Some Sour Notes as Arts Education Tries to Strike Balance in Schools

John Mooney | May 11, 2012 | Education
Despite spending, testing priorities, arts are offered in nearly every school, but with fewer students and staffing

A new report on the state of arts education in New Jersey reflects the quandary of how to strike a balance between the recognized needs for music and the visual arts with the financial and testing realities that public schools face.

While the report paints a picture of how schools are coping with that balance, the news was not all rosy, with fewer students — and teachers – in art classes.

The New Jersey Arts Education Census Project — commissioned by the State Council on the Arts, the NJ Department of Education, and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation — led with the positive signs.

Surveying virtually every public school in the state, the researchers found that actual programs in 2011 had slightly increased in the last five years since the same census was conducted in 2006.

Nearly every school — 97 percent in all — provided either music or visual arts in their instruction, a rise from 94 percent in 2006 and increasing the access to arts education for an estimated 54,000 students.

Almost all schools had also adopted the state’s standards in arts instruction, and more than 90 percent had certified arts instructors, all improvements from 2006, the survey found.

Yet access is one thing, whether students are actually taking the classes is another, and that finding was far less encouraging for a state where arts education is supposed to be required for every student.

Instead, just 80 percent of students in elementary schools were participating in arts classes in 2011, down from 86 percent in 2006. High school participation also dropped from 50 percent to 41 percent, although it is more sporadic in the higher grades where arts classes are not required every year.

But the staffing for arts instruction had also taken a tough hit, as the ratio of students to arts teachers in some cases has nearly doubled since 2006. A third of elementary schools didn’t have full-time music teachers and a third were without full-time art teachers.

“Those are alarm bells,” said Robert Morrison, the director of the project for Quadrant Inc. “Certainly the student participation is a warning sign.”

Even field trips to performances or museums took a hit, dropping from 89 percent of schools having at least one field trip in 2006 to 79 percent in 2011. Almost half of districts cited transportation costs as a main barrier.

Little of that may be surprising given the economic times and the cuts forced on schools in the past three years, plus the increasing testing in language arts and math that has left many worried that other subjects have gotten short shrift.

At the same time, the report found that the level of programs was starting to follow the wealth of a community as well. The report provides a quality score for every school in the state based on the feedback in the survey, the richer the community, the richer the arts programs.

With the release of the report yesterday, state council leaders and education officials cited the mixed outlook left by the study, repeating what they said was the gains in access but also the drop in participation.

Deputy Education Commissioner Andy Smarick spoke for the state Department of Education and said he recognized the tensions between the arts and attention given to language arts and math testing and its scores.

“We have to focus on that because they are needed skills,” Smarick said in a presentation of the report at the War Memorial in Trenton. “But the arts are absolutely important and we recognize are integral to an education.”

“While the others get the ink, it is absolutely true that the arts are at the heart of what we want to do,” he said.

Still, Smarick said he was troubled by the dropping participation, and promised that it would draw greater study. “I am most alarmed by that, and we need to figure it out,” he said.

Another shocking statistic for the Christie administration was the fall off of arts education at one of its own state-operated districts in Paterson, where the survey found in 2011 virtually no arts programs in place after the well-publicized and much-protested gutting of arts staff. Of 21,000 students statewide with no access to arts education at the time of the survey, 14,000 were in Paterson.

“The year we were measuring, all programs were gone — zero,” Morrison said.