May 29, 2013 12:07 PM EDT | Logan K. Young & Ricky O'Bannon
There are two truths arts advocates have long taken for granted:
1. Arts education in public schools is in decline.
2. When budgets tighten, the arts are the first at the ax.
Our attempts to quantify how arts education has fared over the past 15 years, however, suggest that the real truth is a lot harder to hack.
In the Age of Big Data, we wanted to crunch some numbers--to diagnose the health of arts education in Los Angeles area public schools:
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1. Are there more, or fewer, arts classes today?
2. Is the number of arts teachers increasing, or is it decreasing?
3. How many students get to take a class in the arts?
We set out watching the money, looking to compare arts spending over the last two decades. We hoped to get some historical perspective, to look at the kinds of arts classes being offered and, perhaps most importantly, to find out how arts education has (or has not) changed over time.
As you can see, it's complicated.
You'd think that for an issue so many care so passionately about, quantifying the amount and quality of arts education in public schools would be easy. After all, how can you make a case for action if you can't back it up with any evidence?
As we discovered, most districts do not track how much they spend on arts education each year. And making sense of the numbers that do exist, well, that can be quite frustrating. Los Angeles Unified School District is one of the few districts that uses line items in its annual arts budget, but that data was limited to only the past decade.
For other districts, arts spending falls into larger personnel and subject areas that aren't parsed by program or subject area. Representatives from several area districts say that arts spending isn't something that has been tracked historically. Furthermore, most area districts didn't keep digital versions of budget detail prior to 2006.
WHY IS IT SO HARD TO COLLECT THE DATA?
Given how bleak the plight of arts education is traditionally thought to be, it's curious that getting real numbers to plead its case would be so difficult.
Abe Flores is advocacy field manager for Arts for LA, one of several area groups lobbying for arts education in Southern California. Looking at what a district allocates to arts education, Flores said, can be very different from what happens at a single school in the district.
"The main reason it is hard to quantify and actually know where a school district is going in terms of arts education is because it varies so much from school site to school site," he says.
Another problem is that funding for arts education comes from many sources. District funding, state and federal grants, school discretionary spending and private donations from outside parties and parent groups generally don't show up in district-level budgets. This means it's nearly impossible to find a total dollar amount spent on the arts.
It's not just arts, says Flores. It's as difficult to determine how much money is spent on subjects such as math or science because of the way budgets are calculated.
Arts education funding comes from many places, he says. "What I see is more of a partnership approach, this need to have relationships with outside organizations, outside funders, outside entities in order to bring in these arts programs."
Focus on standardized, measurable testing in subjects such as math and English has made arts education an easy target because of the difficulty in developing meaningful diagnostics. But Flores says this doesn't necessarily mean art in public schools is in decline. Outside partnerships and local advocacy, particularly in Los Angeles County, have helped expand some arts offerings even amid tough budgets.
"If a school is focused on getting their scores up, they're going to focus on test prep, and I've seen that firsthand. It doesn't mean that [art has] been disappearing," Flores says. "I think that's one thing that is really important to get across, that not all school districts have been cutting the arts. There are pockets of school districts that have invested in the arts and have actually increased their offering."
While the State of California doesn't track money spent specifically on arts education by school districts, the California Department of Education collects other information that sheds some light on the resources dedicated to arts ed.
MAKING SENSE OF WHAT'S THERE
The California Education Demographics Office tracks enrollment levels, class sizes and full-time teachers in each district and county, including data for art courses. In many cases, trends from that data challenge the notion of declining arts education.
Of the ten Los Angeles County school districts tracked, all showed a general increase in both number of arts classes offered as well as teachers devoted to the arts, starting in the 1997-98 academic year and peaking around 2007. The number of teachers in arts classes dropped during the recession, but for some districts, it dropped proportionately less than other subject areas.
The result for several districts--including Burbank, Beverly Hills and Inglewood--was that in 2010-11, arts-related teachers represented a larger percentage of total teachers than in any previous year (where data was available).
(N.B. Data was not available for the 2009-10 school year because the CDE launched a new collection system that was not finished in time, according to CDE communications officers.)
Modest gains in arts availability also played out on the county level. According to the CDE Demographics Office's measurement of the number of schools with arts offerings and total arts classes, many California counties remained relatively flat throughout the recession or continued to see expansion. That trend also was true at the state level.
A DEFINITIONAL DILEMMA
Defining precisely what an art class is can prove tricky. Class descriptions and categories vary from year to year. In some years and in some districts, fashion-related courses fall under general art. In other years and in other schools, such courses are lumped into the home economics category. In more recent years, dance classes have been given their own category, separating them from general physical education courses. The data also doesn't include information on the qualifications required to teach any particular class, nor does it note the expertise or background of the teachers, themselves.
Arts education at the high school level--which makes up the majority of the classes offered and teachers employed in the CDE's data--has fared fairly well over the past decade, holding its own or slightly increasing. Steven McCarthy, arts coordinator for LAUSD, says that's because of a requirement that all California high school graduates have at least one year of coursework in an arts subject.
When money gets scarce, art programs at the elementary and middle school level have been more expendable. However, districts like LAUSD are looking to implement a strategy called "arts integration" to offer some degree of art education at a lower cost. The idea is to incorporate an aspect of music, theater, dance or visual art into other subject areas such as English and history. McCarthy, who teaches classes on arts integration at the University of Southern California, says integration provides a basic level of arts affordably and has the added benefit of reinforcing curriculum in other subject areas. McCarthy says this helps reach students with alternative learning strategies, but he also acknowledges that integration doesn't replace traditional arts education--something he said will always be necessary.
"What we're talking about with arts integration is very different because we're never going to be able to cover what I would cover in a year-long theater class if I was integrating that into a social studies class or an English class."
LAUSD also uses arts specialists who will visit an elementary classroom once a week for a semester. Ideally, McCarthy says, the general classroom teacher provides the fundamentals, and the specialist builds on them.
"You hear people saying the arts are being cut. You know, the arts are changing. We're evolving," he said.
It's not so simple as just saying the arts are in decline. LAUSD also stands to benefit from partnerships with museums and other cultural institutions in the area that are hoping to come into schools to work with children.
"Realizing again the current economic situation, we have to look for alternatives," McCarthy said. "It may not look like the traditional way we've offered the arts. That will continue to exist, but we can't stop there. We have to look at what else can we do."
In October, the LAUSD school board voted to make the arts a "core curriculum" subject. As part of that resolution, LAUSD officials are working to create ways to track students served by arts education programs and measure their accomplishment.
McCarthy says he is optimistic the data will provide more information and transparency for arts education in the district. That data could also fill in some blanks about the current condition of arts in public schools, which, at present, is a hazy picture.
ARTS ED IN CALIFORNIA: A TIMELINE
For more information on this and other stories covered by the USC Annenberg/Getty Arts Journalism Fellowship, please visit www.engine30.org.
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