Quick Study: September 15, 2022

Jo Reed: Welcome to "Quick Study," the monthly podcast from the National Endowment for the Arts. This is where we'll show stats and stories to help us better understand the value of art in everyday life. Sunil Iyengar is the pilot of "Quick Study." He is the Director of Research and Analysis here at the Arts Endowment. Hello, Sunil.

Sunil Iyengar: Hi, Jo.

Jo Reed: What's on your docket today?

Sunil Iyengar: Well, that's of course it's the thick of September. We're back to school. So I thought, you know, we could look at some research that's out this week about arts education, specifically research about who has access to it in our public schools. And this is according to a report commissioned by arts and music education advocates.

Jo Reed: Well, that's, you know, obviously, arts education is such a robust division for the Endowment. We just support it in all its ways.

Sunil Iyengar: Right. It's really kind of an endless topic. I mean, at the NEA, we support programs such as the Arts Education Collective Impact grants. You know, the goal of that is to rally communities together to ensure that every child has access to a quality arts education, that's their mission. We also work with the Department of Education to sponsor the arts education partnership and they also have a similar mission. And, you know, we in our office, we routinely fund research about the social, emotional and cognitive benefits of arts education.

But you know what? Despite all that, you know, those investments, you know, contrary to what you might think, Jo, we actually lack a consistent national picture of how many kids in this country have access to an arts education. And how many take part, you know, whether it's visual art, you know, music, theater or dance or media arts. You know, when I actually got to the NEA several years ago, it really kind of blew my mind that we don't have any means to track this in the government. The U.S. Department of Education does do a survey every few years but now it's' been more than a decade since they did one.

Jo Reed: Wow. That blows my mind. That blows my mind as well. I had no idea.

Sunil Iyengar: Yeah. You would think, you know, the numbers would be ready to hand. So we've since all that, since, you know, learning all this, we've worked with the organization called Education Commission of the States to release a toolkit and several case studies that can help arts organization in each state work with their state education agencies to try and pull those data. Because the data are available it's just that they're not very visible. So this isn't currently being done in any centralized way. However, for many years now, the team at a group called Quadrant Arts Education Research, it's led by someone called Bob Morrison, has been working with arts staff at state education agencies around the country to try to fill this data gap. So this endeavor is called the State Arts Education Data Project.

Jo Reed: Okay. Well, tell me a little bit more about it. How does it gather this information?

Sunil Iyengar: Yeah.

Jo Reed: It seems really kind of like a daunting task.

Sunil Iyengar: It is. For the whole nation, it's really, it can be-- it's very challenging. So they've had remarkable tenacity. Steadily, this group, Quadrant has teamed with community arts organizations, educators and funders to acquire data from state education agencies and then to publish state by state how many K through 12 public schools offer arts education in which subjects for how many students and how many students are actually participating in these opportunities. So they don't-- they're not 100 percent national yet but, you know, it's highly promising. We're talking about 17 states represented, but that's more than 30,000 schools, these particular states. That represents 18 million students, which as Quadrant notes is 36 percent of the total public school publication in the U.S.

Jo Reed: Okay. So you know what's coming.

Sunil Iyengar: <laughs>

Jo Reed: What have they found? <laughs>

Sunil Iyengar: Yeah. So, so the rub. Okay, so the new report captures data from the 2018 to 2019 school year, so that's definitely before the pandemic. But even before COVID-19, you may recall, Jo, we've talked about this, there had been concern about school arts education budgets being slashed and kids not having equitable access. So the analysis finds that in 2019, 96 percent of students in their sample of states had access to some form of arts education in the schools. So 96 percent, that sounds good, doesn't it?

Jo Reed: I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop because I know you, Sunil.

Sunil Iyengar: Yeah. <laughs> So what I'm going to really emphasize here is that still leaves 694,000 of K through 12 public school students in that study sample alone who lacks access to any arts education in school. So the researchers applied this mathematical weight and they estimate that if you apply these study rates nationally, we may be talking about upwards of 2 million kids who don't have access. The report finds that kids who lack this access, not surprisingly, I guess, come from schools where high percentages of students are, you know, eligible for free or reduced price lunches. Also these students are more likely to live in cities or very rural areas or actually to attend charter schools. There were a lot of charter schools that didn't have this kind of access according to researchers.

Jo Reed: Whoa. That surprises me.

Sunil Iyengar: Yeah. And a couple of other points, Jo. Although visual art education and music education were available to about 91 or 92 percent of students in the sample, theater was available only to 35 percent and dance 15 percent. Also we're talking about access, as you know, but when it comes to actually taking part in such classes, we find that although 86 percent of elementary school children actually benefit from this access, that is to say they participate in those classes, only 46 percent of high school students do, which means that more than half do not take arts education as an elective.

Jo Reed: So how do we interpret this information? I mean, what do we do with it?

Sunil Iyengar: Yeah. And then so asking always, you know, why are these findings potentially important. So this is one of those cases where the methods being used in this research may sort of surpass in importance the findings themselves. So what I mean is, you know, we're talking currently about 17 states, but Quadrant and its partners are still recruiting and working with other states to try to achieve the goal of a truly national portrait. And then by creating these user friendly data dashboards and making them available to parents, educators and local policy makers, the team can enable annual reporting of these numbers so we get a read on how COVID-19 affected arts education. So a question to ask, you know, is did access and participation retreat at all after the pandemic as many of us suspect. Incidentally, Jo, just a couple of weeks ago as it turns out, the U.S. Department of Education released test scores from its long-term trend assessment of 9-year-old students' math and reading ability. The results are from earlier this year, 2022. And for the first time since these tests began in the early 1970s, 9-year-olds saw a decline in their math scores for the first time ever. They also saw the largest decline in reading scores since 1990.

Jo Reed: Well, that just makes sense, doesn't it, given the impact of the pandemic and long distance learning--?

Sunil Iyengar: Yeah.

Jo Reed: That it's just so difficult for students.

Sunil Iyengar: Yeah, this is kind of like the first tangible indicator that things have dropped off in terms of academic performance since the pandemic. And so the Commissioner of the Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics has attributed this performance to students falling behind during the first two years of COVID. But what I want to point out here is that we've seen through research how arts education could help to augment student engagement and learning in other subjects. So, you know, it's logical to ask whether greater exposure and access to arts education during the pandemic might have complemented students' capacity for learning in general. So, you know, Jo, this is a line of research that's very much at, you know, something we're all interested in here at the NEA in the Research office, exploring, you know, how social and emotional benefits of arts learning may help students and schools overcome traumas including isolation and associated mental health issues, particularly arising out of the pandemic. So a lot more to come here, I'm sure.

Jo Reed: I really do look forward to hearing about it. Arts education, as far as I'm concerned, has super powers. And it's nice to have the research to back that up.

Sunil Iyengar: Thank you, Jo. I agree.

Jo Reed: <laughs> Good talking with you.

Sunil Iyengar: Of course I would, though. <laughs>

Jo Reed: Of course you would.

Sunil Iyengar: Thanks.


Jo Reed: Sunil, I'll talk to you next month.

Sunil Iyengar: Yup. Take care, Jo.

Jo Reed: Okay.

Jo Reed: That was Sunil Iyengar. He is the Director of Research and Analysis here at the Arts Endowment. This has been "Quick Study." The music is "We Are One" from Scott Holmes Music. It's licensed through Creative Commons. Until next time, I’m Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.


In this episode, we consider a recent analysis about the availability of arts education in public K-12 schools.