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Access to Arts Education: An Overlooked Tool for Social-Emotional Learning and Positive School Climate

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April 06, 2017 02:16 pm


The passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, reaffirmed the status of arts classes as “core academic subjects” alongside English, math, social studies, science, and other content areas.

Over the past decade, the body of research surrounding the power of the arts to foster social-emotional learning, combat absenteeism, and generate an engaged, positive school community has continued to grow. For instance, a study spearheaded by the Kennedy Center’s Changing Education Through the Arts (CETA) Program, analyzed a decade of research based on sixteen participating schools, more than 400 teachers, and more than 3,000 students. Data collected from interviews, surveys, grades, test scores, and attendance records indicates that integrating the arts had a profound impact on closing achievement gaps, particularly for students from low-income families and English language learners. Moreover, when compared to their peers who were not regularly receiving arts instruction, teachers participating in CETA reported a “more positive and cohesive” learning environment, citing increased peer collaboration and improved social skills in the classroom.

Likewise, in 2012, a study conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts analyzed four K–12 longitudinal datasets provided by the U.S. Department of Education (ED). The research, which focused on youth at risk of dropping out of school, finds that high school students partaking in arts courses tended to have higher grade point averages and were at least five times more likely to graduate as compared to their peers who did not earn arts credits. While causation between arts instruction and this data cannot be proven explicitly, the study highlights a strong correlation between arts involvement and high school graduation rates.

However, despite these promising developments, some districts still make cuts to their arts programs when faced with budget constraints and other challenges. While a recent report by the National Center for Education Statistics showed that the vast majority of schools nationwide offer some type of arts programming (94 percent), the quality of programming provided varies widely. This has given way to an economic and racial opportunity gap in the field. For instance, a 2009 study about arts education conducted by the U.S. Government Accountability Office finds that in the years studied, the schools that cut time for arts instruction were more likely to serve high percentages of students of color, students from low-income families, and students labeled as “in need of academic improvement.”

So why should schools prioritize an arts curriculum when students are struggling to make academic gains in content areas like math and reading?

Elizabeth Whitford, the executive director of Arts Corps, an organization dedicated to closing the arts opportunity gap in Seattle, Washington, strives to answer this question. “What we learn through the arts is that—because it’s so centered in self-expression and student voice—it’s a very motivating modality through which young people can learn,” Whitford explains. “And because there’s often no right answer in the arts, it really promotes creative, critical- and process-oriented thinking—the types of transferable twenty-first-century skills that young people need to have stepping forward.”

Two years ago, Art Corps launched a program known as the Creative Schools Initiative, which predominantly serves students of color and students from low-income families. This multi-year initiative, funded in part by ED’s Arts in Education Model Development and Dissemination Grant, imbeds teaching artists into four of Seattle’s economically disadvantaged middle schools to assist classroom teachers in integrating the arts into other core content areas. According to Whitford, the results of the initiative are promising, including improved attendance rates and higher levels of engagement in their academics.

When implemented well, the arts bring a sense of community into the classroom, foster decision-making skills, and promote cultural awareness that transcends the walls of the school. Furthermore, for some students arts education helps them get through the day, which sheds light on the improved attendance records seen in schools served by Art Corps and CETA. As Whitford explains, “This is the modality through which some students learn best, and yet they don’t have access. So in taking away the arts, you’re taking away the joy in learning for those young people, the thing that would make them get up and go to school.”

As ESSA moves through the implementation process, states should be aware of opportunities to promote arts education and reaffirm its status as a core academic subject, particularly through the Title IV, Part A Student Success and Academic Enrichment (SSAE) Grants program.

This grant program, originally authorized by the U.S. Congress for $1.65 billion, encompasses several older grant programs (like the Advanced Placement Test Fee Program) in addition to funding several new areas of student learning. Schools can use SSAE grants to fund programs that ensure a well-rounded curriculum, promote a healthy school climate, or integrate technology in the classroom.

Unfortunately, SSAEG—which could support arts education and other school climate initiatives—is currently at-risk for being drastically underfunded by Congress, with both the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives proposing just $300 million and $1 billion, respectively. Failure to fund SSAEG at the full amount could reduce critical funding for arts education nationwide.

In helping students establish a sense of identity, arts education simultaneously helps schools establish a sense of community—a vital component in the quest for positive school climate. If fully funded, SSAEG could allow more schools to launch and prioritize these initiatives across the country, providing millions of underserved districts with the opportunity to transform their school environments and assist their students in cultivating twenty-first–century skills.

Laurel Cratsley is a former intern at the Alliance for Excellent Education.


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