Advocates Argue All New Jersey Schools Should Offer Arts Classes

Tara Nurin | September 22, 2016 | Education
The New Jersey Arts Education Partnership points to studies that show training in music, dance, and other arts is linked to academic success

Newark Arts group
All but 3 percent of New Jersey public K-12 students have access to arts education. But the state’s arts advocates say even one student without access is too many.

“You might say, ‘So? That’s only around 113 schools in New Jersey that don’t offer classes in the arts. What does it matter?’ If you’re a student in that school it matters a heck of a lot,” says Bob Morrison, director of the New Jersey Arts Education Partnership (NJAEP), a non-profit consortium designed to promote the arts in education.

But really, what does it matter? Isn’t it more important to prioritize reading and STEM education and test scores over flute lessons and painting in times of tight budgets and accountability? No, says Morrison, and here’s why: Every study ever conducted on the subject shows that students who take arts classes benefit in ways that include higher academic achievement and greater civic participation, he says, and his organization is spearheading a three-year campaign to spread the word.

The Arts Ed Now campaign will leverage $500,000 in grant money to help students, parents, and teachers educate policy makers and themselves about these benefits in order to increase funding and participation in every school, regardless of socio-economics. A statewide poll released this week by the Rutgers University Eagleton Institute of Politics found that 95 percent of respondents believe the arts are a very or somewhat important component to K-12 education. Only one-half feel schools offer enough access to the arts, yet fewer than one-third have taken any action to support them.

Morrison feels it’s past time to turn that opinion into action.

“Universal access is a goal but it isn’t enough,” he says. “It’s time to take ‘access’ out of our vocabulary so that we can focus exclusively on where the students benefit … through active participation.”

In New Jersey, the annual budget allocates a lump sum in aid to every school district, leaving administrators to decide how much to apportion to the arts, sports, reading, and other programs. Because direct state aid to schools has increased just $1.5 billion over 10 years to $9.1 billion in FY2017 in non-adjusted dollars, some districts have been forced to make cuts to arts instruction, leaving the state’s Council on the Arts, which gets funded through the hotel occupancy tax, to make up the difference through grants, residencies, and artists-in-schools programs. Executive Director Nick Paleologos says last year 20 percent of the council’s spending went toward arts education.

Despite budget constraints, the state and federal governments do acknowledge the importance of the arts in education in many ways. Most recently, the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act that replaced No Child Left Behind calls for states to write accountability plans that, among other things, describe the role of the arts in educational requirements and explains what additional measures — beyond test scores — are being used to ensure system-wide adoption.

Under New Jersey law, high school seniors need one year of visual and performing arts to graduate, and the state’s Core Student Learning Standards mandate sequential (meaning increasingly rigorous) classes in music, visual arts, dance, and theater in every school, though many schools don’t offer the full range. (Click here to see how your child’s school measures up.) This school year marked the beginning of equally weighted arts classes, meaning that if students have to audition or take a prerequisite to enroll in a particular class, they will receive full credit, just as if it were math or science. Morrison says enrollment in these classes has increased as a result.

It matters, he says, because arts classes don’t exist in a vacuum. Consider how they can reinforce lessons being taught in other classes: Music is nothing without counting, playwriting demands literacy, and dance equals fitness. And when it comes to developing contemporary job readiness with public speaking skills, teamwork, and innovative thinking, one has only to look at what it takes to act in a play, present a piece of orchestral music, or design a piece of abstract art. Part of the Arts Ed Now campaign is showing people that skills learned in arts classes are transferrable to other facets of life and as such do a good job training students to be not just artists but anything they want to be.

“President Bill Clinton said he would not be president without the leadership skills he gained from his music teacher; Gov. Mike Huckabee said on the presidential campaign trail that music saved his life; and Gov. Tom Kean says his reluctant engagement in the arts turned into a lifelong love affair,” Morrison says. “We hear that story from so many people. Army sergeants and engineers look back and say, ‘I’ve been able to do this because of what I learned in my arts classes.’”

“Music connected me to a whole network of people, built my confidence, and changed the way I thought about myself. It healed my soul, gave me a sense of place, and gave me my identity,” says Lauren Meehan, director of the Newark Arts Education Roundtable, who started playing violin in fourth grade and went on to attend Princeton University after performing with an intergenerational orchestra at Lincoln Center, United Nations headquarters, and in Spain.

But the evidence isn’t merely anecdotal. Morrison says a “truckload of research” exists on the value of the arts in education. Here are a few key statistics, provided by NJEAP:

  • The more arts credits seniors have on their transcript, the higher their GPA.
  • Arts students have 20 percent lower drop-out rates.
  • Every additional year of arts coursework represents a 12 percent increase in the likelihood that an adolescent will earn a four-year college degree.
  • It would be easy to attribute these figures to socioeconomics, as wealthier school districts offer more arts to a student body that’s already statistically more likely to do well academically and pursue higher education. But some of studies factored for income disparities and found this:

  • High school students receiving free and reduced lunch earned increasingly higher SAT scores for each year of music studied (893 for students with no musical training versus 985 for those with four years of music class).
  • More than twice as many low-income students with high arts participation rates actively engage in voluntary community service; 21 percent more of them consider it very important in contrast to their non-arts peers.
  • A widely cited 2014 study out of Northwestern University found that young at-risk children who actively participate in at least two years of music lessons had their brains changed from the experience. Researchers found an improved ability to distinguish similar speech sounds, which, according to Northwestern, is a “neural process that is linked to language and reading skills.”

    The Atlantic magazine reported in 2013 that lead researcher Nina Kraus said at the time that music instruction improves children’s memory, attention, and communication skills and may even “close the academic gap” between rich and poor students.

    Newark elementary school art teacher Serifatu Hughes believes taking her students, not all of whom are low income, to see “The Lion King” on Broadway “leaves them with intrinsic experiences that become part of who they are in a way that allows them to contribute to the culture.” They learn to appreciate the value of the professional work it takes to stage a production and then come home to partner with district high school students to write plays of their own.

    By all accounts, Newark’s political and educational leaders have recommitted themselves to arts ed since the end of the economic recession and are now actively working with an unprecedented number of partner organizations to maximize opportunities for their students. This year, Camden Street Elementary School, where Hughes works, got a full-time dance teacher.

    Hughes, Meehan, and Morrison all hope that her position — or any arts education program — will remain intact the next time a downturn in the economy or the state budget causes educational policymakers to consider sacrificing the arts for other priorities.

    “Every time I’ve seen an arts program restored we have seen dramatic changes in students,” Morrison says. “There’s not one single study that says if you take the arts away anything improves.”