Not many people can point to a single moment in their life that changed everything, but I am one of those people.
Had you met me as a young boy, you would have found a meek, quiet child — frightened to open his mouth due to a stutter.
That was my life before music. Before I met Mrs. Lydia Richardson, who taught me how to open my mouth and have beauty come out.
Learning to sing changed everything for me. Not only did it help me conquer my stutter, but it also gave me the confidence to stand in front of crowds. To be bold in my presentation. Singing led me to my beloved alma mater, Bethune-Cookman University, where I was a drum major in the band. That led me back to the Florida public education system, where I was a band teacher for a decade. Becoming a teacher led me to the position I have today at the American Federation of Teachers.
Simply put, art changed my life — literally. More specifically, an arts education at a public school changed my life. That qualification is crucial because for today’s public school students, getting an arts education isn’t as easy as it once was.
In study after study after study, we see that giving students, especially those in kindergarten through high school, an education in the arts has major benefits that will impact the rest of their lives.
We know it helps with cognitive thinking skills. We know it can help increase compassion. We also know how much an arts education can positively impact kids like me — Black and brown children from low-income areas.
Americans for the Arts, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting the arts as part of our communities, has research showing that students from disadvantaged backgrounds who get involved in arts education are:
- 10 percentage points more likely to find gainful employment;
- 17 percentage points more likely to earn an associate degree; and
- 20 percentage points more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree.
I can attest to this from my own story, but seeing these numbers only confirms what I know in my heart — an arts education can change your life.
This is why it’s so painful to see arts education continually taking a back seat—if not altogether pushed out of our public school curriculums. Some research shows that the percentage of students who received an arts education fell from 50% to under 30% in the years between 1982 and 2008. White students, however, saw their rates continue to hover at or around 60%.
These numbers really hit home when you consider that white kids also graduate from high school and college at higher rates.
So, in addition to often living in fresh-food deserts, Black and brown kids are increasingly losing access to the mental nutrition of an arts education — an education that can help propel them into better jobs and living opportunities.
These are the issues and problems that keep me awake at night. But they are also why I get up every morning and give 100% to ensuring that no students fall between the cracks simply because of where they were born or the color of their skin.
Thankfully, I’m not alone in this fight. I recently approved a $10k grant to the good people at Hungry for Music, an amazing organization that collects and distributes musical instruments to children (Hungry for Music will be at the Cleveland School of Rock and the Boys and Girls Club of Northeast Ohio on June 25 as part of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame “Fam Jam”).
This speaks to my heart because my students didn’t always have the best instruments when I was a music teacher at Booker T. Washington High School and Carol City High School in Florida. I know what it’s like to work with kids that many people don’t expect much from. But that didn’t stop them from putting their heart and soul into every note — in fact, it may have driven them to become the incredible students and adults they are today.
Additionally, the American Federation of Teachers offers hundreds of free lessons for teachers and parents looking to enhance their students’ arts education at ShareMyLesson.org. From music to art history to dance to drama, this is a real-time, boots-on-the-ground set of solutions that cannot be readily undone by bad legislation or lack of personal funds.
Sadly, even these solutions aren’t enough to make up for the disappearance of arts education. We need legislation like the Arts Education for All Act, which was introduced in Congress last year.
This act would not push for more funding toward arts education for K-12 students but for those in the criminal justice system — another population often ignored but no less empowered by an education in the arts. But we cannot afford to sit still and wait. Our children need our help right now.
We cannot wait while our children and students beg for the education that can ensure they are well-rounded and competitive in school and in the workforce. So, teachers and parents, join hands with me to become a multistate chorus carrying the same note — long and strong: “Arts education can change lives.”
Fedrick C. Ingram is the Secretary-Treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers, serving 1.7 million members, including pre-K through 12th-grade teachers; school and college support staff; higher education faculty; federal, state and local government employees; and nurses and other healthcare professionals. Ingram is the immediate past president of the 140,000-member Florida Education Association. He also has served as an elected vice president of the AFT’s executive council.