Cuts to arts funding could be detrimental to academic achievement

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Cut into the stone wall of the Kennedy Center —  one of America’s bastions of art and culture — are John F. Kennedy’s words, “I am certain that after the dust of centuries has passed over our cities, we too, will be remembered not for victories or defeats in battle or in politics, but for our contribution to the human spirit.”

Arts education contributes to the enhancement of that spirit. 

{mosads}On March 15th the Illinois State Board of Education will vote on the Every Student Succeeds Act State Plan. Under this federal law, Illinois will determine its support of K-12 schools. Arts programming is not included anywhere in the current draft of the plan as an indicator of school quality.


Chance the Rapper responded to the need this week by presenting a $1 million check to Chicago Public Schools Foundation, “for arts and enrichment programming” after what he characterized as an unsuccessful meeting with Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner. The Grammy-winning Chicago artist urged others, as well as corporations and foundations to do the same.

Illinois is not alone in its urgent need for arts funding in schools. 

A 2011 report by the President’s Committee on the Arts, paints a consistent picture of the value of arts education in schools based on two decades of theory and policy recommendations from such entities as the National Governors Association, the Education Commission of the States, the National Association of State boards of Education, the Department of Labor SCANS Commission, and the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Criteria used to gauge school success and student learning often include attendance and achievement in math and reading. Extensive research shows that students who study the arts in school demonstrate significantly more positive developmental outcomes than their peers who do not pursue arts coursework.

As a dance educator for 20 years, I encourage those who are concerned about the economy to think about how creativity and imagination translate to U.S. production. I have watched dozens of my students grow from young dancers barely capable of tying their ballet shoes into accomplished artists and educators themselves.

One student, who performed choreography as a high school student in his musical theater program, performed as a college student onstage at the Kennedy Center – the place where JFK’s words resonate so strongly. He now dances professionally with one of the most iconic companies in Chicago.

Findings indicate that arts students are highly active within school communities, are less likely to engage in delinquent behaviors or participate in drug use. The Arts Education Partnership also associates arts programs with boosts in literacy and math achievement citing studies that suggest increased years of enrollment in arts courses are positively correlated with higher SAT verbal and math scores.  

When considering challenges within Chicago Public Schools , the transformative nature of arts education for students with lower socio-economic status is even more significant.

James Catterall seminal 2009 study is based on the National Educational Longitudinal Survey that captured information on approximately 25,000 secondary school students over four years.

According to Catterall’s findings, extensive participation in arts activities was a noteworthy predictor of academic achievement and community involvement for disadvantaged students. Students with lower economic status benefited greatly from attending arts-rich schools in regards to college attendance, grades, employment, and level of terminal degree.

The study showed that low-income students in arts programs were also more likely to participate in volunteerism and engage in politics. English language learners who attended arts-rich high schools were significantly more likely to pursue a bachelor’s degree at age 20 and more likely to attain advanced degrees than their peers in non arts-rich schools.

The arts have a far greater impact than on academic achievement alone. AEP cites work preparedness as one key aspect of arts education. Through art programs, students strengthen problem-solving and communication skills, increase their capacity for leadership and creative thinking, build community, support civic engagement, and experience social tolerance that helps prepare them for life in an increasingly diverse world.  

In his 2011 State of the Union Address, then-President Barack Obama made the claim: “The first step in winning the future is encouraging American innovation. None of us can predict with certainty what the next big industry will be or where the new jobs will come from. Thirty years ago, we couldn’t know that something called the Internet would lead to an economic revolution. What we can do — what America does better than anyone else –– is spark the creativity and imagination of our people.”

Similarly, in his first address to a joint session of Congress, President Donald Trump, who has emphatically communicated his intent to grow the economy, said: “Education is the civil rights issue of our time.” Attempting to address the needs of those he calls “disadvantaged youth,” Trump used the example of his guest,  Denisha Merriweather, the first in her family to go to college, who is set to earn a Master’s.

Perhaps members of both parties can come together on arts education where the advantages for low-income students and boosts to the economy are well- documented.

Americans for the Arts, an organization that promotes arts support across the country, recently placed ads in The Hill and New York Post alongside a statement touting the economic benefits of the arts.

The statement reads, “Each day, 4.8 million Americans go to work in Arts and Culture industries. In fact, according to the US. Bureau of Economic Analysis, the Arts contributed $730 billion to our GDP — which is larger than Construction, Transportation, and Travel & Tourism.”

To be sure, there is a danger in supporting the arts primarily for their contributions to academic achievement and the economy. Denying the arts’ intrinsic value as an element of humankind’s noble quest for truth and beauty limits our understanding of what role artists play in society. I don’t hear algebra professors having to justify their existence because learning math helps a musician play the clarinet better.

Art is transformative for the body, intellect, and spirit. Art sparks dialogue about underlying myths, values, and traditions in our culture. It embraces change as a process that is experiential, holistic, and communal.

In order to have the conversation about what art is and what it does, future generations of artists and consumers of culture must have context for that conversation.

Every state can help its children by elevating arts programming within our schools. It’s not too late for all American to demand that quality arts programs be a marker of a quality education.

Amy M. Wilkinson is an Advanced Lecturer at Loyola University Chicago, a dance maker, teacher and mentor with 20 years in dance performance and education. She is a Greenhouse Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

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