We all know that virtual learning wasn’t perfect. It led to large spikes in chronic absenteeism, especially among Black and Brown students. And, paired with other pandemic factors, it played a part in declining mental health among students — again, especially Black and Brown students — along with lower engagement in classes.
But the consequence that gets talked about most is pandemic learning loss. Following dramatic results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress in 2022, which showed declines in math and reading across the country, the focus was on how to recover from that.
To be clear, “learning loss” is part of “broader ideas of the specific skills and the knowledge that our students need to have at a certain age, and they’re not able to move on until they’ve achieved these skills,” says Ray Yang, the director of equity, diversity and inclusion, and special initiatives for the National Art Education Association. This has long been problematic due to vast inequities in the education system, like an imbalance of resources, Yang says.
And it’s essential to consider the other very real types of loss students dealt with during those months at home, like family members passing away and a lack of social development.
But arts education could be a key tool in addressing all of this.
Arts Education Allows Expression, Leading to Higher Engagement
Arts education allows students to express themselves and their knowledge in different ways than traditional curriculum.
For more than two years, students were involved in a whole host of negative issues: their mental health, their own physical health, and that of those around them, and being isolated. All of these are opposite of what music does for a child, says Dr. Fedrick Ingram, secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers. Music not only talks about life and allows for a different kind of mental focus, but neuroscience research shows how music positively impacts the brain, like boosting alertness and memory, and lowering anxiety.
Students missed a lot of social development, and they’re suffering from that now. And the arts support a lot of social-emotional needs, like processing their thoughts, feelings, and experiences.
“Take the devastating effects of the pandemic on the well-being of children as an example,” wrote the authors of a 2021 report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. “As we look toward the long process of recovery, we can be confident that arts education will facilitate emotional well-being, reconnects students with friends and teachers, and foster resiliency.”
So not only should arts education be an important step toward pandemic recovery, but it has to be, Ingram says.
“It’s the one place in school where you can go and not only talk about things like feelings and empathy and aesthetic beauty, but it’s actually a form of doing it,” Ingram says. “That has everything to do with self-esteem, competence, and the way [students] interact with each other.”
Arts participation is most common in elementary schools, according to a 2019 report by the National Arts Education Data Project, which studied 17 states. By school level in these states, 86% of elementary schools offered “any kind” of arts education, with 69% of middle schools and 47% of high schools across the country. Across all grade levels, music and visual arts were the overwhelming top offerings, with theater, dance, and others hardly having any representation.
However, the report projects that more than two million students don’t have access to arts education of any kind, and this is without accounting for the pandemic.
Since 2021, the Arts Education Partnership found that only 28 states report statewide arts education data, only 23 of those states report student enrollment data, and 21 report educator data.
Plus, those arts teachers are the ones who usually see the entire student body, as opposed to grade- or subject-specific teachers. That helps them to serve as a linchpin that exists within their community, Yang says.
“They can be that key pivot point to help give a pulse on where the school is at, and how do we actually get back to what the specific needs are of our students,” Yang says.
What Is Arts Integration?
Educators have been incorporating arts into daily lessons for decades. It’s an approach called arts integration, which allows students to demonstrate their understanding of concepts and lessons through art forms.
Research has shown two big benefits to arts integration, says Jamie Kasper, director of the Arts Education Partnership. The first is that, when schools are using an arts integrated approach, students want to come to school. So, second, this means engagement is higher, and because it activates different modes of learning and comprehension, students have much higher retention.
“It’s a really great way to elevate and engage a little bit more with the students,” Yang says. “It’s a different way for students to be able to reinforce knowledge and learning.”
But, Yang says, nothing can fully replace a trained arts educator. He highlighted Chicago Public Schools, which has full-time arts teachers as part of the staff. They are instructional leaders who work with other classroom teachers to incorporate the arts into the rest of the daily curriculum.
More than 250,000 Chicago Public Schools students attend schools that are strong or excelling in the arts, according to Ingenuity, a Chicago-based organization focused on bringing arts to all levels of school to promote a more well-rounded education. Ingenuity also found that 97% of CPS schools collaborate with at least one of the nearly 600 active arts partners, and 54% of elementary schools offer the recommended two hours of weekly art instruction.
How to Incorporate Arts Education Into Everyday Lessons
So how do you incorporate the arts into daily lessons? Fortunately, there are a lot of ways.
A STEAM, as opposed to STEM, approach is one way, Sawko says. These activities range from artistic to mathematical modeling. With STEAM, “students explore and make sense of the world around them, and they learn the tools and the ways to do that.”
There are also teaching artists, or people who are not certified teachers but partner with schools to provide experiences for teachers to bring into the classroom. They can bring in any type of art, whether it’s dancing or music, or performance, to help with a lesson or teach one on its own.
The Arts Education Partnership offers a ton of resources, with topics from arts integration to STEAM, about how to incorporate arts into lessons. And, in many states, the state arts council will fund arts integration activities in different regions, so they often have activities, lesson plans, and teaching artists to share.
Fortunately, there are good examples of schools and school systems effectively integrating arts into students’ education. At the same time, however, there are still too many examples of schools and communities that aren’t doing it at all, Ingram says.
“Our Black children need to be exposed to arts education in the same manner that we want them exposed to AP mathematics,” Ingram says. “These are the higher echelon classes that are going to really involve the minds of our children so that they can be the best of who they’re going to be.”
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