Art Works Blog

Taking Note: Access to Opportunity & the “Diversity of Excellence”

Last month, the U.S. Department of Education released results from its National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP, or “The Nation’s Report Card”) study of 8th-graders’ technology-and-engineering literacy skills.

How is this study relevant to arts research? Let me count the ways.

1) As with many assessments of arts education, the NAEP rated students for their performance on a set of creative tasks in lieu of administering multiple-choice tests alone.

2) Design—specifically “design and systems”—figured as one of the three content areas tested.

3) The assessment asked questions about students’ out-of-school experiences in building and fixing things—a line of inquiry that corresponds to cultural policymakers’ growing interest in the “maker movement.”

4) The NAEP investigated how often students used a computer to “create or edit digital media,” and even their choice of “appropriate background music” for a particular video.

But surely the NAEP’s most topical finding, when it comes to contemporary discourse about arts access and education, is the wide disparity in achievement levels among students from different racial/ethnic subgroups and socioeconomic backgrounds. It is, I’ll admit, a cliché of a finding. Kids eligible for free or reduced-price lunches scored, on average, lower than did kids who were ineligible for those programs. Further, white, non-Hispanic students and Asian-Americans often scored higher than did African-American and Hispanic students.

Sadly, this pattern is consistent with subgroup-to-subgroup differences noted in NAEP results for other subjects such as math and reading—and, yes, the arts. More worrisome, to my mind, is that even for out-of-school activities related to technology, 8th-graders from more affluent homes, or from white, non-Hispanic or Asian American subgroups, reported more experience than did children from other backgrounds. Such activities included using “tools/materials to plan/design something,” building or testing “a model to see if it solves a problem,” or taking “something apart in order to fix it/see how it works.”

Despite its focus on tech literacy, the NAEP didn’t track the range of behaviors that different student subgroups show in engaging with media and technology to consume or produce art. The 2012 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts showed, for example, that among all adults who create or perform music, African Americans and Hispanics were far more likely than adults from other racial/ethnic backgrounds to have used electronic media in the process. Similarly, African Americans outpaced other groups in their use of media to create works of visual art.

Even so, the NAEP observation is troubling for what it suggests about demographic differences in kids’ access to leisure-time opportunities that can better prepare them for school- and life-work. (It’s no surprise that 8th-graders who reported higher levels of out-of-school experience with DIY tech-and-engineering activities also scored higher when rated on the NAEP task items.) Nor is the problem limited to out-of-school activities in science and the arts. Today, physical-fitness groups are confronting fresh evidence of the cost barriers that prevent many young children from participating in team sports as a leisure option.

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For a federal agency such as the NEA, questions of equity and access are paramount. But so is this question: what is the cultural good that we seek to distribute equitably? The National Endowment for the Arts’ founding legislation of 1965 supplies a key.

Americans should receive, in school, background and preparation in the arts...to enable them to recognize and appreciate the aesthetic dimensions of our lives, the diversity of excellence [emphasis mine] that comprises our cultural heritage, and artistic...expression.

Then, in the next stave:

It is vital to democracy to honor and preserve its multicultural artistic heritage as well as support new ideas [again, my emphasis], and therefore it is essential to provide financial assistance to its artists and the organizations that support their work.

Not only do such statements acknowledge the rich plurality of America’s cultural traditions, they also suggest a need to expand the range of artistic content—old and new—reflecting those traditions. Elsewhere, the law refers to the arts’ instrumental role in fostering “mutual respect for the diverse beliefs and values of all persons and groups.”

Thus, while artistic excellence and merit are the supreme criteria by which the NEA makes funding decisions, the agency ensures that the citizen-expert panels reviewing each grant proposal are broadly representative of U.S. demographic and geographic characteristics. In addition, the “merit” criteria for NEA awards to organizations give due weight to the proposed project’s ability to engage diverse populations and areas, and historically underserved groups. These factors are also prominent in the NEA’s partnership agreements with State Arts Agencies and Regional Arts Organizations.

How are we doing by these lights? Demographics data are notoriously difficult to capture from grant reports, but based on a recent analysis, about one in three NEA grants to organizations (35 percent) benefited a population consisting primarily of “underserved” groups. This category is defined as: individuals with low income; those with limited English proficiency; people with disabilities; individuals in institutions (such as people in hospitals or those living in homeless shelters); and active-duty military personnel and veterans.

Similarly, about 38 percent of all U.S. Census tracts that were serviced by NEA-supported project activities are poverty tracts (which the Census Bureau defines as tracts in which 20 percent of the residents live below poverty). By comparison, over the period studied, fewer than 31 percent of U.S. Census tracts were poverty tracts.

Urban and rural distribution provides another lens for viewing matters of equity. According to another analysis by NEA research staff, the proportion of NEA-funded grant projects that occur in rural communities is roughly equivalent to the share of U.S. rural-dwellers (13 percent). Even when one considers population size, it turns out that NEA-funded activities occur in non-metro or “small” metro areas (pop. 250,000 or less) at the same rate as Americans cluster in these areas (24 percent).

Apart from monitoring our own grants data, the NEA’s Office of Research & Analysis continues, wherever possible, to track U.S. demographic disparities (e.g., in race/ethnicity, gender, age, and socio-economic status) related to arts employment and arts participation. And regional differences: state-by-state tabulations of data from the U.S. Arts & Cultural Production Satellite Account—and from our revised surveys of arts participation—should reveal opportunities for more strategic investments by public and private funders of the arts.

Meanwhile, through the NEA’s research grants program, we continue to learn not only about issues affecting culturally specific arts organizations and art forms (see here and here and here and here)—but also about the arts’ potential benefits for vulnerable populations of all types.

For example, consider that children and youth who are engaged with art and who come from the poorest families show, on average, better academic, social, and civic outcomes than their peers from similar backgrounds. While the arts cannot be said conclusively to be the only factor at work, they do appear to play a role in narrowing the achievement gap for kids at both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum. Beyond this advantage, their personal encounters with the arts and creativity may result in new and more diverse models of artistic excellence that can inspire us all. 

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