So, with this being my first blog, I thought it important to start out by letting the readers know a little bit about who I am and what this blog will be all about. I am a school psychologist in a suburban elementary school and have been involved in theatre arts performance since the 5th grade. My own participation in a curricular theatre arts program in high school as well as my experience as a director/choreographer of youth theatre over the last 9 years has made me a fervent supporter of arts education. I have witnessed first-hand the many benefits that theatre arts participation can give to children. I am frustrated, however, with the amount of support that the arts are given in schools, specifically theatre arts. My hope is to help educate readers on the impact that arts integration, participation, and creativity can have on students and the community through scientific research and personal anecdotes and well as demonstrating the value of bringing more art programs into schools.
Before examining the specific ways in which participation in the arts can benefit students and the community, first lets look at the status of art education in American schools. Unfortunately, research in this area is severely lacking. The most recent known data comes from an investigation in 2002 by the National Center of Education Statistics (NCES). According to the NCES, less than half of the 686 public secondary schools that were studied offered instruction in theatre and dance. Out of those schools that did offer such instruction, only half of those schools had dedicated spaces with special equipment in which to teach theatre. Even fewer had appropriate spaces and equipment to teach dance.
Although 20 years old, data from Seidel in 1991 are similar, showing that not much has changed in the area of arts education in the last two decades. Seidel examined the frequency of theatre arts courses and co-curricular offerings of theatre arts programs in American high schools and found that while many schools offered some theatre courses or an extra-curricular theatre arts program, only 59% of schools offered both. Sixty percent of the schools reported that primary funding for theatre arts clubs and organizations came from ticket sales, fundraising, and advertising-school budget allocations were considered secondary sources of funding. Furthermore, according to Seidel (1991) more than half of the theatre teachers reported that their theatre class was not their primary subject of expertise and that they taught theatre as a "secondary assignment." Sadly, my personal knowledge of and experiences in schools currently appear to support the findings in these studies, as do the opinions of the general public. Approximately 48% of Americans think that there is not enough emphasis on art and music in elementary schools and 36% think there is too little emphasis on the arts in high school (Belden, Russonello, & Stewart, 2005).
Despite the shortage of adequate arts programs in schools, people seem to believe that the arts are very important to education. I think that most parents and teachers, when asked, would agree that the arts are an integral part to a child's education and formal research has been conducted to support this notion. Belden, Russonello and Stewart (2005) surveyed 1,068 American adults about their thoughts regarding arts integration (i.e., incorporating separate classes into the curriculum that teach art, music, dance, drawing, and other expressions of creativity). According to their findings, art and music were given a higher priority in schools than standardized tests, sports, and foreign languages. They felt that the arts educate the whole child, give students an opportunity to demonstrate creativity, help students become well-rounded, help them learn to express themselves, and build self-esteem. Although considered to be less important, other reasons to support art integration included the ability of the arts to enhance students' social skills, reduce dropout rates, and help students get into college or to be more attractive to employers. More than anything, however, the American public seems to think that arts integration educates and nurtures the whole child and helps to enrich a child's educational experiences in general. At the same time, teachers are also supporting the arts. Purnell and Gray (2004) found that 100% of the teachers they surveyed believed using the arts to supplement their academic curriculum improves their ability to access students' different learning styles and believed the arts helps improve the overall academic achievement of their students.
So, this got me to thinking: If arts are valued and seen to be so important, than why are they not given their rightful level of integration within the educational system? There seems to be a disconnect between how we feel about the arts and how much we see arts instruction being utilized in schools. The need for additional teacher training and academic time being taken away from teaching the core curriculum were the two major reasons that the general public identified as barriers to more art programs (Beldeon, Russonello, & Steward, 2005). More passionate opinions, however, come mainly from educators concerning the much condemned No Child Left Behind Act, which many say has generated a culture of standardized test-takers. Since the law holds schools responsible for the achievement of its students in reading and mathematics, many feel that schools have less time for instruction in other subjects, including the arts (Americans for the Arts, 2007; Purnell & Gray, 2004). Furthermore, when a school needs to reduce the budget, subjects such as math and reading logically remain intact because students must pass state and national exams in those subjects, leaving subjects such as the arts more vulnerable to removal. Other frequently identified barriers to implementation of art-based programs in schools include lack of funding, budget cutbacks, and lack of knowledge about how to include the arts in education (Oreck et al., 2000; Upitis et al., 2001).
As a school psychologist, I am actively involved in the development of our school's character education program, which seeks to teach life-long social and emotional skills to students and help them become positive contributors to society. Although still in the beginning stages, the field of school psychology is researching social and emotional learning programs and ways to implement them into our schools. Stephen Covey, author of the very popular The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and The Leader in Me, says that an essential contributor to student achievement is "connectedness," or the feeling of being socially and emotionally connected to school (Covey, 2008). Through character education, our goal is to develop the whole child so that they not only achieve academic success, but become responsible citizens and contributors to society.
In order to work towards these goals, part of this would involve finding out what parents, students, and businesses say they want from our schools. An elementary school in North Carolina conducted focus groups in which they sought answers to this very question. Interestingly, when asked what they want most from schools, parent responses surprisingly did not involve academics. Rather, parents said that they wanted their children to have the ability to get along with others, be responsible, be tolerant of other people's differences, become problem-solvers, and to be creative (Covey, 2008). When conducting a survey of the needs of local business leaders, this North Carolina-based elementary school found that creativity, communication skills, teamwork skills, and interpersonal skills were among the top ten qualities that employers seek in their employees and what they would like young people to emerge from school possessing (Covey, 2008). Similarly, Daniel Goleman (1995) discusses the importance of Emotional Intelligence (EQ), which includes self-awareness and impulse control, persistence, zeal and self-motivation, empathy and social deftness. Goleman argues that EQ is more predictive of academic and life success than high IQ.
The reason that I discuss social-emotional learning programs and emotional intelligence is because I strongly believe that arts integration addresses each of the areas that parents, employers, and researchers espouse as important for success. The ways in which arts instruction teaches these valuable skills, however, will be presented in future postings. Meanwhile, I am interested in hearing your own thoughts about what the arts bring to education. For those who work in school settings, where do the arts stand in your school or your children's school?