Written by Melinda Ennis-Roughton Sunday, May 30 2010
Part 1 of a two-part series
If you are a “gleek,” an avid fan of Glee, a phenomenal TV hit about a high school glee club in Lima, Ohio, you probably saw the episode in which the school’s music program was almost killed by the baby-faced Doogie Howser.
Neil Patrick Harris (of Doogie fame) played a school board member who threatened to eliminate the glee club and other arts programs because of budget cuts. At the end of the show, the glee club, and hence the show, is saved. Unfortunately, life does not always imitate art – or television.
Nevertheless, one part of the show rings all too true, arts education programs are easy targets for the administrative ax. They’re usually the first to fall as state legislators cut once sacrosanct school budgets while desperately seeking solutions to massive shortfalls – that is, without raising taxes. While the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act instituted during the Bush administration includes arts education as part of its core curriculum along with math and language arts, it is usually not viewed as hard core by local school boards.
Arts education in schools has been in decline since the ‘70s and, according to studies, intensified with NCLB. But it’s also a chicken and egg scenario; the continual reduction of arts education results in new political and business leaders, including school board administrators, who have grown up with less arts education and less understanding of its importance. Since the recession, the downward spiral has accelerated.
As schools and school boards scramble to fulfill NCLB testing standards in math and language arts, class time for other core subjects, including science, is increasingly diminished. A 2007 study from the Center on Education Policy found that 30 percent of school districts report a reduction of instruction time in art and music since the implementation of NCLB, and that was before the recession hit. A follow-up study indicated arts education reductions were as high as 50 percent in those same schools, less than the reductions in social studies, science, and physical education.
“Arts education usually competes (for survival) along with other programs that are not considered as essential, including foreign language,” says Tim Mikulski, arts educational program manager for Americans for the Arts, a national arts advocacy organization. “And since the recession, the budgets are so tight even some sports programs are at risk,” he adds.
One of the worst-case scenarios is in California. With a budget catastrophe that has become legendary, the crisis has trickled down to every community. The Los Angeles Unified School District recently cut 50 percent of the teachers from the elementary school Arts Education Plan and eliminated the program all together in the 2011-2012 school year budget. “And that’s in Hollywood,” says Mikulski, “one of our creative capitals.”
In metro Atlanta’s Fulton County, the school board cut the elementary school band and orchestra programs. The programs now are available only on an after-school, fee-based system – a fact that will most affect lower income kids and families.
The funding issues and cuts in arts education are almost always at the very local level, according to Mikulski. “At the national level, arts and arts education funding is at the same level it was last year,” he says. But locally, down to each school board, the budget allocations become more “nuanced,” he says.
All of this begs the question, just how important is arts education? Are we not better served by training our kids to excel in math and reading – skills essential to navigating successfully through school, work, and life? The answer is as complex as the cognitive functions of the brain, which scientists now understand operates best on more than just reading, writing, and arithmetic.
Arts advocates such as Joe Bankoff, CEO of Atlanta’s Woodruff Arts Center, have made the correlation between the state of Georgia’s spending on the arts (ranked No. 44 in the U.S per capita spend ) and SAT scores (No. 47). That link is underscored by The College Board, the organization which conducts the SAT. Its national scores show that students who have at least four years of arts and music classes score 91 points higher on the SAT than those students with only a half year or less of arts study.
And, there is an increasingly impressive volume of research that indicates the strong link between scholastic achievement and arts education. The burgeoning field of neuroeducation, which studies how we learn as well as the methods that most stimulate that process, is being used to examine how the more conceptual use of “right brain” thinking impacts our overall performance in school and work. The findings are dramatic.
A study by Johns Hopkins University released in 2008 found “tight correlations between arts training and improvements in cognition, attention, and learning,” skills which are vitally connected to understanding math and reading comprehension. Another 2008 study, “Learning, Arts, and the Brain,” conducted among neuroscientists from seven universities, not only confirms the long-held belief that musical aptitude relates to math skills, but that correlations exist between music training and reading achievement and the ability to learn progressively.
Neuroeducators have also found strong links to the study of visual arts and attention span, motivation, and complex problem-solving, as well as links to the improvement of memorization and semantic skills through acting. Even dance, usually considered a physical pursuit, has proven to link to neural conductors that support the organization of complex actions.
This data is critical to communicating the importance of the arts to our politicians, our school boards, and parents, according to Virginia Hepner, a former top executive with Wachovia Bank and founder of “Friends of the Arts,” a new arts advocacy organization in Atlanta. “I think it’s really important to emphasize the link between critical thinking and the arts. We have to focus on why it’s important to each child overall and prove that effectiveness.”
As a Wharton School of Business alumnus and business veteran, Hepner endorses the increasing use of research, metrics, and a results orientation by arts organizations. “You want your money to be used effectively,” says Hepner. And whether it’s a private arts donation or tax dollars used to fund arts education, there has never been a time more vital than now for the arts world to present an effective case to numbers-oriented businessmen and politicians.
Local arts advocacy organizations such as Friends of the Arts, and national organizations such as the Tim Mikulski’s Americans for the Arts are currently engaged in battles across our nation to find new ways of funding and save arts education for future generations.
“It’s not the tipping point yet,” says Mikulski, “but we are at a dangerous point.
For more information:
- Americans for the Arts
- Arts Education Partnership
- Keep Arts in Schools, funded by the Ford Foundation
Coming in part 2: Arts Education at Work – How arts education is valued by employers and corporations, as well as an examination of arts education advocacy in action.
A veteran of the marketing/advertising business, Melinda Ennis-Roughton is the principal and owner of an Atlanta-based marketing firm called MelWorks Inc., and a freelance writer specializing in women’s issues and film criticism. She was an on-going contributing film critic for the Atlanta Journal Constitution from 2004-2007.
Her career highlights include the position of Executive Director/Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) for Brand Atlanta, which was responsible for marketing the city under Shirley Franklin’s administration. She served as Global CMO for Church's Chicken, supervising marketing direction, from China to Costa Rica. And her career also includes executive positions at Atlanta ad agencies, including Fitzgerald & Co. Ennis-Roughton began her career with Arby’s Restaurants, where she stayed for ten years, eventually rising to the position of senior vice president, marketing and was the first female vice president of the organization.