Arizona Arts Education Access Is Improving, But Still Pretty Abysmal

Take note if you're keen on assuring the metro Phoenix art scene survives and thrives: Kids aren't getting equal or adequate access to arts education.

So says the analysis and recent report prepared by Quadrant Arts Education Research on behalf of the Arizona Department of Education and the Arizona Commission on the Arts.

Their 2014 update to a 2010 census of arts education in Arizona reveals that more kids had access to arts education in 2013 than in 2009. That's the good news. But there's bad news, too. More than 115,000 K-12 students don't have access to arts instruction by highly qualified arts teachers.

If Arizona isn't teaching kids to create and appreciate art, how can citizens expect them to grow up and become the next generation of artists and art lovers?

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"The value of arts instruction for our kids has been proven over and over again," says Bob Booker, Executive Director for the Arizona Commission on the Arts. "The arts teach communication skills, problem-solving, partnerships, creativity, and innovation."

"The study shows we're making progress," he adds. "But many kids only get one type of arts instruction, even though state standards and policy say students are to get more."

During the 2012-13 school year, just 15 percent of Arizona K-12 students attending public schools, including charter schools, got theatre instruction. Just 16 percent got dance. Access is greatest for music instruction, which is provided to 83.7 percent of students, and visual arts instruction, given to 74 percent of students. Just over 10 percent of students have access to all four arts disciplines.

You needn't be a policy wonk to make sense of it all. Just know that the Arizona Administrative Code requires that K-8 schools offer music and visual arts. And Arizona Academic Standards mandate learning in all four art disciplines. It's not happening.

It's a policy to practice gap that calls for grassroots action, says Booker.

"It's time for families to step up," he explains. But we figure it couldn't hurt for other folks to step up as well. Booker notes that kids engaged in choir, band, theatre and other arts are more committed to school and their student peers -- and less likely to drop out. "Providing more arts instruction is one way to solve our terrible drop-out rate," Booker adds.

So what can parents and other citizens do?

Talk to teachers and principals, suggests Booker. But also your local school boards and office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. "Our superintendent of schools isn't standing up for this," says Booker. "Our school boards aren't standing up for this."

The 2010 report titled "Engaging Students, Supporting Schools, Accessing Arts Education: Highlights from the Arizona Arts Education Census Project," and the recent update, are available online.

Key findings noted in the update include the following:

• Between 2009 and 2013, access to arts education for K-12 students rose from 87 percent to 89 percent. • The percentage of charter school students with access to music or visual arts increased from 42 percent to 60 percent. • Students without access to arts education tend to be at the elementary level for district schools, but spread across all grade levels for charter schools. • Smaller schools are less likely to offer arts education.

There's a nifty online tool folks can search to learn what schools offer which arts disciplines.

We used the tool and found just one elementary school, Foothills Elementary School in the Peoria Unified School District, offering visual art, music, theatre, and dance. We found just one middle school as well: Alice Vail Middle School in the Tuscon Unified School District. Both schools have a "B" rating on the ADE's Arizona Report Card system for ranking school performance.

John Huppenthal, the state's Superintendent of Public Instruction, says the tool allows families to consider arts education when choosing the right school for their child. Sure, it's helpful. But it's not nearly enough.

Despite years of touting the importance of arts in education, we've yet to see Huppenthal translate his own words into meaningful, lasting action. And prospects for prioritizing arts education look grim given the recent election of Diane Douglas, renowned for her opposition to common core standards, to the superintendent gig.

It's especially hard to stomach given the earnest efforts of Lynn Tuttle, ADE Director of Arts Education, to assure the arts are well represented in both national and state academic standards.

Tuttle serves on the National Coalition for Core Arts Standards. She's also part of the team that drafted new Arizona Arts Standards that address arts education in six areas: dance, media arts, theatre, visual arts, music: general K-8 standards, and music: performing ensemble (high school) standards. They've yet to be adopted or implemented, so the standards noted online here still apply.

We're rooting for the day every student has equal access to visual art, music, theatre, and dance. Those are the tools that serve our kids, and our communities, best. This is hardly the time for citizens to sit quietly in class with hands folded and mouths shut.

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