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Inequitable Access to Arts Education: "A Civil Rights Issue"

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Apr 02, 2012

The arts opportunity gap is widest for children in high-poverty schools, according to a recent survey and report on the status of arts education in America—the first of its kind in a decade prepared by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). In prepared remarks about the report, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan stated that this persistent lack of access to arts education in high poverty schools is “absolutely an equity issue and a civil rights issue--just as is access to AP courses and other educational opportunities” —an issue that demands serious attention.

Arts Education in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools: 2009-2010 contains information regarding access to and quality of arts education in elementary and secondary schools across the country. The study, focusing on data collected in 2009-2010, takes a look at arts education as a whole, and goes on to break out data by discipline, including music, visual arts, dance, and theater/drama. The report also contains a section on arts education activities outside of regular school hours and school-community partnerships. This is the third report of its kind to be congressionally mandated, the first was released in 1995, the second in 2000.

The good news is that the study did not find significant declines in music and visual arts instruction at the elementary school level. The bad news is that it did find a steep decline in the number of dance and theatre opportunities available in schools; low levels of arts integration and instruction at the secondary school level, and the persistence of the arts opportunity gap for disadvantaged students in particular.

Continued inequitable access to arts learning opportunities in high poverty schools is alarming for two reasons, noted Duncan:

First, children from disadvantaged backgrounds, students who are English language learners, and students with disabilities often do not get the enrichment experiences of affluent students anywhere except at school.

And second, a considerable body of research suggests that disadvantaged students especially benefit from high-quality arts education--including an important new study from the National Endowment for the Arts on "The Arts and Achievement in At-Risk Youth" that relies on robust, longitudinal data.

Low-income students who had arts-rich experiences in high schools were more than three times as likely to earn a B.A. as low-income students without those experiences. And the new study from the National Endowment reports that low-income high school students who earned few or no arts credits were five times more likely not to graduate from high school than low-income students who earned many arts credits.

“Despite the importance of providing equal educational opportunities in the arts, [this] report shows we are falling well short of that goal,” said Duncan.

In Duncan’s prepared remarks, he makes the case for the power of arts education to not only boost academic outcomes, but also contribute positively to community building and higher levels of civic engagement.

Read Duncan's prepared remarks (April 2, 2012)

Read the NCES Report: "Arts Education in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools: 2009-2010 (PDF)

Read the NEA's "The Arts and Achievement in At-Risk Youth" (PDF)

Responses to NCES Report:

  • Huffington Post Education: Elementary School Arts Classes Reduced, Report Says Read
  • NPR Music: Music Education in Public Schools Gets a Passing Grade Read
  • Arts Blog: Ten Years Later: A Puzzling Picture of Arts Education in America Read

This resource brought to you by the National Guild for Community Arts Education.