The Shooting Star of Arts Education Research
Yesterday, an Education Commission of the States staff member with the memorable name of Claus von Zastrow published a blog reporting the findings of an art education question included in the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in Math. It’s a substantial discovery—akin to when new stars are detected in a constellation, or a new species of insect is identified. His blog post and the accompanying data tables are a must-read. My blog here is about the context that must be considered in his discovery.
Since 2001, the “arts,” comprising the disciplines of dance, music, theatre, and visual arts, have been named as one of ten Core Academic Subjects (No Child Left Behind Act) and currently are one of the 18 subjects listed in the definition of a Well-Rounded Education (Every Student Succeeds Act). In theory, this should mean that the U.S. Department of Education and its research arm, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), should provide ongoing and detailed data into how arts education is resourced in the country—right?
No. Longtime Department of Education watchers know that since 1995, there have been just two kinds of arts education research by the federal government. A few federal research “access” reports (1995, 2002, 2012) asked principals and teachers in just 1,800 schools about who is receiving, or being offered, arts education in their schools. Relatedly, there have been three NAEPs in the Arts (1997, 2008, 2016) which measure knowledge and skills in the subject, but is severely limited in its scope. How and why is it limited? That’s a story for another time, but not one of these tests over 25 years has ever captured arts education data on a state-by-state basis.
As Claus mentions, the federal agency tasked with administering the “Nation’s Report Card” (the National Assessment Governing Board or NAGB) decided to terminate one of these two federal studies this past July, which immediately alarmed arts education advocates and education staff in the U.S. Senate who were frustrated by this unexpected development. It appears that federal arts education research has been cut by 50%.
So when eagle-eyed Claus spotted in the Math NAEP released in October 2019, among the 40 multi-part questions asked of the eighth grade test takers, that Question #21 was about art education—he must have been floored. As I am.
This question, put to the 147,000 students that were a part of the 2019 Math NAEP sample, must be the single largest arts education data point in the history of federal education research.
Now, the question only refers to one discipline, (visual) art education—I’m sure my friends at the National Art Education Association and the Arts Education Partnership will be excitedly digesting this data for quite some time—so it’s in no way capturing the full arts education picture. But here are three simple highlights I’ve spotted from this single question, with thanks again to Claus for assembling the data.
For the first time ever in history, there is a state by state breakdown of participation in art education.
In the graphic below, the darker the state, the greater the participation in art education. Vermont has the highest at 68%; some states, like Montana, South Dakota, Utah, Colorado, and Alaska, didn’t get enough students in the sample to count; and Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana provided the least art education, between 16% to 18% of eighth graders.
As conventional wisdom holds, students from wealthier families have greater participation in art classes.
In Indiana, 40% of students eligible for the National Free & Reduced Lunch program (an indicator of household income) were in an art education course, compared to 50% of (wealthier) students not eligible for the lunch program. There’s a similar 10 point gap in Rhode Island, an 11 point gap in New York, a 12 point gap in Pennsylvania, and a whopping 21 point difference in Connecticut! On the other hand, Iowa, Nebraska, West Virginia, and Wisconsin by this measure present very little wealth disparities in who receives art education in their states.
Art education can be provided in any location—city, suburb, town, or rural community.
Arkansas is among a handful of states that provides significantly more art education in its rural areas, surpassing city, suburb, and town categories. The largest state, California, demonstrates equal particpation in art education among these location categories. This set of data, comparing provision of art education in varying population densities, is also the first time federal data of this kind has ever been shared nationally.
Like a singular and brief shooting star, the “von Zastrow discovery” leaves us with so many more questions, some about the data and some about the federal research efforts.
- Who put this question into the Math NAEP?
- Was anyone at NAGB going to tell the arts education field this question was there?
- Are any federal researchers reviewing this data—and will they include questions like this in future studies for the other arts disciplines?
- Is the arts education field expected to survive on data breadcrumbs that some enlightened soul at the National Center for Education Statistics stuck into a NAEP survey?
Arts education advocates, and Congress, have begun to respond to the proposed demise of the Arts NAEP, and innovations and advances in collecting arts education access and participation data may result from this effort. In fact, significant progress continues to be made in several states that have tapped into their state longitudinal data systems for annual state-level data on arts education—see California, New Jersey, Ohio, and Arizona. But if the U.S. Department of Education’s purpose is anything, it’s to report on education access on a national level—not just passively leave this task to states and nonprofits to cobble it together.
So, while we can celebrate this beautiful shooting star of a data point tucked away in the Math NAEP, we need more. We need the arts to be treated as a full constellation in the sky.