No Child Left Behind Act wrongly left the arts behind

As Congress considers reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act, set to expire in just six months, it should correct the legislation’s unintended consequences, which include reducing the amount of arts education in our nation’s schools.

That effect may seem ironic, since the legislation lists the arts as one of 10 “core academic subjects” of public education. But it also requires schools to report student achievement test results for only two subjects: reading and math. With the emphasis on just those two, the arts have suffered.

A recent national study of the Act’s impact by the Council on Education Policy reveals that a majority of school leaders saw gains in achievement, but 71 percent reported having reduced instructional time in at least one other subject to make more time for reading and math. Since the passage of NCLB, 22 percent of elementary school leaders surveyed reported a decline in their art and music instruction.

One might ask: Isn’t it worth sacrificing some arts instruction if that’s what it takes to achieve reading and math proficiency? But that question just begs others: Should our schools be pushed to focus on two subjects at the expense of others? Why aren’t the arts being used to teach reading and math? And will our nation maintain its global competitiveness by simply producing better readers?

The arts — which can be justified simply by their expressive qualities — are at the center of our nation’s economic competitiveness in this Information Age. The U.S. economy has reinvented itself as a global force once again, this time around the Internet. And what is the Internet, if not an expression of the arts?

The content of virtually every website involves graphic design, photography, writing, and, in some cases, music and increasingly video. What is YouTube.com, if not an engine for artistic expression? And how will we remain competitive as a nation if our children are not learning innovation and creativity by studying the arts in school?

In our own country alone, just the nonprofit arts industry — the museums and performing arts centers, among others —generates $134 billion in economic activity every year, according to a study conducted by economists at Georgia Tech for Americans for the Arts. The $134 billion nationally supports 4.85 million fulltime-equivalent jobs and $89.4 billion in household income. Where will those jobs go, if our students aren’t exposed to the arts?

As NCLB is reconsidered, Congress should make three changes, none of which involve diluting the current emphasis on reading and math:

• Improve implementation of the arts as a core academic subject at the state and local levels — regarding the arts in its own right and as a vehicle for teaching reading and math. The discipline of poetry can help make better readers. The precision of music and musical composition can help inspire interest in math.

• Support the retention and professional development of arts teachers, who are essential to understanding the arts and to inspiring school communities. Rigorous arts education offers a methodology for learning that generates creative teaching solutions from which all teachers can benefit. And student learning, in turn, improves because arts education specialists are the providers of arts instruction.

• Strengthen the Department of Education’s research on arts education in order to provide information needed to develop national education policies. The last federal study on the presence and extent of arts education in public schools was conducted seven years ago. An updated report is long overdue.

According to a recent study by the bipartisan New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, which includes the arts as an essential skill for the future workforce, “The best employers the world over will be looking for the most competent, most creative, and most innovative people on the face of the earth and will be willing to pay them top dollar for their services.”

Reading and math, while essential, are simply not enough. Creativity and innovation are required, and the arts provide both.

I am on Capitol Hill for Arts Advocacy Day (which is actually two days — yesterday and today), along with hundreds of other arts advocates and artists. Our point is that the arts are not a frill; they are essential to our economic competitiveness, our national spirit and our children’s future.

Lynch is president and CEO of Americans for the Arts, a nonprofit group with offices in Washington and New York.