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Lesson 6.8

The Arts:
Creating in School

The arts are neglected in schools. Here’s proof.

hero image

Some children seem destined to excel in the arts. They draw incessantly. They win at Pictionary. They love music, or drawing, or dance.

Art for Everybody

Arts education is important not just for students with artistic "talent." It is for all children.

Knowledge sticks more easily when it is beautiful, or compelling, or funny.

The arts are useful for learning. They are more than just "what" children learn but also "how" children learn. Knowledge sticks more easily when it is beautiful, or compelling, or funny. Comedian Steven Wright quipped "Why is the alphabet in that order? Is it because of that song?"

Preschool and kindergarten classes burst with song, movement, color and joy. Pablo Picasso observed that "Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up." Great teachers find ways to incorporate arts into learning in higher grades. There is a strong relationship between arts education and the fundamental cognitive skills that students use to master core subjects such as reading, writing, and mathematics. (Not to mention memorizing stuff like US history, chemistry, how to do long division, or how to memorize the quadratic formula.)

Arts education can improve students’ ability to communicate effectively (for example through drawing). It can teach the importance of teamwork, for example through experiences in music or other performance arts. Growing evidence suggests a connection between participation in art programs and academic results. Additional findings point to a connection between arts programs and social-emotional development.

California schools neglect art

The arts show up in our classrooms in two ways: Integrated into lessons, and taught as distinct disciplines. Art disciplines include visual arts, music, dance, the theatre arts, criticism, history, and aesthetics. In its broadest sense, it comprises instruction in the making/creating of art and art appreciation.

Students in California receive much less instruction in visual arts and music than students in other states.

The federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) defines the arts as a part of a "well-rounded education." However, the primary measure of a school's achievement has been students' reading/writing and math scores. Without focus, there has been little pressure to commit instructional time to the arts.

Arts instruction measurably declined as an unintended consequence of this focus. In California, participation in music classes dropped 46% from 1999 through 2004. During the recession that began in 2008, many schools nearly eliminated arts education from their curriculum, continuing a decades-long decline. A statewide study of arts education in California in 2007 indicated that 89% of K-12 schools did not offer a standards-based course of study in the visual arts, music, theater, and dance.

California could ill afford this decline. In 2007, a study of instructional hours per year for music and visual arts in elementary schools documented that California children were spending less time on the arts than children nationally back in 1999-2000.

Students in California receive much less instruction in visual arts and music than students in other states. Students in California receive much less instruction in visual arts and music than students in other states. (From: An Unfinished Canvas, SRI International, 2007.)

Unfortunately, a followup survey in 2013-5 showed little improvement, suggesting that once art programs disappear from a school they can be difficult to bring back.

Art program advocates warn that the decline in arts education has created a generation of both teachers and parents who may not now fully appreciate the broader importance of the arts. To start to address this massive decline, a 2015 report, A Blueprint for Creative Schools [PDF] outlines strategies to making the arts a core part of education for all students in California public schools.

Changing Standards

California's educational standards for the arts are in a moment of change. In 2017, legislation committed the state to develop and adopt new K-12 standards for art education, including (for the first time) educational standards for media arts, defined as "animation, video production, digital sound production, imaging design, and interactive design, as well as virtual and augmented reality design". The standards were adopted and rollout began in January 2019 after a period of review and comment.


The California State PTA has embarked on a campaign in support of arts education as well. Their Parents' Guide to the Visual and Performing Arts gives an overview of what children across the state should learn in dance, music, theatre and the visual arts by the end of each grade level.

The Alliance for Arts Learning Leadership, founded by the Alameda County Office of Education, is a collaborative network that works to develop public understanding of the essential role of arts learning in education. Statewide, major arts and education advocates have joined together in a coalition, CreateCA, to advance an education model that promotes creativity and the arts for the workforce of tomorrow.

The Art Gap

Classes in the arts tend to be most available to students in well-funded schools. Based on the SRI study, for example, music and visual arts instruction are only provided to about a quarter of students in high-poverty schools in California.

Arts education is more available in wealthy schools than in schools of high poverty Arts education is more available in wealthy schools than in schools of high poverty (From: An Unfinished Canvas, SRI International, 2007.)

The 2016 followup study affirmed the earlier findings: well over half of students in grades six and up aren't enrolled in any art study at all, and there is a predictable pattern: schools where more families are poor are far less likely to provide students with access to education in the arts.

According to the California Arts Education Data Project less than half of students in grades 6-12 participated in arts courses. "Course enrollment data in 2015 reveals 38% of all students (1.2 million students) were enrolled in at least one arts discipline."

Many suggest that increasing arts in the schools is a key strategy for closing the achievement gap. A study of New York City graduation rates, Staying In School: Arts Education & NYC High School Graduation Rates suggests that increasing students’ access to arts instruction in schools with low graduation rates can be a successful strategy for lifting graduation rates and turning around struggling schools, not just in New York City, but nationwide.

Including the arts in a student’s education also contributes to the variety of the school experience: Kids like the arts! Access to instruments and materials can be a real obstacle to arts education, but where there is a will there is a way, so long as there is someone willing to teach.

Creativity is sometimes misrepresented as "right brain" thinking; this is a myth, but the idea of incorporating creativity into learning is sound.

Ask Your School District!

In California, funding for arts education is the responsibility of school districts as part of the Local Control Funding Formula. The state does not require schools to commit a particular level of funding to the arts. If art education is starved in your district, it represents a local choice about funding priorities. Some districts fund arts, music and athletics as part of their core budget; others look to their school communities to raise extra money for these programs.

Next Steps

Questions to ask about arts education:

The next lesson examines another part of the school experience that many students find enjoyable: physical education.

Updated July 2017, Jan 2018, Nov 2018, Dec 2018, Mar 2019.


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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Roxanne Crawford June 10, 2020 at 8:56 pm
As an English teacher, my discipline focuses mainly on critical reading and writing, but I try to incorporate as much art related activities because it allows my students another way to demonstrate critical thinking without the pressure of writing an essay, especially my struggling readers/writers, EL students, students with Special Needs. Sometimes it is easier to demonstrate our critical thinking through images.
user avatar
Jamie Kiffel-Alcheh November 13, 2019 at 6:47 am
As a professional working artist who is married to another professional working artist, we find ourselves up against the idea that the arts are necessary and indulgent, to this day. Yet in California, everyone understands that the movie industry and storytelling are critical to the state’s economy. So what is California’s problem with educating students in the arts?
user avatar
Jamie Kiffel-Alcheh November 13, 2019 at 6:44 am
The “where there is a will there is a way” link leads to a page whose video has been removed.
user avatar
Caroline May 13, 2019 at 2:26 pm
Part of having access to the arts is having time available in your schedule. Is there a way to find out what % of high schools in CA offer students 7 periods in one day? High schools in our city only offer 6 periods. If a child is trying to meet the UC a-g requirements, there is not room in their schedule to take 1 art class a year. Students are forced to take a Zero period or summer school in order to have room to take 1 art class each year. This is especially significant for students who want to participate in band, drama, choir, for all 4 years. If a well-rounded education includes art, students need the opportunity to take at least one art class every semester. The CA legislature has collected a great deal of data to show that secondary students would benefit from a later start time in the morning, so forcing them to take a zero period is not a positive way to address access to the arts. In addition to this, students should have the opportunity to take a break in the summer.
user avatar
Brenda Etterbeek May 9, 2019 at 1:26 pm
I wish students didn't have to choose arts as an "elective". Arts should be part of the daily core curriculum. Students who might love playing an instrument and engineering, have to choose one or the other. Sadly, this type of thinking will affect this generation and arts will suffer overall due to a lack of appreciation and support. Sad.
user avatar
Caroline May 15, 2019 at 2:07 pm
We need to stop using the term "elective." It implies that the course is not essential. Although it is cumbersome, we need to use the term "art education class" instead of "elective." There are 7 core classes -- math, english, science, history, art education, physical fitness, and foreign language. In a fully funded system, these courses would be taught beginning in kindergarten.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar November 4, 2017 at 10:16 am
A statewide movement has been launched to promote the Declaration of the Rights of All Students to Equity in Arts Learning, which outlines each student’s right to have access to high quality public arts education, regardless of their background, culture, language or geographic location. Find out more
user avatar
Lisette October 3, 2017 at 4:45 pm
My daughter's first daycare was very big on arts and crafts. I could tell early-on she loved creating things. I am sad the arts have been on the back-burner for California. To supplement, my daughter has a cabinet-full of art and crafts to let her mind go wild and is in various dance classes.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar September 19, 2017 at 11:31 am
California State PTA has tips on becoming an Arts Education Champion. Download the flyer in English:
or Spanish:

user avatar
Carol Kocivar July 1, 2017 at 5:46 pm
Looking for some arts projects to do at home or at school? To Go! Projects features creative projects with easy to follow instructions:
user avatar
Jeff Camp March 20, 2017 at 4:37 pm
Sometimes conversations about art, music and dance in school wander into pseudoscientific assertions about "learning styles." This tendency has always bothered me, because it often takes the form of pigeon-holing students as being of a particular learning "type." ("Sorry, flashcards can't help me -- I'm a kinesthetic learner.") It is certainly true that content can be learned through a mix of visual, auditory, or kinesthetic (movement) approaches, but it doesn't follow that students must be boxed into these fixed identities. New research further debunks the myth of fixed, rigid "learning styles."
user avatar
Carol Kocivar February 20, 2017 at 10:46 am
Great arts activities for your parent meetings...
PTA's School Smarts program helps parents make the connection between arts and learning. Here are five videos you can use at your parent meeting:
- Family Values Art Project
- Pinwheel Art Project
- Mask Art Project
- Hat Art Project
- Quilt Art Project

user avatar
Carol Kocivar October 27, 2016 at 3:16 pm
How much arts education do students really get?
The newly launched California Arts Education Data Project now analyzes and reports school-level data on arts education courses and grades 6 through 12 enrollment. You can review school-level, district, county and statewide data on their interactive dashboard.

Key Findings 2014-2015
* Thirty-eight percent of all students participated in arts education courses. This represents more than 1.2 million students.
* In 2015, 26% of students had access to one or more arts discipline in schools. This represents 12% of schools offering all four arts disciplines. There were nearly 2.3 million students who did not have access to all four arts disciplines.
user avatar
Caroline August 15, 2019 at 6:04 pm
In my opinion, arts education is going to need to be funded and assessed by the state if we want to see it comprehensively taught to our students.
user avatar
Albert Stroberg May 1, 2016 at 8:12 pm
Other than making arts people happy, how do we evaluate the benefit of allocation of resources to STEAM?
How do kids do 10 years later?
user avatar
Carol Kocivar April 23, 2016 at 4:17 pm
Why Making Music Matters: Music and Early Childhood Development
Carnegie Hall commissioned a new research paper “Why Making Music Matters."
"The more we learn, the clearer it becomes that live music can play a powerful role in ...development from the very start."
Find out more...
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder November 8, 2015 at 4:18 pm
Love this LA Times article that awards "grades" to school arts programs. The paper only gave 35 schools an A. Here's a sample report card for the arts program at one school: How would your school do?
user avatar
shadowzwench April 27, 2015 at 12:33 pm
Our middle school restructured and decided to do a STEAM emphasis instead of just a STEM emphasis. The arts are important and can be integrated well with STEM.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar - Ed100 February 17, 2015 at 3:48 pm
What are school districts doing to include the arts in their Local Control and Accountability Plans?
The California Alliance for Arts Education takes a look at how five districts invested in arts education in their 2014 LCAPs to achieve a variety of outcomes, including student engagement, a broad course of study and closing the achievement gap between English Language Learners and other students.
Here is the link:
user avatar
Carol Kocivar - Ed100 February 2, 2015 at 12:44 pm
So how do we move towards getting more arts in our schools?
State Schools Chief Tom Torlakson’s Arts Education Task Force Submits Recommendations to Restore the Arts to California Classrooms. You can find " A Blueprint for Creative Schools" here:
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