When school funding took a dive in the late 1980s and early '90s, arts-education supporters were thrown on the defensive. Their challenge: Prove why the arts are a vital part of core curriculum in schools.
It may have seemed a tall task amid pressure for higher teacher salaries, more computer equipment, and a stronger commitment to math and science education to keep American students internationally competitive.
But today, their efforts are yielding fruit. The level of funding is still tenuous, and many communities are having to turn to fund-raisers and donated time to continue arts programs once boosted by state and federal funds. But arts supporters and educators say they are cautiously hopeful for a future more supportive of arts education.
"We have so much work to do, but there is really a lot of momentum," sums up Sara Goldhawk, an associate with Goals 2000: Arts Education Partnership, a group of agencies that helps support federal Goals 2000 projects.
That momentum can best be described as arts-minded groups rallying together to support well-rounded arts curricula and highlight the arts' role in student achievement - far beyond how fingerpainting teaches motor skills.
"The evidence is there that the arts are a great contributor to the overall learning capabilities of the student," says Joe Giles, director of arts education for the Tennessee state education department and founder of the Tennessee Arts Academy in Nashville. He credits the arts with providing children with skills such as problem solving, the ability to make decisions where there may not be standard answers, and self-expression.
"We believe that's why the arts are important for all students," he says. "We're not trying to make everyone an artist."
What advocates are doing is marshaling arguments that students who train in the arts, whether they are future Picassos or not, improve in many other areas of study.
Students who studied the arts for four or more years scored 59 points higher on verbal and 44 points higher on math portions of the SAT than students with no coursework or experience in the arts, according to profiles received in 1995 by The College Board, and compiled by Music Educators National Conference (MENC).
In Ohio, elementary students in the "Spectra+" arts program made greater gains in total reading, reading vocabulary, and reading comprehension compared with a control group. The students also scored better in math comprehension. Likewise, in New Jersey, vocabulary and reading comprehension improved among elementary-school children in the "Arts Alternatives" program, according to Goals 2000.
According to a study done by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), there is a direct correlation between early arts education and participation in the arts later as adults, suggesting that the future well-being of the arts depends on arts education.
College students' spatial scores on IQ tests improved significantly when they listened to Mozart's Piano Sonata in D for 10 minutes, according to a study by Frances Rauscher and Gordon Shaw at the University of California, Irvine.
"People's awareness of the value of arts education is improving rapidly," notes Valsin Marmillion, chair of the Advocacy Task Force for Goals 2000 and a representative of the Getty Education Institute for the Arts in Los Angeles.
In many ways, there is nowhere to go but up for arts programs. In 1962, 69.5 percent of the nation's high schools offered orchestra. In 1989, only 32 percent did, according to the MENC. And such stalwarts as the NEA have seen their funding decimated: Its budget was recently cut by 40 percent, causing a parallel cut in its funding of arts-education programs.
Many observers have questioned the relevance of the arts to a basic education. In 1990, President Bush announced a set of six voluntary education goals. Arts were not listed among the core academic subjects. But when the goals were revamped in 1993 under President Clinton to become the "Goals 2000: Educate America Act," the arts were included.
"It created for the first time a policy framework that embraced the arts," says Doug Herber, director of the Arts in Education Program of the National Endowment of the Arts. (The Goals 2000: Educate America Act provides resources to states and local school districts to develop and implement plans to improve student learning.)
Out of Goals 2000 came the National Standards for Arts Education, developed by the Consortium of National Arts Education Associations, to serve as framework. The standards spell out what every young American should know and be able to do in dance, music, theater, and visual arts.
In 1995, the National Art Education Association (NAEA) in Reston, Va., surveyed states' commitment to arts curricula.
At the time, eight states had officially adopted the national standards. A total of 49 states either officially used them or based their own standards on them.
Arts educators say they are also encouraged that more than 28 states require some arts study by high school graduation, compared with only two in 1980.
But many still question to what extent schools are committed to a strong arts program. At a time when many schools lack a full-time arts teacher - be it visual arts, dance, drama, or music - many decisionmakers at the local level still view the arts as frills. Put another way, when the budget is tight, the arts are "the first to go."
"Forty years ago, when the country was well-to-do, people were for the arts in schools, because nothing had to be sacrificed for them," says Howard Gardner, professor of education at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., well-known for his study of the function of art in human development and intelligence. Now, it's not a matter of the arts being unpopular, but that they aren't the top priority. "Arts in the schools have always been seen as a luxury," Dr. Gardner says. "In arts versus athletics, athletics always wins."
Helping out in the inner city
But some schools whose budgets are stretched to the limit have decided to make a firm commitment to arts education. Bridgeport, Conn., for example, provides its grade-school children with music lessons from specialists. In junior high, two periods are saved for the arts, while the high schools offer theater-arts programs, dance, bands, and composition classes.
"There's never the threat that if the budget is cut, the arts will disappear," says Albert Lathan, supervisor of performing arts for the Bridgeport schools. "The board of education in Bridgeport is committed to arts education."
Dr. Lathan credits the arts with helping Bridgeport students, 82 percent of whom are low-income minorities, gain self-awareness and self-confidence as well as learn about each other's cultures.
"People miss the value of an arts education because you can't measure it," Lathan says. "You can't measure what happens when a kid goes up on stage and performs."
Nevertheless, 9 out of 10 Americans said that when children get involved in the arts in school, they become more creative and imaginative, develop skills that make them feel more accomplished, and learn to develop speaking and writing skills, according to a June 1996 Louis Harris poll. More than 8 in 10 Americans felt that exposure to the arts "helps young people develop discipline and perseverance" and helps them "to learn skills that can be useful in a job."
Still, when it comes to a choice between teaching algebra or painting, many schools are quick to jettison the art.
Part of the problem is in the definition, notes Vicki Rosenberg, senior program officer for Getty. For many adults, arts education means the stuff that makes it onto the refrigerator door. Arts educators argue for a "discipline-based" approach - from history and criticism to production and aesthetics.
Anecdotal evidence that such an approach yields benefits comes from 400 school districts in some 13 states that work with the Getty, notes Ms. Rosenberg.
And advocates may soon get even more concrete gauges of the arts' role in education on the national scene.
Early next year, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test, funded by Congress, will assess how proficient students are in the arts in Grades 4, 8, and 12. A national assessment in arts has not been conducted since the late 1970s.
At the end of the day, arts education isn't meant to be seen as a savior, says Mr. Marmillion. But, he notes, "people probably would be surprised to credit arts education with some of the things they most want out of schools today."
*Previous articles in this series ran Aug. 27 and Sept. 23.