher test scores in math and reading; students who participated in arts programs were more likely to be high academic achievers; and engagement in a fine arts discipline gave high school students a substantial advantage in reading achievement when compared to students who took fewer arts courses. In addition, a 2012 National Endowment for the Arts-commissioned study, The Arts and Achievement in At-Risk Youth: Findings from Four Longitudinal Studies, found that eighth graders who had had high levels of arts engagement in elementary school showed higher test scores in science and writing than peers with lower levels of arts engagement over the same period.
Perhaps more compelling, however, is the story of how Boston’s Orchard Gardens K-8 School in Roxbury, one of the lowest-performing schools in the state in 2003, used arts education to get back on track. In 2009, the school eliminated its security guards and replaced them with arts teachers. The school participated first in Boston Public Schools’ Arts Expansion Initiative, an effort to expand quality arts education in city schools through public-private partnerships, and then became a Turnaround Arts Initiative school, a federal program that provides support and expertise for implementing effective arts education as an improvement strategy for low-performing schools.
Along with a federal School Improvement Grant in 2012, these efforts resulted in a 15 percent rise in math proficiency, a 9 percent rise in reading proficiency, an 86 percent reduction in suspensions between 2011 and 2014 and dramatically improved attendance rates.
Arts education brings greater parental involvement, improves school climate and strengthens student engagement. It is one of the keys to success in all school systems, whether they are urban, suburban or rural. If we truly want to succeed with education reform, it’s time to get creative and put arts education back in the mix.
Matt Wilson is the executive director of MASSCreative, a statewide nonprofit that advocates for the arts in Massachusetts.