Art Works Blog

The Arts Experience Gap

In education today, there is much debate about how to close the achievement gap. Yet, for a number of schools with which The Center for Arts Education (CAE) partners, nine of which participate in CAE’s U.S. Department of Education Arts Education Model Development and Dissemination (AEMDD) program, the conversation has also turned to focus on closing another gap---and that is the experience gap, specifically the lack of exposure and participation in the arts for students, especially those in schools that serve a majority of African American, Hispanic, or immigrant students.

As we work with school leaders to close these gaps we also seek answers to important questions: what does that lack of broad-based experiences mean for the health and well-being---social, emotional, and academic---of our students? What will arts experiences---skill-based classes, viewing and responding to performances and works of art, and integrating the arts into other core academic subjects---mean for these students? And how can the arts transform schools to ensure that students become thoughtful, contributing, successful members of society?

Unfortunately, there are far too many students in public schools today, not only here in New York, but across the country, who have never held a paint brush, mixed colors, or sculpted with clay. We work with students who have never heard a live note from a trombone or tuba, sung in a school chorus, or been given the opportunity to dance on stage or deliver a monologue.

At the outset of our work, school leaders from our AEMDD partner schools were focused on test preparation, meeting local, state and federal accountability standards, and maintaining order in their schools. All Title 1 schools, they were facing significant challenges and these leaders---whether due to limited personal experience or understanding of the value of arts in education or limited funds and time in the school-day schedule---did not consider the arts a priority.

Today these schools are undergoing transformation. While still struggling in some areas, school leaders are intentionally and thoughtfully embracing a vision for their school that serves the whole child. And the catalyst for this visionary transformation is the arts---classes in dance, music, theater, and visual and media arts, performing and performances, trips to museums and arts integration. By infusing the arts into the school day in a significant and deliberate manner the principals (and teachers) with which we work have found that “Art works” on many levels. Providing avenues for the students to learn in and through the arts has transformed the school culture, and with it, student and teacher outcomes.

From improved attendance (especially on days when art classes are offered) and increased teacher collaboration to the capacity for students to speak critically about their art and attend assemblies and professional performances, to increased parent engagement and involvement, the outcomes have been profound. As noted by the project’s qualitative evaluators, “the expansion of the arts in the schools has created a new sense of community, become a source of pride for teachers, students, and families, and has changed the look and feel of these buildings.”

The arts have impacted the whole school and are aiding in the development of the whole child. Not only the outcomes noted above, but also improved reading, language, and math skills, skills students need to advance from one grade to the next, to succeed in school and life. As reported by the project quantitative evaluator, “over the course of four years for the first cohort of our AEMDD partner schools, state English Language Arts and Math scores increased 8.4 percent and 9.5 percent, respectively, over comparison schools.” And for the first time in one school’s history, seven eighth-graders applied and were accepted into arts-focused high schools---an opportunity that the students never before knew or even dreamed possible.

Research from programs across the country supports these findings and confirms the myriad benefits of arts in education for entire school communities. The arts have been part and parcel of our world since the beginning of time. Communities turn to the arts in times of adversity and times of celebration, and school leaders who learn to value the arts do so not only to celebrate or hone students' artistic skills, but also to support the development of literacy and numeracy, social and emotional skills, and critical and creative thinking abilities.

At CAE we believe that good schools have the arts, and that the arts can and do play a major role in ensuring our young people move from elementary to middle to high school, and graduate on time---college, career, and civic-ready.

Want to learn more about what's going on at The Center for Arts Education? Join us for the next Arts and Human Development webinar on Wednesday, September 19 at 2:00 p.m. ET.


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