Good News, Bad News, and Exploding Myths

Mike Lawson • Archives • September 17, 2008

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One of the great aspects of what I do is my role as private investigator I mean, researcher. For the better part of my career I have been in a constant search for information that might provide a true picture of what is happening in our public schools. The data I found led me to author our first report, The Sound of Silence: The Unprecedented Decline of Music Education in California Public Schools. The impact of this report it was the catalyst that lead the state of California to invest more than three-quarters of a billion dollars over the past three years to restore music programs convinced us that we were on the right track (see SBO August, 2006).

We followed the Sound of Silence with legislative work in Arkansas to help mandate music and art for every child (see SBO March, 2005). This was followed by last year’s groundbreaking report for the state of New Jersey, Within Our Power: The Progress, Plight and Promise of Arts Education for Every Child. This was the first ever look at the status of arts education for every child measured in every school in the state. One of the actions taken as a result of this report included New Jersey becoming the first state in the nation to include the arts in district level accountability measure compliance with state policies. The first state ever (see SBO October, 2007).

Which brings me to our latest work, Arts Education in Wisconsin Public Schools: A Preliminary Review, which was commissioned by Arts Wisconsin, the state’s arts service, advocacy, and development organization, and the Wisconsin Alliance for Arts Education, the statewide organization dedicated to arts education. The report was analyzed and prepared by Music for All (with yours truly as the lead author). It provides the first detailed research conducted on the state of arts education in Wisconsin and was released a few weeks ago at a special statewide meeting.

The research of this latest study shows that while music and art are nearly universally available in most Wisconsin school districts serving grades 6-12, there has been a 5 percent decline in overall student participation during the past four years, creating cause for concern. The report also noted that most students are afforded no opportunities to learn dance or theater.

In what I term a “surprising finding,” the report also notes now pay attention to this the more rural a community, the higher the levels of student involvement in music and art. That’s right. Rural communities had a higher percentage of students enrolled in music and art than more urban schools. The more rural a community, the higher these numbers went. At the same time, the more rural a community was, the more favorable the ratio of students to arts teachers (a low student/arts teacher ratio is preferable) was, as well.

In addition, the affluence of a community appeared to have little or no influence on the percentage of student enrollment in arts education. If anything, on some measures there was a more favorable trend for less affluent communities than in the more affluent communities. That’s right, community wealth has no impact on the status of arts programs!

What Does it All Mean?
Well, there is good news and bad news. The good news is that music and art, at least from a district perspective, are widely available to students. The bad news is that the recent decline in student participation in all music and art deserves greater scrutiny and are cause for concern.

More importantly some key myths (and some excuses administrators use to justify the reduction or elimination of programs) have been burst, including:

  1. The wealth of a community has no impact on the existence or status of arts programs. This showed up in New Jersey. It showed up in Wisconsin and it is showing up in other states where we are currently working.
  2. The more rural a community the more students are involved in the arts programs. This may be something that is limited to the Midwest. However it has shown up enough for us to say administrators in rural communities cannot hide behind “being rural” as a justification for limited or no programs.

As saying goes, sacred cows make the best hamburgers! These are two sacred cows often used to defend cutting programs that we are happy to throw on the barbeque.

So with the above as an abbreviated summary, following are the key findings.

Grades 6-8 Overview
Most students in district grades 6-8 have access to art courses and participation is high. 96 percent of all students in district grades 6-8 have access to art courses. 75 percent of all students in this grade range across the state are enrolled in art programs. That said, the course offerings actually provided are limited.

Music in district grades 6-8 shows a similar level of access and participation. Music courses are offered by 97.4 percent of all school districts, representing 99 percent of statewide student enrollment. Of all students with access to programs, 89 percent participate in music. Concert Band, General Music and Chorus are the main courses with student participation. However, the percentage of student enrollment in Music declines significantly between the 6th and 9th grades.

Dance and Theater, except in rare instances, are not available in District Grades 6-8. Where Dance is available, student participation at the middle school level is higher than in Theater.

Grades 9-12 Overview
Art education in District Grades 9-12 shows both a depth of program and diversity of offerings available to most students. All school districts serving grades 9-12 report offering courses in art. There are 139,227 students enrolled in art courses at this level representing 47.66 percent of students. General Art/Design, Two Dimensional Art and Three Dimensional Art have the most student participation.

Access to music courses in District Grades 9-12 is nearly universal. However, student participation levels continue to decline. In this grade range, 98.8 percent of all students have access to music programs, yet, only 34 percent of all students (100,417) are enrolled. The decline in the percentage of student participation between the 9th and 12th grades is 23 percent. The programs with the highest percentage of student enrollment are Concert Band, Choir, and Chorus.

Theater, while more present than in district grades 6-8, involves less than 5 percent of all students in district grades 9-12 across the state. Only 19.2 percent of all students have access to Dance mostly in more urban districts and only 1 percent of students participate.

Percentage of Student Enrollment

A key indicator of quality arts programs is the percentage of student enrollment (the number of students enrolled in an arts course as a percentage of the total student population of the measured grades). This preliminary review found that the percentage of student enrollment in arts courses (Music and Art) is lower in urban areas (as defined by the National Center for Education Statistics and the Census Bureau) and higher in the more rural parts of the state. A higher percentage of student enrollment is preferable.

Student/Teacher Ratios
A similar finding was discovered when exploring the student/arts teacher ratio (the number of students in a district divided by the number of teacher assignments in the arts). Once again urban communities had a higher student/arts teacher ratio (more students per teacher) and the more rural communities had a lower student/arts teacher ratio. A lower ratio is preferable.

Community Wealth Index
Community affluence appears to have little or no influence on the percentage of student enrollment in arts education. The one surprising finding is that less affluent communities show higher participation in Art. Likewise surprising is a correlation between student/arts teacher ratio and the affluence of a community. Districts with a lower Wealth Index have a more favorable (lower) ratio than the more affluent communities. Side note: why this correlation exists requires additional research.

Since this report is using District-level data it does not make any judgments about individual schools. Disparities between schools may be masked when data is aggregated at the District level (something we learned from our work in New Jersey). This is particularly important when looking at data from larger school districts. A more thorough review based on actual school-level information is required to provide insight into individual school performance.

Will Anything Change?
The most important news is that this report will be used to create change. The information will be useful to educators, arts leaders, elected officials and civic leaders in the development of policies and programs that enhance 21st-century education for all Wisconsin students. The research was presented to and will be used by the Wisconsin Task Force on Arts and Creativity in Education, chaired by Lt. Governor Barbara Lawton and state superintendent of Public Instruction Elizabeth Burmaster as they shape a new vision for creativity in the state.

The Lesson
The lesson here is this: the more we know about what is really happening in our schools, the better decisions our policy makers will make. This has, without exception, led to increased access to music and arts education.

Maybe it is time for you to demand the same kind of information be developed in your state and community. You will be glad you did!

To download the full report online, go to:

For more information about what’s happening in Wisconsin, contact Anne Katz, Executive Director, Arts Wisconsin, (608) 255-8316, or by e-mail at

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