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A renewed focus on arts education

Saturday Sep 9, 2017

A renewed focus on arts education

by Matt Wilson

Backpacks, sneakers, and haircuts aren't the only new things you'll find in school this month. The 2017-18 school year in Boston also marks the first time the district will be operating under new state education guidelines written in response to the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), a bipartisan federal education law passed in 2015. The law broadens student access to "a well-rounded education." Its implementation marks a much-welcomed embrace of the idea that the "whole child" should be educated after 20 years of an ever-narrowing curriculum.

This week is National Arts in Education Week, so it's worth pointing out that the ESSA guidelines adopted by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) prioritize arts education for students across the Commonwealth. Under the new DESE plan, every school district will soon include data on access to arts education on their school and district "report cards." This will make it easier for parents, students, and other members of the community to see what their schools are doing, and compare them with other districts.

In the 2015-16 school year, less than half of high school students in Massachusetts took an arts class. This is discouraging given that an ever-growing body of research shows that arts education contributes to lower dropout rates, improved academic performance-including in math and reading-and higher SAT scores. A study of K-8 students in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum's School Partnership Program, in which students from five Boston public schools visited the museum multiple times over the course of a school year for arts instruction, found that the students exhibited statistically significant improvement in skills like associating, comparing, and flexible thinking compared with peers who did not participate in the program. And 2011's Reinvesting in Arts Education report of the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities noted that arts engagement fosters better habits of mind such as problem-solving, critical thinking, and independence.

These are the qualities needed to succeed in our fast-changing global economy, and parents, educators, and arts advocates alike understand this. Nearly everyone (96%) who after the department sought advice from policymakers and the public via multiple "focus groups, special meetings, public forums, phone calls, and other engagements" said that they wanted "access to the arts" included in each district's new public accountability report card. In fact, information about arts instruction was the most strongly requested indicator, ahead of "access to a broad curriculum," "access to advanced coursework," "school climate culture," "chronic absenteeism," and "9th grade course passing rates."

DESE also held a 30-day public comment period after it released a draft of its ESSA recommendations and nearly one-quarter (24%) of those who sent in comments "made the case that access to the arts was a fundamental concept of the humanities and a critical piece of becoming a well-rounded citizen."

State education leaders have also committed to revising the Arts Curriculum Framework, which has not been updated since 1999. Curriculum frameworks are the guides districts and schools use to develop local curricula and to determine a quality education in each subject area. This is yet another step toward ensuring all Massachusetts students can reap the benefits of arts education.

Embracing the arts in this way does not mean that we are abandoning the quest to educate students at the highest academic levels. It means that we are furthering our mission to educate students to their highest potential.

Matt Wilson is the executive director of MASSCreative, a statewide arts advocacy organization.