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The Practical Effect of Making Arts Education a National Priority

• January 28, 2013 • 4:00 AM

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New research finds 1994 legislation that included the arts as a core subject in American schools made a difference in many places.

Back in the 1990s, advocates for arts education were thrilled by the final wording of the “Goals 2000: Educate America Act.” According to those federal education guidelines, which were signed into law in 1994, fourth, eighth and 12th-graders were expected to demonstrate “competency over challenging subject matter” in a variety of fields, including—for the first time—the arts.

Newly published research reveals that their inclusion had more than just symbolic value. In many schools, elevating the arts to core-subject status made a real difference.

Kenneth Elpus of the University of Maryland reports that Goals 2000 did not significantly increase the number of unique music courses offered in American high schools. However, he writes in the Arts Education Policy Review, “high schools were more likely in the post-Goals 2000 era to require arts course for graduation, and to increase the number of courses needed to satisfy these requirements.”

The only exception to this trend was “schools that were located in states that had a preexisting strict mandate for arts education in high school,” he reports. In other states, “Goals 2000 significantly increased the probability of schools requiring the arts, as well as the number of arts credits required for graduation.”

Elpus looked at data on 670 schools. Using data from two longitudinal studies, he tracked changes in the number of arts-related offerings and requirements from 1992 to 2004. His data thus doesn’t include any relaxation of standards that may have occurred during the recent economic downturn, when a number of cash-starved districts cut arts courses.

Nevertheless, this historical information is relevant today. As Elpus points out, a new education-reform push is currently underway, featuring a list of Common Core Standards. To date, he notes, these standards are strictly for math and language arts, although other subjects may be added.

“The primary difference between the emergence of the Common Core Standards movement and the passage of Goals 2000 is that most states have already adopted standards in the arts, potentially limiting gains from ‘new’ arts standards,” he writes.

But, he warns, that’s no reason to sit this round out. “Music and arts educators ought to actively support the profession’s engagement in the Common Core Standards movement, if only to avoid a loss of status gained through earlier efforts,” he writes.

“The last wave of standards-based reform produced positive outcomes for arts education,” Elpus concludes. So don’t believe the back-to-basics bullies: history shows that strengthening educational standards and valuing the arts are entirely compatible.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

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