While working as a middle school arts educator in Chicago, Ray Yang kept seeing the imbalance in resources in schools across the racially segregated city.
“It was always mind-boggling,” says Yang, now the director of equity, diversity and inclusion, and special initiatives for the National Art Education Association. “It’s one of the reasons why I started to do a lot more equity work.”
Schools on the city’s predominantly white North Side tended to have more money and community support compared to the predominantly Black South Side schools.
Much of it goes back to funding, Yang says, along with inequitable resource sharing and access to resources. The issue is often drawn along socioeconomic and racial divides.
“We always need to bring up how certain communities are being underserved with education and arts education,” Yang says, “specifically, because of how cities — urban areas, especially, but communities in general — have become segregated.”
The Pandemic’s Impact on Arts Education
In its 2019 report, the National Arts Education Data Project projected there were more than 2 million students nationwide who don’t have access to arts education — and this does not take the pandemic into account, which likely worsened access. The projected number is based on the 17 states studied for this report.
Other than Indigenous students, of whom a quarter lack access to arts education, Black students have the least access, with 7% attending schools that don’t offer any arts education. This is more than twice the rate of white students (3%) and Asian students (2%).
The same is true for schools with high free/reduced meal eligibility. Of schools with high eligibility, 6% lack access to arts education, compared to 3% of schools with low eligibility.
A 2021 report by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences found that the strain on school budgets, in the wake of economic challenges caused by the pandemic, negatively impacted arts education, including many cuts to arts programs. Unsurprisingly, this has disproportionately impacted Black, Indigenous, and Hispanic students, especially when it comes to their mental health.
These declines in arts education reflect the continuous inequities in the education system, the report says. Students in high-needs schools and historically underserved populations have been hit hardest, and those are often the students who rely the heaviest on schools to provide arts experiences.
Further, the report says, white students have experienced “virtually no decline” in arts education since the ’80s, while Black students have experienced a 49% reduction in arts education, and Hispanic students saw a 40% reduction.
Some of this has to do with how “historical racist housing policies and inequities in residential mobility have led to schools and neighborhoods with high concentrations of poverty,” according to the report. In fact, a 2019 study found that schools with large populations of minority students received $23 billion less in annual funding than schools with low minority populations.
“The impact of the pandemic will likely widen these gaps, as schools with fewer resources and higher needs will face increased resource constraints,” the AAAS report says.
Barriers to Arts Education
Even before the pandemic, and especially after, there are all sorts of barriers — physical, financial, mental — that keep arts education from students, especially when they’re Black, Brown, or low-income.
First, schools need rooms and facilities that are built and designed to support this type of teaching and learning. Then, teachers need sufficient materials for these lessons, so there isn’t one instrument per five kids, for example.
And a major note is that teachers need the preparation and professional learning to either integrate the arts or have it as a standalone subject. As part of the ongoing teacher shortage crisis in this country, many districts are “having to rely on teachers with emergency-style permits,” says Jessica Sawko, director of education at Children Now. These inexperienced teachers “are three times more likely to teach in schools with higher populations of Black, Latino, and other racially diverse students.”
“When you have a teacher that doesn’t have sufficient preparation, not only are they less likely to stay in the classroom — which causes disruptions for students — they also aren’t necessarily given the preparation they need relative to teacher training,” Sawko says. “Teaching in itself is an art and a profession, and one that requires sufficient preparation in order to be effective.”
Another hurdle is people who either didn’t engage with arts education as students or who had bad experiences, and now these groups don’t understand what arts education really is. It often comes in the form of thinking the only important piece of arts education is boiled down to the final product: the concert, performance, or arts show.
But this isn’t the case, says Jamie Kasper, director of the Arts Education Partnership. People need to understand arts education has a place in schools because it’s working to meet the same goals as other content areas.
“It’s not just about the concert. It’s about the 20 rehearsals and all that individual practice time that child put in,” Kasper says. “The value is in the learning.”
Arts Education in Practice
The good news is, even if too many schools are removing arts education, there are solid examples of schools across the country going “above and beyond to help round out students’ education,” says Dr. Fedrick Ingram, secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers.
In New York, New Victory offers educational partnerships, teacher resources, professional development, and summer programming to students. New Victory works with partner schools to offer discounted tickets to performances, plus meet-and-greets with the performers, leads workshops, and has a number of digital resources, including instructional videos.
Out in Seattle, Arts Corps addresses the race and income-based opportunity gaps in access to arts education. It reaches over 2,500 students every year, and the majority of those students are low-income and students of color.
“This, again, is about people understanding and embracing the fact that arts education is not something that a kid can take or not. That is something that we need to be fully involved in,” Ingram says.
Partnering with outside organizations like this is crucial because it brings more people and perspectives to the table, Yang says, and helps people think about things differently.
“We can’t keep banging our heads against the wall in the same way to try to remove the barriers,” Yang says. “We have to be collaborating and partnering with all different types of organizations.”
Invest in Arts Teachers
It matters who teaches these classes.
One of the bigger drivers of student success is having a racially diverse education workforce, Sawko says. There need to be culturally sustaining and affirming practices that happen in the classroom, allowing students to thrive and see themselves reflected in their education.
“The bulk of the learning experience is dependent on the teacher,” Sawko says. Research shows that it’s the teacher who has the biggest impact on day-to-day student learning. “We need to ensure that the educators have the support and preparation and facilities and materials that they need in order to support high-quality education.”
In the November elections, Californians voted for Proposition 28, which will pump about $1 billion into arts education funding annually. As the funding kicks in, much of it is dedicated to supporting staffing, Sawko says, which will be one of the biggest implementation challenges. The educators hired with these funds need to not only complete preparation and content knowledge training, but also learn how to incorporate culturally responsive teaching and classroom management.
“It’s about ensuring that students see themselves in the learning and feel like what they’re learning about is relevant to themselves in their lives,” Sawko says.
A former band director himself, Ingram says at the end of the day, we just need more arts teachers— people who care about music and dance and theater. They’re not attracted to the teaching profession because the respect and working conditions aren’t there, and they don’t want to be disrespected for something they love.
“Music educators are people who have found their innate calling, and they want to instill that calling in young people. We ought to, as a society, be very, very careful in how we treat all teachers, but specifically our art teachers, because they’re teaching so much more than the X’s and O’s of education,” Ingram says.
“These are father figures and mother figures and counselors. These are the people who kids trust the most.”
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