Advocacy News

[We Are What We Art] :

A More Comprehensive Art Education Policy

By Keren Veisblatt

The Federal Policy Institute

Teachers College | Columbia University

The “arts”, traditionally encompassing the visual arts, literature (language arts, creative writing), the performing arts, graphic design, architecture, and a bevy of other indefinable forms, is an important aspect of human creativity and advancement.  The arts not only play an important role in our nation’s well-being and foster creativity and innovation, but they also create jobs and prepare our workforce to compete in the global economy.[1] Michael P. Timpane, speaking on behalf of the Aspen Institute Program on Education and Society says, “The 2010’s education reforms will be marked by an increasing focus on the need for human capital; the significance of creativity as related to economic performance. In a globalized community, the real edge is in human resources.[2]”  Improving access to arts education for all students and strengthening the arts stance within the Federal government and future NCLB authorizations is critical to building tomorrow’s creative workforce. As of today, less than 1/5 of all school districts require a music class, less than half of all districts require creative writing, and 3/4 of districts offer the visual arts as an elective-only course[3]. There is not enough access to art education, support for general art education, or agreed upon standards for art education in public schools systems.

On January 25, 2011, President Barack Obama delivered his annual State of the Union speech before the United States Congress where he addressed three areas of concern: federal spending, jobs and education policy. His specifically chosen and planned rhetoric reads, “…Nations like China and India realized that with some changes of their own, they could compete in this new world. And so they started educating their children earlier and longer, with greater emphasis on math and science. They’re investing in research and new technologies. Just recently, China became home to the world’s largest private solar research facility, and the world’s fastest computer.[4]” The President does not mention the arts anywhere in his address to the nation, nor does his administration address the arts in their planned blueprint for revising the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Although much of NCLB through ESEA touted the need for a well-rounded and comprehensive education, continually only few subjects are engaged. Federal Education policy in The Elementary and Secondary Education Act as reauthorized by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, most notably focuses funding on Math and English requirements. This funding is based on a series of assessments measuring yearly improvements.  In Title 1 of the aforementioned bill, the core subjects are listed as: English, Reading, Mathematics, Foreign Languages, Civics & Government, Economics, Arts, History, and Geography. Although the arts are listed as a core focus, they are delineated eighth on a list of ten items. No Child Left Behind provided the largest federal investment in public education in American history; however this funding is also tied to stringent “Math & English” accountability measures. Title 1 core academic subjects all fight for and share the same monies divvied out by the Federal Government. Title 1 funding also sets a national precedent and educational policy akin to leading by federal example. I believe that by including the arts in the core academic subject matter we are actually doing it a disservice. By including the arts as a core subject matter, in a list of highly researched and “curriculumized” areas, we are forcing ourselves to compete for and justify funding against a “competition of education sorrows”.  Rather than include support for the arts in federal education acts, I believe that the arts should be left as a state issue. The federal government, constitutionally, does not have authority to determine core subjects for local school districts but, includes the description of such subjects as a proverbial “line in the sky” to guide Department of Education grant makers and applicants in terms of eligibility for funds.


Although there is a compelling national interest in the welfare of students in public schools, the responsibility for kindergarten through 12th grade education rests with the states. States and local districts are the primary source for education dollars and thus should be the primarily targeted concern for arts advocates. State art education funding has fallen significantly since the year 2001, reaching at times a 38 percent decrease. This coincides directly with the reauthorization of NCLB. The United States needs an arts education policy, supported by the Federal Government, not fiscally but, ideologically. By focusing on the need for complementary subjects, wherein mathematics are informed by music, and reading is informed by dramatic literature, the country will truly be supporting a well-rounded education. In order to meet the demand for innovation in the global economic marketplace, we must first begin to teach skills of the imagination, innovation, and creative thought processes in the classroom. The President and his administration must declare the arts central to a balanced education; literacy in the arts is central to an educated citizenry as much as reading, math, and science are considered now.

The arts are not inherently measurable in the same way that objective coursework like the sciences or mathematics may be. We must reframe the debate about the benefits of the arts. Only in a capitalistic society are activities based in the arts suspect unless their monetary value can be shown. The arts cannot be quantitatively measured or empirically demonstrated in the same way that mathematics or readings skills are recorded. According to a survey conducted by Americans for the Arts in 2001, over 75 percent of Americans agree that the arts “are a positive experience in a troubled world, “give you pleasure”, and give you an uplift from every day experiences”, similarly a report by DiMaggio and Pettit, Sociology Department and Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies at Princeton University, find that close to 90 percent of American parents believe that the arts should be taught in schools and that they are in important part of a well-rounded education[5].  If such overwhelming majorities of American see that the arts as a positive and beneficial experience, why do not school districts? Rather than teaching to accountability standards, and school report cards, we must understand that certain benefits are intrinsic, complex, and incalculable.

The previous federal role in arts education, and art education policy, is simply inadequate. Federal grants, sporadic initiatives, the inclusion of $50 million for employment in the arts in the stimulus package, and continually low sums of money (as compared to discretionary spending), does not a comprehensive federal policy make. At a minimum, no less than nine government agencies currently fund the arts in some capacity: The National Endowment for the Arts, The National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, Departments of Commerce, Education, State, Agriculture, Defense, and Transportation. As a supporter of all of the arts, I am thankful for the amount of support and funding garnered within the organizations, but in such a bureaucratic, and institutionalized government, there is no cooperation between all of the aforementioned agencies[6].  Rather than combine efforts to support major initiatives, local arts councils, or research, each agency works as a fiefdom within a feudal system. The federal dollars are not functioning in the way intentioned, and art education programs are continually being cut for perceived lack of understanding, necessity, and measurability. To date, there is no central governing art education philosophy or policy. Michael Kaiser, President of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, in Washington D.C. explains, “As a result, the federal government has been funding arts education in our public schools for decades and we still have not implemented a coherent approach to using the arts to benefit our children.[7]” In NCLB, there is also a section of the reauthorization that deals entirely with Arts Education, Title V, PART D, Subpart 15, Section 5551, this section outlines the purpose of art education, who can receive grants for art education efforts, and how such funds should be used.  Such excerpts from the section read, “The funds should be used for…The development of model State arts education assessments based on State academic achievement standards.”, “Research on arts education.”, “Supporting model projects and programs to integrate arts education into the regular elementary school and secondary school curriculum.” This congressional lip service has simply not been enough. Continuing the legislative branches’ attention to art education, on June 30, 1999, Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS) introduced a resolution to designate March as Arts Education Month.  The Senate passed the resolution on March 2, 2000. The language mentioned in the resolution strongly supports art education in the classroom and hearkens to the many studies founded by arts advocacy groups and think tanks. Regardless of such open declarations of the benefits of art education at the federal level, the arts are continually undermined when competing for funding against mathematics and the language arts. There has been a major narrowing of curriculum.

There are myriad benefits from all forms of art. The arts have been linked to feelings of motivation, self-fulfillment, and citizenship behaviors; demarcated art forms each purport separate findings: Music - Improves math achievement and proficiency, improves memory, reading and cognitive development; boosts SAT verbal scores and skills for second-language learners, Visual arts – Improves content and organization of writing; promotes sophisticated reading skills and interpretation of text, helps with reasoning about scientific images and reading readiness, Dance- Helps with creative thinking, originality, elaboration and flexibility; improves expressive skills, social tolerance, self-confidence and persistence., Drama – Helps with understanding social relationships, complex issues and emotions; improves concentrated thought and story comprehension.[8] Exposures to the arts have also been linked to equity in socioeconomic status, in special education, and less of a chance of dropping out during K-12.  “If they’re worried about their test scores and want a way to get them higher, they need to give kids more arts, not less,” says Tom Horne, Arizona’s state superintendent of public instruction. “There’s lots of evidence that kids immersed in the arts do better on their academic tests.” Children who regularly participate in a comprehensive arts program are four-times more likely to be elected to class office; four-times more likely to be in a math or science fair, and four-times more likely to win an award for writing, according to research published by Americans for the Arts. The RAND Corporation, in a book entitled Gifts of the Muse, also talks about the long-term effects of a successful art education policy; this indirectly translates into economic benefits for communities whose citizens are highly motivated, talented, and economically aware consumers[9].

The arts experience molds our students into more empathetic, communal, social, and mentally healthy citizens. The arts are innately multicultural and force viewers to contemplate life from pluralistic approaches and contexts. Because of this, the RAND Corporation asserts that daily exposure to the arts lessens bullying behaviors, narrow-mindedness, and fosters tolerance.  Curriculum based in the visual arts has also been proven to greatly help at-risk youth in avoiding drug and alcohol use and improving self-respect.  Aside from the indirect economic benefits that the aforementioned promises, the arts also provide for a large sector of American jobs. Americans for the Arts President and CEO Bob Lynch writing for the New York Times, pointed out that the arts support 5.7 million jobs in the United States that generate about $30 billion in taxes, nearly $13 billion of which goes to the federal government and continued, “If they’re [the federal government] is serious about jobs and they’re serious about income, they would invest more in the arts.[10]

The Common Core State Standards Initiative is a state-led effort coordinated by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). This initiative marks the first time in American history wherein states have pooled resources in order to develop consistent, clear, evidence based content in which to base state standards. Forty-three states and two territories have already adopted these common standards. Although the standards only address English Language Arts and Mathematics, I believe that the advent of a “national” state-led education policy is the best way to direct education. Parents, teachers, school administrators, and state politicians should push to form a comprehensive, state-led art education policy to be adopted nationally. We must expand our preconceived notions on education. We can no longer rely on the federal government to direct the paths of learning that effect the citizens of tomorrow.  Only 8.3 percent of total education funding in the United States comes from the Federal government[11]. With that in mind, we should only let the Federal government affect 8.3 percent of our curriculum. Judy Wurtzel, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development, U.S. Department of Education states, “Every student should have access to music, art, and exciting social studies.”[12] Some standards in the CCSS already include art education highlighted and synthesized within subjects where the arts could be well integrated. By connecting a work of literature to a piece of music or a unit on geometry to the drawings of Dubuffet, students use the art as a codec for understanding. This is a step in the right direction, wherein art education is seen as a supportive and complementary subject.

Art has been labeled a core academic subject since 1994. Yet funding has been decreased. Eric Waldo, Deputy Chief of Staff, U.S. Department of Education, explains, “I’ve never heard a wealthy family ask ‘how does soccer or ballet help with enrichment’, it is assumed.”[13] The first step to having states and localities implement the arts into their curriculum is to design and agree upon a common set of standards, identifying important skills and lessons to be learned. The arts should also be taught as a complementary form of education, a subject that can help students to understand mathematics, language, and other topics.  Usable lesson plans should be included with both the arts being taught as their own worthy subject, and as a companion subject. Partnerships that can advance arts education for every student in a state are especially valuable.

The relationship among a state’s arts agency, department of education, and alliances for arts education are particularly important. The arts have many supporters; Arts Education Partnership, The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, National Assembly of State Art Agencies, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, American for the Arts, The Alliance for Arts and Culture, state arts councils, and private funding.  The aforementioned entities are too variegated in their approach to improving art education. The organizations should foster communications, share workloads, share research, and expand their funding bases in order to gain the political clout necessary to make far reaching changes. The agencies will have an easier time doing the aforesaid task by creating a national vision based on a common art education curriculum; in music, the performing arts, the visual arts, etc.  Forty-seven states have arts-education mandates, forty-eight have arts-education standards, and forty have arts requirements for high school graduation, according to the 2007-08 AEP state policy database[14]. Yet, just as seen on the national level with the implementation of NCLB, a touting of the positives of art education and the actual implementation of standards are two entirely separate things. In short, there is simply not enough money to implement such far reaching standards, not enough qualified art teachers, and not enough of a focus on anything but testable results.

There are many opponents to art education; those who see the arts as a drain on the national budget. According to the U.S. Department of Education, by teacher, by subject, the most expensive things are music and art education in classrooms. In many ways, the innumerable groups advertizing their support for the arts are cutting the marketplace pie, and forcing audiences to compete for funding and human resources. In Congress, conservative House Republicans aim to reduce spending by cutting money given to the arts, including abolishing The National Endowment for the Arts. With the reauthorization of NCLB looming, if the arts are not given a major focus in the new funding, and if they remain stagnant as a “core subject”, art education will suffer. Certain districts are doing art education well, New York City’s mayor Bloomberg recently moved all museums under the auspices of the state Department of Education, allowing a sharing of the city’s numbered cultural resources. In Dallas, with the support of Big Thought and The Wallace Foundation, more than sixty art and cultural institutions partnered with the school district to help fulfill 45 minutes minimum of weekly art education. The districts that are succeeding are forging partnerships that allow for a long-term pooling of resources, not curriculum based on the whims of budget cuts and yearly appropriations.

The National Endowment for the Arts, an independent agency of the United States federal government, offers policy support, research libraries, and funding. The agency should come up with a comprehensive plan to empower State Departments of Education, suggest each have an Art Education Department, and create an internal network of listservs, websites, and resources for arts educators. When local arts agencies, state agencies, and federal agencies partner to support art education there will be equity in funding. Combined organizations will also help with the dissemination of research findings, opportunities, and knowledge. State Department of Education and Arts Councils should also promise to meet yearly in order to form a “State of the Arts” address and plan. These organizations should vie for partnerships with not-for-profit organizations within the state; cultural institutions, zoos, museums, historical societies, etc. By realizing the multitude of low-cost sources and forging partnerships, art education can become a cheaper reality. The organizations should also use group numbers to garner political and corporate support to continue to fund the arts. State Departments of Education and state arts council should also agree on a set of curriculum standards, best practices, skills, and teachings methods which most readily teach the arts.


[1] Americans for the Arts. “Americans for the Arts News.” Arts & the State of the Union. Americans for the Arts, 26 Jan. 2011. Web. 26 Jan. 2011. <http://www.artsusa.org/news/afta_news/default.asp#item9&gt;.

[2] Timpane, Michael P. “The Federal Policy Institute, Teachers College | Columbia University.” Interview. Education and Society Program | The Aspen Institute. 20 Jan. 2011.

[3] Business and School Leaders See the Arts as Key to Preparing Students to Be Creative Workers for the Global Marketplace. Issue brief. Americans for the Arts, 2010. Web. 24 Jan. 2011. <http://www.artsusa.org/pdf/get_involved/advocacy/research/2010/ready_innovate2010.pdf&gt;.

[4] Obama, Barack. President.”TRANSCRIPT State of the Union 2011: Obama’s Full Address – ABC News.”ABCNews.com: State of the Union 2011 Live Coverage, Breaking News, Politics, World News, Good Morning America, Exclusive Interviews – ABC News. 25 Jan. 2011. Web. 26 Jan. 2011. <http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/State_of_the_Union/state-of-the-union-2011-full-transcript/story?id=12759395&gt;.

[5] DiMaggio, Paul. 1991. “Decentralization of Arts Funding from the Federal Government  to the States.” Pp. 216-52 in Public Money and the Muse: Essays on Government  Funding for the Arts, edited by Stephen Benedict. New York: Norton

[6] Axelrod…, David, and Michael Kaiser. “Michael Kaiser: Needed: A Federal Arts Policy.” Needed: A Federal Arts Policy. Breaking News and Opinion on The Huffington Post, 6 July 2009. Web. 25 Jan. 2011. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-kaiser/needed-a-federal-arts-pol_b_226041.html&gt;.

[7] Ibid.

[8] “Publications.” Study: Arts Education Has Academic Effect. Arts Education Partnership, 25 Mar. 2009. Web. 26 Jan. 2011. <http://www.aep-arts.org/publications/index.htm&gt;.

[9] See Table 1.1, attached in appendix.

[10] “Republicans’ Budget Solution? Kill the NEA and Other Arts Funding, Of Course.” ARTINFO. 21 Jan. 2011. Web. 27 Jan. 2011. <http://www.artinfo.com/news/story/36785/republicans-budget-solution-kill-the-nea-and-other-arts-funding-of-course/&gt;.

[11] U.S. Dept. of Education. “10 Facts About K-12 Education Funding.” ED.gov. The U.S. Department of Education, 2007. Web. 26 Jan. 2011. <http://www2.ed.gov/about/overview/fed/10facts/index.html&gt;.

[12] Wurtzel, Judy. “The Federal Policy Institute, Teachers College | Columbia University.” Interview. Deputy Assistant Secretary for Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development, U.S. Department of Education 20 Jan. 2011.

[13] Waldo, Eric.  “The Federal Policy Institute, Teachers College | Columbia University.” Interview. Deputy Chief of Staff, U.S. Department of EducationU.S. Department of Education. 20 Jan. 2011.

[14] Smith, Fran. “Why Arts Education Is Crucial, and Who’s Doing It Best | Edutopia.” K-12 Education & Learning Innovations with Proven Strategies That Work | Edutopia. Feb. 2009. Web. 27 Jan. 2011. <http://www.edutopia.org/arts-music-curriculum-child-development&gt;

TABLE 1.1 –

Framework for Understanding the Benefits of the Arts:

RAND Corporation, Wallace Foundation

Figure A.3 -

How the Arts Create Indirect Economic Benefits

RAND Corporation, Gifts of the Muse

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