Arts education belongs in every student’s curriculum — and not just because the arts can improve skills in other content areas.
As an instrumental music teacher, I am used to advocating that the arts are essential to all students even though they may not be classified as a core subject. Over the years, I’ve used research about how the arts increase math and reading comprehension to defend their existence in the public school curriculum. I’ve pointed out the social skills that band, orchestra and choir ensembles build. I’ve even made the case that for some students, a music, art, dance or drama class might be the only thing bringing them to school each day.
All of these points are true, but they fall short of explaining why the arts truly belong in every student’s K-12 curriculum. Instead, they rationalize the arts through a utilitarian lens that ties their existence to the way they can improve skills and understanding in other content areas. After 20 years teaching music, what I’ve learned is that the arts are essential because humans are inherently creative beings and must be given opportunities to develop their creativity in order to fully understand themselves and participate in a pluralistic society.
Recently, I was humbled and honored to be named the 2022-23 Teacher of the Year in my county as well as one of seven finalists for the state of Maryland. This award gave me the chance to reflect on the purpose of the arts in education and provided a platform for me to explain to those who will listen why the arts are a core subject based on their own merits. The arts are core to education and core to life because the essence of being human is creativity, not productivity. And one of the problems with American public education today is that it is hyperfocused on graduating productive students, not creative ones.
How Did We Get Here?
Recently, I attended a performance at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington and walked through an exhibit that highlights the history of the building as well as former President John F. Kennedy’s support for the arts in America. While exploring, I read the words from a speech Kennedy gave at a 1962 fundraiser for the arts printed on one of the walls: “As a great democratic society, we have a special responsibility to the arts, for art is the great democrat, calling forth creative genius from every sector of society.”
Throughout his presidency, Kennedy often emphasized arts education and the creative mind as essential components of a free society that promotes equal opportunity for all. His words remind me that embracing the intrinsic value of the arts is indeed possible and there is potential for great momentum when leadership understands the impact of the arts on society.
Kennedy’s support for the arts was admirable, but unfortunately, due to a number of societal factors, it wasn’t enough to increase arts education offerings for students in public schools. In the 1960s, the federal government started pushing more achievement tests and public education began to focus more on raising standardized test scores in math and science, which led to decreasing time spent in the very courses that instill, teach and develop creativity and personal identity. Data collected by the National Endowment for the Arts indicates a decline in arts education with a downward turning point sometime between the late-1960s and the mid-1980s as well as a decrease in public participation in arts events, such as classical and jazz concerts, ballet, and opera performances over the past 30 years.
As a music teacher and the coordinator for the Academy for the Fine Arts at Governor Thomas Johnson High School, I consider myself fortunate. I teach in a college and career pathway program for the visual and performing arts in which students spend half of their school day studying the arts at an advanced level, while connecting their knowledge from core classes through multidisciplinary projects. They choose to be part of an intentional community that values the arts. But that hasn’t always been the case for me.
Throughout my teaching career, I witnessed the decline of arts education firsthand. I watched as the focus on academic subjects tied to standardized tests eliminated elective slots in student schedules. I saw the push for STEM education force students to choose either arts or technology for the slots that remained. And when that led to low enrollment for arts courses, I witnessed my colleagues become demoralized as their courses were cut and they were given sections of STEM courses to teach, unprepared. Over the years, multiple colleagues who at one time had bands and choruses of 50-60 students began struggling to maintain a class of 15. This is not because students do not want these courses, it is because they can no longer fit them in their schedules.
Another problematic trend is the decrease in arts education as children get older. In my district, for example, elementary students spend an average of 300 hours a year engaged in arts-based instruction including music, visual art, theater and movement. In middle school, that number drops to 78 hours. By high school, with only one semester of arts education required in our state, average yearly instructional time drops to 33 hours a year. As students progress through their education, school becomes a less creative and exploratory place to be and students become less engaged and optimistic about their learning.
With experience teaching in elementary, middle and high schools, I can attest to the trend that students do seem less motivated and engaged as they progress through school. When I taught in elementary schools, I was greeted by excited, engaged students. When I taught middle schoolers, I noticed the weight of the chaotic transition to a seven-period day in which students who were used to a homeroom environment were sent in multiple directions to classrooms with varying expectations. Many of them dealt with anxiety as they learned to manage the demands of school logistics. During this stressful time, there were no more weekly experiences in music and art. Instead, they had to choose just one elective.
At the high school level, with only one semester of arts education required over four years, students are encouraged to get their fine arts requirement “out of the way” during their freshman year and many don’t enter an arts classroom again for the rest of their educational career. Some are told they do not have time to take arts courses because they need to focus on advanced level courses in order to get accepted into colleges and earn scholarships. At the point when students need to deeply understand their identity and passions — and to develop emotional intelligence — their time spent in arts classrooms dissipates.
More and more of my high school students are unsure of what they want to do after high school. When I ask them about it, they are afraid that they are going to make the wrong decision, and they aren’t able to articulate what makes them happy or what they are good at. Many of my students have expressed that they feel like they are being forced to decide the rest of their lives without the chance to understand who they are.
The public education system’s emphasis on testing has sent a message to students, teachers and families that the most important element of student performance is the final score, not what happened along the way. That message has created generations of students who are afraid to fail, unequipped to take risks and do not know how to embrace mistakes and learn from them. Fear of failure can lead to a lack of creative thought and progress within communities.
What Does This Mean for Today’s Students?
Many of today’s public school students are facing a crisis of identity. In America’s quest to be more innovative than its competitors, its leaders have neglected the fact that creativity is directly connected to personal identity, and students have suffered. They’ve had less opportunities to develop a deep understanding of themselves. Arts education is often misunderstood by administrators and policymakers as a “fun break” from the rigors of core academic classes; however, the arts provide a natural and authentic environment for students to explore the world around them, create meaningful works as a mode of self-expression and collaborate within a diverse population, all while creating a positive culture of acceptance and belonging.
There’s a wide body of research showing that students who have a solid grasp of who they are and how they can contribute to society are more likely to be successful. Some studies have found that engagement in the arts increased levels of empathy and tolerance for others. Others have revealed that music instruction can have a positive impact on children’s self esteem and self-concept. And multiple studies have offered evidence of the correlation between participation in the arts and emotional well-being, social development and awareness of others.
We cannot develop creativity without first understanding ourselves and our role in the society we live in. That’s why we need more arts education, not less. In order for public education to thrive and society to flourish, we cannot just teach students academics. Literacy and math skills are of no use to students if students do not first know who they are and how to apply that knowledge to their individual gifts and desires. Educators are responsible for teaching content and curriculum, but are also tasked with teaching students how personal identity, empathy, creativity, character and morality connect with what they’re learning — and arts education supports that.
Since the roots of public education are grounded in preparing students to enter society and not just the workforce, we have, in Kennedy’s words, “a special responsibility to the arts.” But we have neglected the arts as a vital component of public education for too long.
Society cannot advance and prosper without creativity. Focusing on a productive society and prioritizing on standardized test scores in schools has created problems for our students. The solution involves reframing our priorities to value creativity and recognize the importance of the arts.