Too many California schools fail to provide a mandated arts education; let’s fix this

Courtesy: Create a CA

California law mandates standards-based instruction from kindergarten through high school in dance, music, theater and visual arts.

Yet, according to a recent report by SRI Education, nearly 90 percent of our public schools are failing to align their educational offerings with state standards.

Arts education is essential to student well-being as well as academic success. Access to the full range of visual and performing arts has been shown to prepare students for well-paying 21st-century jobs in a wide variety of fields and to promote participation in civic and community activities.

Students with access to arts education are five times less likely to drop out of school, four times more likely to be recognized for academic excellence, and four times more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree. And at this particular time, arts classes can also play a critical role in helping students recover from “the twin traumas of systemic racism and the global pandemic,” according to Julie Baker, executive director of California Arts Advocates.

As the Covid-19 pandemic continues, social and emotional learning has become a top priority for educators. Providing students with access to culturally appropriate arts education is one way to support students’ sense of connection to their peers, their schools, and their place in their community. Equally important, standards-based, consistent instruction in music, dance, theater, and the visual arts allows children to engage with learning in new ways and fosters collaboration and creative thinking that they carry far beyond performing and visual arts classes.

For example, the Chula Vista Elementary School District in southernmost California recently made a bold commitment to the arts. After years of underinvesting in arts instruction in response to high testing demands, the district changed course.

In 2015, the district invested $15 million over three years in hiring visual and performing arts teachers to provide consistent, standards-based arts education to every child throughout the school day. Students with the most exposure to high-quality arts instruction showed improvement in a myriad of ways. They believed they were more creative and demonstrated greater cognitive flexibility. They were also better at controlling their emotions and expressing empathy. This effort demonstrates that a quality arts education develops soft and hard skills that prepare students for success.

However, some school and district leaders still do not treat the arts as core academic subjects. And persistent disparities continue to leave low-income students and students of color facing the most significant barriers to accessing a quality arts education mandated by state law. And it’s more than just a shame—it’s a significant lost opportunity for our students as individuals and for the future of our state’s economy and civic institutions.

The new report, creative challenge, includes recommendations ranging from expanding the pool of qualified arts teachers to using new approaches to school funding to ensure children receive the quality arts education mandated by state law. He highlights the success of efforts to help schools use federal education funds to support arts education, pointing to resources such as the website for Title 1 schools motivated to expand arts education offerings.

Teachers need training and materials to integrate the arts into everyday learning. For elementary school teachers who often integrate the visual and performing arts into other areas of teaching and learning, professional development should be a priority.

Schools serving students of all income levels need sufficient funding and dedicated classroom space to sustain robust visual and performing arts instruction. The report also noted a significant increase in the trend for schools to partner with local arts organizations to improve access to and exposure to the visual and performing arts; 73% of schools reported benefiting from such partnerships in 2020, a 20-point increase from 2006. Such partnerships allow schools to improve the quality and exposure of students to a wide variety of disciplines—including arts modalities , which may be particularly culturally relevant to their student population—without the need to train and employ full-time art teachers.

Some of these fixes require special funding, while others require new state policies and establishing relationships with arts organizations at the local and state level. What they all require is an understanding of the value of the arts in supporting the development of the whole student. With this report we have a much clearer picture of what needs to be done to harmonize the arts with other core academic subjects. So let’s get to work.


Jeanine Flores is the Arts and STEAM Coordinator for the Los Angeles County Office of Education.

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